Hollywood Theoretical Physics Week

Just got back from an opening night showing of the new sci-fi film Interstellar at the Ziegfeld theater here in New York. If you want some idea of what the film is about, trailers are here and here. Warning: spoilers in next paragraph, skip that if you care.

To me the big plot surprise was that the human race is saved by the theoretical physicist. An elderly theoretical physicist has been trying to solve some equation for gravity his entire career. If he solves it this will somehow save the human race (which has just about ruined its planet). Turns out, he wasn’t being honest, he knew how to solve the equation, but to save the planet, you need to reconcile quantum theory and gravity. Only way to do this is to go into a black hole and get the “quantum data”. Dad (Matthew McConaughey) does this, then manages to transmit the “quantum data” via Morse code to his daughter, a theoretical physicist who has taken over from the old guy, who has died. She uses the “quantum data” to write something on the blackboard that flashes by (maybe a 10d gravitational action), this somehow saves the human race. Before we get to this point, lots of plot involving going through a wormhole (looks kind of like what going through a wormhole always looks like), and various time spent on exotic planets orbiting a black hole.

The black hole portrayal is one that great effort went into on the accuracy front, with Kip Thorne involved. He and the film’s director have a book coming out Friday, The Science of Interstellar, and there’s a TV documentary about the science behind the movie. Evidently this film has been in the works for a while: John Preskill tells the story here of a 2006 meeting with Steven Spielberg to discuss the film, also attended by Andrei Linde, Lisa Randall, Savas Dimopoulos, Mark Wise and Thorne.

Anyway, I enjoyed the film, even though I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi films.

Opening in a few days is another major Hollywood effort centered around theoretical physics, quantum gravity and black holes: the Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. A trailer is here. I’ll probably see that this weekend and will report back.

For yet a third Hollywood-type event opening this week and featuring a theoretical physicist, quantum gravity and black holes, see this trailer. You can watch this Thursday night, more info here.

Finally, it’s not really Hollywood unless you have an awards ceremony featuring Hollywood stars. This Sunday night, some lucky string theorist will get a $3 million check for his work on quantum gravity and black holes. Seth MacFarlane is hosting, more details here. From what I recall, the argument for setting up this huge prize for theoretical physicists was that they don’t get enough public attention…

Update: I hadn’t noticed that there’s another film opening this week featuring theoretical physicists, The Principle, with trailer here. I wrote a bit about this early this year here.

: Phil Plait really doesn’t like the film, finding much of the plot scientifically implausible. Of course he’s right about that, but it makes one wonder if he has seen many sci-fi films. From my limited experience, this one is about average on the implausibility meter.

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31 Responses to Hollywood Theoretical Physics Week

  1. Tim Howells says:

    Re Realism and black holes: I was struck by a question made to Leonard Susskind after his talk on the great “Black Hole War” he had with Hawking.


    Susskind had elaborated at length on information theoretic properties of black holes – how all the information within a BH is projected as a holographic representation onto its spherical outer surface; How a paradoxical interpretation allows that somehow information both can and cannot escape from a BH (or something like that). etc etc etc.

    Then someone asked “How confident are you that black holes exist?” Great Question! Susskind hemmed and hawed and finally said, “Well most great physicists believe they exist, and very few do not believe, so It would be really surprising to find out that they did not exist …”.

    My interested layman’s take-away was that this is just more madness.

  2. dr. kansas says:

    perhaps the most remarkable thing of the film was not one mention of string theory not the multiverse nor inflation.

    i guess they wanted to make it as plausible as possible, and thus the filmmakers were operating under greater constraints than academics.

  3. Grad Student says:

    yes indeed. imagine if one of the characters would have invoked the multiverse or the stringy landscape or parallel worlds or the many-worlds theory.

    Matthew McConaughhey: The world is going to end.

    Anne Hathaway: Do not worry, as it is just our world. There are infinitely more worlds that are not going to end, in which the crops are doing just fine. For you see, everybody splits into multiple independent worlds with every decision.

    Matthew McConaughhey: Oh OK.


    Thus while, the movie would have ended there, in our world the multiverse movie has no end in sight.

  4. Yatima says:

    It’s 2014, but then!

    “How confident are you that black holes exist?”

    This is on the same level as “How confident are you that the world is not 3000 years old” or “How confident are you that P is not NP?” though.

    Pretty confident.

