Interstellar’s Scientific Fact-Checker

A talk with physicist Kip Thorne.

Physicist Kip Thorne on the set of Interstellar. (Paramount/Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures)
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In the new science-fiction film Interstellar, just released last week, Earth is dying. NASA has detected a wormhole leading to a galaxy with three planets potentially suitable for human habitation, and launches the spacecraft Endurance to investigate these planets in the hope of transplanting humankind to at least one of them.

The movie comes from an A-list collection of principals: Christopher Nolan, who made Memento, Inception, and The Dark Knight trilogy, directed the film and co-wrote its screenplay with his brother Jonathan (or “Jonah”) Nolan. Matthew McConaughey, Ann Hathaway, David Gyasi, and Wes Bentley star as the crew of the Endurance, with Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain playing NASA scientists seeking a solution to the crisis back on Earth.

The elaborate equations seen on blackboards in the movie behind Caine and Chastain were all written by Kip Thorne, a CalTech theoretical physicist who conceived of Interstellar almost a decade ago with his friend Lynda Obst, the producer of a varied roster of hits including The Fisher King, Sleepless in Seattle, The Siege, and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Obst and Thorne had been set up on a blind date in 1980 by their mutual friend Carl Sagan. They didn’t work out as a couple, but they remained friends and occasional creative partners.

Thorne is credited as an executive producer on Interstellar, but his more specific role was as the film’s science adviser, one who worked closely with Christopher and Jonah Nolan throughout the writing, production, and editing of the film to ensure that its fantastic story remained rooted in actual science. His book The Science of “Interstellar,” a 324-page volume explaining his scientific rationalization for every aspect of the film’s story—each of its sections clearly labeled as “Truth,” “Educated Guess,” or “Speculation” —has just been published. This interview, like that book, discusses aspects of Interstellar’s story in detail, so if you’re wary of spoilers, we’d advise waiting until after you’ve seen the movie to read it.

Air & Space: A day before Interstellar’s wide release, Phil Plait wrote a Slate post attacking the film’s scientific foundation. He published a follow-up three days later recanting his critique of the science—though he still didn’t like the movie—and admitting he assumed you were brought in late in the development process. Were you expecting to get this kind of reaction when you got involved with a science fiction movie?

Thorne: I expected that people, including my colleagues, would not understand what the science was underlying the film without reading my book. There are not enough hints in the film for a physicist to really know what’s happening in terms of underlying science. Phil wasn’t aware of my deep involvement from the outset. As he says in his pullback, he had not thought of the possibility of spinning black holes as being central to this. It’s natural that they will make public statements and get it wrong compared to how I would interpret things, because they don’t have the benefit of my very long involvement in the film. I think it’ll all shake out after people read my book.

You’ve been working on this movie, off and on, since 2006. Did you always intend to publish a companion volume explaining its scientific basis?

It was always my intention either to do a book or a Blu-ray about the science. I made the decision last January. By that time I was knowlegable enough about how things would go with a Blu-ray. Although I might reach a broader audience, I wouldn’t be able to go into things in the depth that I wanted. So I made the decision to do a book instead of a Blu-ray around New Year. I started writing January 10th and I had my first good draft to the publisher about March 20th.  But then polishing it off and getting this enormous number of figures done, including a large number that I did by hand myself, took an enormous amount of time. It ate me up this year, into September.

I was wondering why the book wasn’t available before Interstellar’s release. Usually ancillary volumes to a movie come out first. Now it makes sense: You talk in detail about a lot of elements that are intended as surprises for viewers seeing the film for the first time.

Yes, there were long, arduous negotiations with Warner Brothers, which was in the driver’s seat on the production and has the foreign rights. Fortunately, I have a very good entertainment attorney in Hollywood. But I’m very pleased with the cooperation I’ve gotten from Warner Brothers and Paramount in this phase of the publicity connected to the book and the movie.

The book deals with complicated concepts in physics, but it’s intended to be entry level. Was it difficult for you to gauge how simple to make it?

Yes. I have some experience with this, but I couldn’t get much feedback because of the amount of secrecy surrounding the film. I had to rely on a very small number of people to read through it and give me feedback. I wasn’t really able to run it past any of my physicist colleagues. On the other hand, I knew the subject inside out. I knew what I wanted to convey. I figured I could probably pull it off.

I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded, but I would really like this book to be understandable, with some effort, to high school science geeks and to the intelligent adult population who don’t have any training in physics.

The movie is extremely fast-paced, especially considering the amount of complex information it’s conveying. I’ve seen it twice, and I certainly caught some scientific explanations and story details that had elided me the first time on my second viewing.

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