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INTERSTELLAR: Do Not Go Humble Into That Good Night

The Science of InterstellarThe Science of Interstellar by Kip S. Thorne

My Rating★★★★☆


DO NOT GO HUMBLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT

 

The book discusses the movie, so it is only fair that I use most of the space to discuss the movie as well. I will discuss the book itself in one of the sections below. To get a better understanding, we can break our discussion it up into three overlapping sections —
The Three aspects of the movie that has to be examined to get at its core Premise:

1. The Future

2. The Science

3. The Dreams

Book Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads); Movie Rating: 9/10 (IMDB)


Caution: Spoilers Ahead; Spoilers Abound

“The overriding question, ‘What might we build tomorrow?’
blinds us to questions of our ongoing responsibilities
for what we built yesterday.”
~ Paul Dourish


THE FUTURE


Scenario

Interstellar is about mankind’s future and about the options we face. It challenges us to think about how we should react to that future.

It starts from the premise that the Earth has been wrecked.

We have become a largely agrarian society, struggling to feed and shelter ourselves. But ours is not a dystopia. Life is still tolerable and in some ways pleasant, with little amenities such as baseball continuing. However, we no longer think big. We no longer aspire to great things. We aspire to little more than just keeping life going.

Humans have coped with their sudden tragedy by shutting down technology, engineering, research and all the marvels of science. This was the only option left to them.

But why this extreme reaction by a species that was not frightened even by Frankenstein’s monster? Presumably science/progress had something to do with unleashing the blight? My guess would be too much monoculture.

Most of them seem to think that the catastrophes are finished, that we humans are securing ourselves in this new world and things may start improving. But in reality the blight is so lethal, and leaps so quickly from crop to crop (there is also a bit of unscientific nonsense about Nitrogen versus Oxygen, but let us not be too critical), that the human race is doomed within the lifetime of Cooper’s grandchildren. The only hope is to start dreaming again. To get back on the Science Bandwagon.

And (thankfully?) there are dreamers, who refuse to give up to this sub-par, non-imaginative existence.

We are explorers, we are adventurers. Humanity is not meant to give up like this, Nolan tells us. And uses Dylan to drive the point home (too many times!).

The prevailing attitude of stopping progress and just focussing on ‘surviving’ is seen to be a regressive step by our intrepid explorers.

Instead our heroes decide to risk it all on a cross-galaxy exploration. To find a new home for humanity, out among the stars.

In the process Nolan also attempts to reverse the message of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey and portray technology as a friend to humanity (TARS), instead of an unknown and volatile threat (as embodied by HAL).


Commentary

This is an eminently plausible future. It is also an eminent plausible reaction to such a future. In face it is very close to what Naomi Oreskes  imagines in her own Near-future scenario: Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. A dictatorial regime, community-based (communist, in fact), strictly controlled, paranoid. We have seen these things before in history, during the dark ages. It is one of our worst nightmares.

A totalitarian govt is pretty much what would be in store in such a future. Freedom comes with trade-offs — the more we can indulge now, the more we restrict humanity later.

The only problem is that by the time we have had time to degrade so much, to feel the hopelessness, to tighten control over a society so much with so less technology, it would probably be too late to be even thinking of interstellar travel.

And that is where the Future that is shown to us breaks down. It shows us an agrarian world that is still capable of inter-planetary travel. That would require a very fast breakdown of things. Fast enough to not let the technology or the knowledge wither away. One bad generation would enough to lose the skills that were required for the Exodus. The plot had to assume an almost impossible fast degeneration and a lot of coincidental happenings in that very small window allowed even in such a world. That is not very realistic.

Lucky we had a miracle to bail us out.

See high-res Here: http://goo.gl/x0eoa


THE SCIENCE


Soft Science

This is where science comes in. Under what scientific capacity we have, and with what technology we can reasonably expect in the near future, we cannot really travel inter-galactic distances in a time span that is remotely realistic, at least for current generations. Nor do we have the cryopreservation methods to take any live humans across such time spans.

And if we were capable of sacrificing our present for the future generations…? Well. Umm. We wouldn’t be in a fix in the first place, would we?

The nearest star (other than our Sun) thought to have a habitable planet is Tau Ceti, 11.9 light-years from Earth, so traveling at light speed you would need 11.9 years to reach it. If there are any habitable planets closer than that, they can’t be much closer.

Voyager 1 is traveling out of the solar system at 17 kilometers per second, having been boosted by gravitational slingshots around Jupiter and Saturn. In Interstellar, the Endurance travels from Earth to Saturn in two years, at an average speed of about 20 kilometers per second.

Even if we imagine an extreme 300 kilometers per second, we would need 5000 years to reach Proxima Centauri (nearest star to earth) and 13,000 years to reach Tau Ceti. Not a pleasant prospect!

Using twenty-first-century technology, we are stuck with thousands of years to reach other solar systems. The only hope (an exceedingly faint hope) for faster interstellar travel, in the event of an earthly disaster, is a wormhole like that in Interstellar, or some other extreme form of spacetime warp.