    Classical GR never lets you down.

    If there was any hemming and hawing, it was because of the scientist’s customary bashfulness. An individual with Neil Armstrong tendencies would just have facepunched the questioner, then gone on to the next question.

  5. CFT says:

    Once upon a time fissile nuclear radiation was the rage. It caused ants and angry women to grow fifty feet tall, and nonplussed fifty story tall lizards to eat Tokyo, and gave nerds glowing eyes and superpowers in comic books and b-rated movies.
    Now we have black holes and worm holes. They allow cosmic space babies to pop out of creepy dark monoliths, empower red satanic floating cyclopean robots to go crazy, and provide nerds with FTL interstellar travel in comic books and b-rated movies.
    While the special effects and CGI eye candy for the plot devices have improved dramatically,
    The scientific aspects of the stories are as tenuous and mediocre as ever.

  6. Oldster says:

    Yatima: I realize it’s a trivial point, but wasn’t it Buzz Aldrin who facepunched somebody, not Neil Armstrong?

  7. Grad Student says:

    Serious question here.

    Has a black hole every been directly observed? I am fairy certain a wormhole has never been directly observed.

    I just googled “black hole observation” and found numerous press releases and PR claiming their existence and direct observation thereof.

    I also read the recent news that a UNC Professor has proven that black holes cannot exist, which also got a lot of press.

    Well, if they have been observed for sure, as thousands of sites state, then how can thousands of other sites state that a UNC Professor has proven that they do not exist?

    Does anyone have any more insight on this?

    Have black holes been observed?

    Are there photos from the hubble?

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Grad Student,

    It seems to be uncontroversial that there’s a black hole at the center of the galaxy. You can observe orbits of objects nearby, and there’s something there exerting a gravitational force of million of solar masses, while at the same time not itself radiating, so if that’s not a black hole, it’s something very much like one. To the extent there are controversies over black holes, I think it would be more accurate to describe the controversy as about exactly what their properties are.

    As for believing something because internet sites quote a professor saying it, surely you know better…

  9. Clearly, the new biopic about Hawking spans a larger time period than this older one from BBC, as well as having a much larger budget. I wonder if it will do anything much differently. The BBC one actually contained some math and physics, in a decently correct way. On the other hand, I doubt that either one nails all the personalities involved.

  10. Gus Bici says:

    I’m looking forward to seeing Larry & Max & Michio in this movie:

    Cool trailer, Larry with eerie green backlighting.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks for the news, I’ll add that one to the list for this exciting week. Hope it will make it to NYC…

  12. vmarko says:


    I’m curious about some more spoiler details, if you care to share. Namely, one of the talking points about the movie was that it aimed at scientific accuracy more than usual, in particular wrt. to wormholes etc.

    So my question is — which of these do you think has been depicted in the movie:

    (a) the Schwarzschild BH solution — which does not feature a wormhole, or
    (b) the Einstein-Rosen solution — which does not feature a traversable wormhole since it is inside the BH horizon, or
    (c) the Morris-Thorne solution with exotic matter — which does feature a traversable wormhole but doesn’t have any properties that even remotely resemble a black hole (nothing black, no horizon, etc.)?

    I mean, one cannot just draw pretty pictures of an ordinary black hole, simultaneously claim that there’s a traversable wormhole inside it, and then go on to say that all this can be scientifically accurate. There was an interesting discussion regarding this over at Sean Carroll’s blog, so I’m just wondering now what actually happened in the movie? 🙂

  13. Peter Woit says:

    (Spoiler alert, you may not want to read…)
    In the plot, the wormhole and black hole are two different things. The wormhole is small, near Saturn. The black hole is big, it’s what the planetary systems in another galaxy rotate around. The wormhole is pretty much a black spot, and when they enter it, it’s exactly the same graphics as always: you’re rushing down a tube-like region, random stuff going by fast on the sides, then you come out to regular space.

    It’s the black hole the planets rotate around that is what is supposedly more accurate than usual. Basically though, it’s the picture you see here
    I gather this is the image that is supposed to be scientifically accurate. When our hero goes into the black hole to get the “quantum data”, then it’s back to the usual visual silliness, flying through various collections of luminous stuff in the dark.

