Interstellar and the Interest in Science

For many viewers like me, I am sure Interstellar was a flash-back to the days of wonder. What is our place in the Universe? What is a black hole? Space travel! Given there hasn’t been a shortage of space-themed movies, what is different about this one? I think it is because most of the mainstream space-themed movies have a general lack of respect for real science. Scientific themes that are either uncool or difficult to visualize are completely dropped by the way-side. Understandably, it is difficult to hold the attention of an audience while grappling with relativity theory or the realities of space travel.

2001: A Space Odyssey was acclaimed as a movie that got the Physics reasonably right but never ended up getting a mass audience. Therefore, the science in main-stream science-fiction movies is truly “fictional” in nature. Great cinema stimulates the audience and the fact that no one really googled the science behind science-fiction movies says a great deal about these run-of-the-mill space-age entertainers. Interstellar though was different.

The reality of interstellar travel was made stark. Some improbable concepts (eg. wormholes) were cleverly used but the beauty of the movie is in how it embraces a difficult concept (General Relativity) and helps an audience visualize multi-dimensional space-time. I don’t know about others but I trawled Wikipedia’s dense articles on the theory soon after watching the movie. I stumbled on and got reminded of the Annus Mirabilis papers that Einstein published in 1905. When you think of the problems Einstein explained in one year, it boggles the mind. I never truly understood the implications of Brownian-motion or the Twin-paradox when I was made to read them at school but I remained in awe. This time I was more patient and finally got some of my concepts reasonably right. I also found that Einstein wrote a popular science book on Relativity. The explanations were extremely lucid in simple language. Einstein also later added an Appendix V that contextualizes Relativity theory in the overall multi-epoch human effort to understand natural phenomena. In fact, I got so interested that an otherwise banned thought entered my head – a career in research specializing in Physics! While research as a career does interest me, my thinking has always been to pursue social sciences like economics or a multi-disciplinary study of history.

When I interact with friends and colleagues, I don’t believe I am alone in getting caught up in this sudden bug to understand the Universe! My science teachers couldn’t really do that for me. This in my opinion is the biggest contribution of Nolan’s Interstellar and why I rate it as great cinema. Only regret – I couldn’t see it on IMAX!