So a major inter-galactic, centuries-spanning exploration is out of the question.

What then?

Luckily we have the Gods helping us (well, 5 dimensional beings – “them” for short) out.

They make our job a lot easier with a strategically placed wormhole – not too near to rip earth apart, but not so far that we don’t notice it, or will have to spend too much time reaching it. And it takes us to a place with multiple earth-like planets. And we go there on LAZARUS missions (Get it? Christ will walk amongst us at The End of Days — as Technology!). Resurrection itself, no less, is on display here!

Talk about miracles.

“And whoever They are, They appear to be looking out for us. That wormhole lets us travel to other stars. It came along right as we needed it.”

Well, what do you know, we are a lucky species.


Hard Science

I have heard a lot of people criticizing the science behind the movie. To me that is the most acceptable part in the movie. The science mostly makes good sense, except for a few artistic liberties here and there. Also the story was written first and the science was made-to-order. But despite that, it hangs together well.

The movie is exclusively based on a String Theory interpretation of the universe. Most of it won’t make sense unless you accept all the premises required under String Theory.

So we live in a “Brane” inside a “Bulk”. Our universe is the Brane and the Bulk Beings live in higher dimension, in the Bulk. The movie simplifies matters a bit by assuming the Bulk to be in only 1 dimension more than ours, while String Theorists tend to assume 5-6 extra dimensions in the Bulk. Also they are supposed to be curled-up microscopic dimensions, certainly not big enough for Cooper to be floating around in. Nolan didn’t want to confuse a mass audience. Let us accept that as fair.

All this is beautifully explained in the book and reading it will make you respect the rigor and faithfulness to scientific principles that is on view in the movie. Everything (including all those stunning visuals) is modeled based on equations and backed by scientific possibility (speculation at best). The movie allows us to visualize what a wormhole, black-hole, accretion disks, tesseract, world-tubes, etc. would look like IF they were real. And they allow us to do so with scientific rigor. Nolan brings String Theory to spectacular life. So this movie sets a pretty high standard as far as fidelity to science is concerned. Let us give full points for that.

I am wiling to defend most of the science on display in the movie. Please feel free to fire away in the comment section.

They even use realistic equations in the movie. Gotta give points for that too.

Even when the equation is attempting to “solve gravity”. *chuckles*

In short, it is easy to be skeptical of the science, but this companion book does a good job of shooting down most objections you might have and proves how well-founded most o the exotic stuff in the movie is. The really exotic things turn out to be closer to home, in the Future that is depicted and in the Dreams we are being asked to nurture! I started this book being very critical of the movie, looking for weapons to bludgeon it with, but the constant doses of science has softened me up. Reading this book will probably make you respect the movie much more too. Highly recommended.


Artistic Licences

That said, Nolan does take many liberties with science in the movie, but mostly they are for visual effect.

As Kip says, If Chris had followed the dictates of Einstein’s laws, it would have spoiled his movie. So Chris consciously invoked artistic license at some points. Although I’m a scientist and aspire to science accuracy in science fiction, I can’t blame Chris at all. I would have done the same, had I been making the decision. And you’d have thanked me for it.


Truth, Educated Guesses, and Speculations

The science of Interstellar lies in all four domains: Newtonian, relativistic, quantum, and quantum gravity. Correspondingly, some of the science is known to be true, some is an educated guess, and some is speculation.

That is why throughout this book, when discussing the science of Interstellar, Kip has to explain the status of that science—truth, educated guess, or speculation—and he label it so at the beginning of a chapter or section with a symbol:


TO SUM UP

The thing is that a wormhole cant work (they are just not stable enough to be traversable, even if they actually exist — admitted freely in the book, in fact Kip goes so far as to almost admit that Wormholes are the most impossible outrageous idea in the book, and he was also the one responsible for introducing a wormhole into Contact and thus into mass consciousness!), time can’t be fixed, and if you have enough energy/tech to make a new planet habitable, you will definitely have enough to make earth re-habitable!

So we will never actually face a choice — either we will be capable of saving the earth AND colonizing a new planet. Or we will be incapable of both. And if the earth is in a bad enough condition it is unlikely that a true centuries-spanning mission is going to get funding anyway. And if we can fix the planet, how can we choose to leave all the other species behind? (Diversity being so important, as mentioned in the movie — and true genetic diversity should also include species diversity.)

The Science in the Movie DOES NOT matter. Because it is not a question of what is possible, but of what we want to believe in.


Cooper = Christ

This movie is about Miracles & Dreams, not of Science. And, to drive it home, religious hints litter the movie, as pointed out with the Lazarus missions above.

We thus have Cooper in a double role, as a Christ figure who brings God’s message to a Prophet, and also as an Apostle-Prime, who alone has experienced divinity, who is convinced that the miracles are being performed by The Children of Men. That men will become Gods one day, capable of miracles. Get it? The Bulk-beings, the 5-Dimensional Gods are nothing but the Children of Men, conceived immaculately through a Technology-Mary)

“Not yet,” Cooper says, “but one day. Not you and me but people, people who’ve evolved beyond the four dimensions we know.”

