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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The <em>Endurance,</em> the spacecraft that ferries the astronauts in <em>Interstellar</em> to another galaxy, with one of its "Ranger" planetary landing ships docked. Its modular design was loosely modeled on the International Space Station. (Paramount)
The Endurance, the spacecraft that ferries the astronauts in Interstellar to another galaxy, with one of its "Ranger" planetary landing ships docked. Its modular design was loosely modeled on the International Space Station. (Paramount)

If Interstellar were to awaken a massive public yen for physics, space exploration, or one of the other areas of science that figure into its story, what sort of research would you hope to see funded?

I would not advocate for anything in particular at this moment, off the top of my head. I think the key thing is to have a process for making wise decisions. There are many areas where we really need funding to do research that will in some cases have a big impact on human welfare, and in other cases will have a big impact on our understanding of the universe, though the impact on human welfare may be a century or two away.

Your book also talks about how a global crop failure like the one posited in Interstellar is unlikely, but none of the critiques of the movie that I’ve seen have pounced on that point at all. Do you think we’re just more willing to accept a pessimistic projection than we are to accept something crazily optimistic, like a traversable wormhole built for us by benevolent, advanced beings?

The issue of climate change is a huge issue. A lot of people focus on that as being tied to what’s in the film. The film is deliberately opaque on what has happened, aside from the issue of blight.

I am surprised that people haven’t focused in on that more, aside from the ones saying, “Hey, you’ve got to pay attention to climate change and here’s an example.” I hope that my chapter on the blight will open people’s minds about this. I have four brilliant biologists discussing what kinds of things could go wrong with our food supply. I would hope that there would be some discussion of that as a result of this film, or of the film plus my book!

Are you working on anything else that you’d like to tell us about?

My big push in the next half-year will be getting out a textbook on modern, classical physics. I want to broaden physics education in the United States through a very different kind of textbook from what’s been seen before. I will be spending at least four months checking every equation in the book in page proof before it comes out next spring. So I am about to go into hiding and do this fascinating job. That’s “fascinating” in quotation marks.

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