  14. vmarko says:


    Thanks for the info, now the whole thing makes more sense. Btw, the rendering of the black hole’s accretion disc is actually not fully accurate — they have dropped the (very prominent) Doppler effects [1], because they make the resulting image too confusing for the audience. I guess that the actual realistic black hole is not what can be seen in the movie, after all. 🙂

    [1] See Jean-Pierre Luminet’s comments (and a fully realistic rendering of a black hole) here: https://www.facebook.com/sabine.hossenfelder/posts/10152939381329574

  15. Chris Oakley says:

    Re: the original topic (Interstellar), Christopher Nolan always gets my vote. I will look forward to seeing it. And if he forbade mentions of String Theory and multiple universes, it was probably on the grounds of lack of scientific evidence. What kind of crazy world are we living in when a film director takes more trouble about such things than many leading scientists?

  16. Gus Bici says:

    Peter, in your review of “The Principle” trailer you wrote:

    “As near as I can tell from all this, without having yet seen the full film, it appears that what probably happened is the following. Sungenis decided that the anthropic principle business in cosmology supported his views, so he went and got physicists like Kaku, Krauss and Tegmark to say silly things on camera, then edited this to suit his case. Maybe the trailer is misleading, and these people actually make a cogent case against Sungenis’s nonsense and for solid science, we’ll see…”

    Is the Earth’s supposed alignment with the CMB radiation really anthropic? I mean it does not HAVE to sit on this “axis of evil”. If this alignment does exist, there will have to be a non-anthropic explanation. I think “coincidence” is the current explanation?

  17. Peter Woit says:

    My interest in discussing the details of the scientific arguments in “The Principle” is about the same as in discussing the details of what the stuff on the side of the tube of the wormhole in Interstellar was. Before saying more, I’ll wait till I actually see “The Principle”. From the trailer it looks like a hoot.

  18. martibal says:

    Honor to the precursor !
    Black Hole in Hollywood is an old story. Anybody remembers the Disney movie “The Black Hole” in 79 ? Was quite impressive at the time

  19. Gus Bici says:

    Point taken, Peter. I’ll go back now to happy lurker on your fine blog:)

  20. CFT says:

    My comment above mentioning how black holes now “empower red satanic floating cyclopean robots to go crazy, ” is homage to Maximillian, the big red floating evil robot with meat grinder arms and one uni-brow eye in Disney’s movie “The Black Hole”. It goes crazy, kills a bunch of people, and then literally goes to hell, flames, pitchforks, screaming souls and all, no joke. No one believes me how over the top strange this robot character actually is until they see the movie. The creative director of the movie was definitely on something psychotropic at the time.

  21. MB says:

    The link to your earlier article on The Princple is broken. There’s just got an extra “http://www.math.colum” at the beginning.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks, fixed.

  23. Narad says:

    Martibal, the NBC “Special Treat” (similar to the better remembered ABC “Afterschool Special”) did The Day after Tomorrow back in 1975. The traversing-the-black-hole effects, as I recall, were of the crew moving in slow motion in skewed and stretched video frames.

  24. Wavefunction says:

    There’s also “The Imitation Game”, the movie about Turing based on Andrew Hodges’s biography that’s coming out later this month. This year’s turning out to be a good year for science-based movies.

  25. martibal says:

    Narad: cannot remember to have heard about it, maybe it did not cross the Channel. Looks funny.

    CFT: I should have recognized the terrible description of Maximilian, indeed !

  26. Pingback: Daniels Dies & Das | “Interstellar”: gewiss kein zweites “2001”

  27. martibal says:

    A nerd post (sorry):

    Which one would be next ? String theory awakes, Susy awakes, gauge theory awakes ? I would prefer noncommutative geometry awakes, but not sure Disney would buy it 🙂

  28. Narad says:

    It turns out that there is a multiverse movie.

  29. Patrick Harris says:

    Just saw Interstellar and really enjoyed it (I’m a big sci-fi fan). Didn’t have too many eye-rolling lines as these type of films can have and the quality portrayal of the other planets and space scenes was appreciated.

    Glad to hear The Principle is coming out, hopefully my eyes won’t roll too much that they fall out ;). Looking forward to your comments!

  30. cl7281 says:

    Just seen (and enjoyed) it, and while I agree no multiverse musings I’m not so sure string theory didn’t creep in by the back door. There was much talk of extra dimensions and gravity leaking across them. Admittedly this was 5d not 10d so maybe Chris Nolan is a big Kaluza-Klein fan…

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