Q&A with Kip Thorne, science expert behind 'Interstellar'
Former Feynman Professor at Caltech, Kip Thorne has been the leading authority on theoretical astrophysics and gravitational physics, having worked alongside Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan. Dr. Thorne attended Caltech and received his Ph.D. from Princeton University.
He was awarded the Lilienfeld Prize in 1996 and the Einstein Medal in 2009 for his work in astrophysics. Thorne has made several contributions to the field of general and special relativity, as well as having made numerous publications on the theories behind black holes and worm holes.
Thorne served as the scientific consultant and executive producer on the film, Interstellar (2014), which was based on Thorne’s research. Thorne worked with Interstellar’s visual effects supervisor, Paul Franklin, and composer, Hans Zimmer, to present The Warped Side of the Universe at UCF’s Celebrates the Arts.
Central Florida Future: How were you approached to help out with the science involved in Interstellar?
Kip Thorne: I started it with my partner Lynda Obst. We wrote a treatment for the story and it went through three revisions and was taken up by Steven Spielberg. But after a couple years where the film was in hiatus, Spielberg dropped to do Lincoln and we got Jonathan Nolan to do a revision and work on the project. Then Christopher Nolan came on and reworked the whole story, but kept the science all the way through.
Future: What were the major challenges in depicting and explaining the science in Interstellar to the movie cast?
Thorne: The challenge is in figuring out how to speak the same language. It’s a fun challenge. In the case of working with Paul Franklin, we had an intermediary, the chief scientist, Oliver James, whom I work very closely with, he also understands relativity; so he speaks my language as well as the language of the artists. But beyond that, in brainstorming with the Nolan’s was always a question of finding common language and learning to understand each other.
Future: What are your thoughts on scientific inaccuracies in Hollywood blockbuster films?
Thorne: Well, there’s two kinds of science fiction. There’s science fantasy and then there’s science fiction, which is based on fact, which is what we’re dealing with. It’s well-established. We understand what we’re doing, what a black hole would look like when you go inside, but maybe half of the science is speculative. We’re in a domain dealing with the laws of nature that are just beyond human knowledge. But we do know, mathematically, how these things behave and it gives extra room to speculate, but it also provides the opportunity for those who get inspired and want to learn more, to show people the difference between very firmly established science on one hand, and speculative science on the other, and some sense as to how speculative science gets refuted or turned into well-established science.
Future: Considering what a technical feat Interstellar was, what are your thoughts on the future depictions of space science in film?
Thorne: Well I think we have the technology to depict space science accurately. We have some examples of it throughout film, now with Interstellar. These films set an example and also teach audiences, and I think, and hope, that Hollywood will move into an era where there is more of this accurate space science depicted.
Future: What was your greatest reference when creating the black hole and the wormhole?
Thorne: Einstein’s equations. They were based on solving mathematically on a computer the equations for the propagation of light from a disk of hot gas or through a nebula, for example, through warped space-time in a wormhole or a black hole to an IMAX camera, so the foundation is Einstein’s laws of nature.
Future: Do you think that the astrophysics community may have gained anything from the work done on Interstellar? What sort of prospects do you think were yielded from the scientific and mathematical work done for the movie?
Thorne: We needed to have images that were beautifully smooth and accurate on a high-resolution screen. So, when Paul and his team had their first images based on Einstein’s equations that I gave to them, as a star would go across the screen or sharp edge on an accretion disk, you would get bad flickering. This bad flickering isn’t something you’d encounter unless you close to a wormhole or a black hole. There are these enormous tidal forces very near the black hole, and if you have two light rays running side by side they get pried apart. If they’re each carrying a different piece of an image and they go different places, then you’ve got problems with your images. So, we had to develop a whole new way of making these images, instead of propagating light rays, which are pencil thin, from a source of light to the camera, we propagated light beams that have a particular shape that evolves and changes as it goes and they overlap. It’s kind of technical business, but the result was, by this technique that we had to write equations for and implement it on a computer, we were able to produce exquisitely high resolution. Now, astrophysicists are using that method. Astrophysics got the technical ability that it didn’t have before to produce images very quickly. We wrote a technical paper and published it for astrophysicists and filmmakers, full of equations, full of descriptions, and what’s called filtering, and it’s now an important piece of the lore on how to make great images when you do computer simulations in astrophysics.
Daniel Ceruti is contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.