Traditionally, when you fall into a black hole, you should get pulled apart, instead the movie itself gets pulled apart by its seams. It was a plot necessity. Of course, our new understanding of singularities allow a slim chance of survival, but certainly not for the Nolan-esque climax. It’s a brave plunge, either way.


THE DREAMS

The real message of the movie might very well be to show how difficult it would be to find an inhabitable planet and get to it, even with plenty of miraculous deus ex machinas thrown in. And we still need to have in source of energy — gravity itself — to have any shot at a humane solution (of transporting everyone instead of having to deal with the rough job of choosing WHO gets to go!)

In the move, it all ends in an optimistic note in COOPER STATION, but what of the Earth? Kip admits in the book that to “harness gravity” to get off the earth would probably require a complete destruction of the planet (through extreme compression).

If they had access to enormous energy, through “solving gravity”, then surely they could have fixed Earth instead? Given the choice between a beautiful Earth and an artificially recreated station (limited by man’s imagination, even if by the imagination of the most brilliant among us), where would you choose to live? What would you choose for your child? Even today, would you rather stay in a magnificently designed IT park imitation or actually go and visit the original? And what of the history, architecture and ecology we have to leave behind? I know what choice I will make. I might make a visit, but I would want come back to earth.


A Cut-And-Run Theme

As an article puts it:

At first glance, Interstellar does seem to have a green message, warning that climate change could make the world uninhabitable for humans (and, presumably, other species). Yet there’s an odd twist. The tag line for the film is, “The end of the Earth will not be the end of us.” And the lead scientist, played by Michael Caine (no longer Alfred the Butler), says at one point: “We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it.” In other words, if humans do trash the planet, don’t worry, some super-smart folks will help us make a nice get-away somewhere else in this swell and expanding universe. Given that Grinspoon researches life and planetary development, I wondered what he thought of this cut-and-run theme.

Once we cut out all the fantasy elements, Interstellar has this dire projection for us:

1. We are ruining the planet

2. We need to look for options to save ourselves.

Now, I have no objection to Humans leaving the Planet. Best case might even be that Humans leave the Planet to save the Planet.

3. But, whatever solutions we want to imagine/implement, we need to do it before it is too late.

By the time it is too late for the planet, it is bound to be too late for our technology too.

Cut-And-Run is not a feasible option. Deus Ex Machina happens only in movies.

As I have repeated many times by now The Science of Interstellar is the least questionable aspect of the movie. Its core premise (the Future & The Dreams) is what is really questionable.

Interstellar operates from a premise that it is never too late as long we keep the flame of exploration and technology alive. It ignores the ethical dilemmas of leaving a planet and most of its inhabitants (including humans) to die. It also ignores the more present question of how to avert a cut-and-run scenario from ever manifesting itself. That is the real question in front of humanity today. By skipping ahead and showing us an imaginary solution to present day problems, Nolan is indulging in a sort of escapism.

Let us just deal with it:

The right dream to have might just be of saving the planet and thus ourselves, and not of leaving it.

The movie was good entertainment and the book does a wonderful job of backing it up scientifically. But having the right dream is important too, to direct Science, which is merely a tool.

Humanity was not meant to die on Earth.
Earth was not meant to die of Humanity either.


VERDICT: THE SCIENCE IS SOLID. THE FUTURE IS SHAKY. AND THE DREAM IS JUST PLAIN STUPID.

Arthur C. Clarke took us on a similar journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he asked us uncomfortable questions: Where are we headed? Are we ready to rely on Technology? What hidden dangers lurk in the Highway of Progress?

Nolan instead chooses to allay most of those uncomfortable questions and leaves us with a too simple an answer: Trust in technology, keep the spirit alive and everything will be fine.

I am not sure that is the right message for our times. It needs to be examined, and hence the review. I have done a shoddy job of it, but it is something.

All this is not to indulge in technology-bashing. Our scientific knowledge and our capacity for improvement are still our best bets to continuing survival. But “Solutionism” is not the answer.

This is how “Solutionism” is defined:

“‘Solutionism’ interprets issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.”
~ Gilles Paquet

We should be optimistic, but only cautiously so. We should not ride headlong into a future we don’t want, expecting a miracle at the end of the lane to bail us out. We should respect science and trust in it, and expect it to not only be a miracle, but also a path-finder. Science should show us the way, it should show us the means to avoid the unwanted future. It should be a companion, not a god-of-last-resort, to which we turn only once we have ruined ourselves by ignoring it.

Let us use science to chart the best course. Let us respect what our scientists tell us instead of allowing our politicians and our run-away consumerist economy to take us to a cliff from which even Science cannot be expected to work a Miracle.

Even though the movie was supposed to be a powerful message about Man’s power, in the end it turns out to be about man’s desperate need for miracles, for easy answers. That is its failure.

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