Predicting Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

How will the work of physicist Kip Thorne fit into Chris Nolan's next film, Interstellar? Ferenc looks at how its story might pan out...

When talking about a forthcoming Christopher Nolan movie – well, your guess is as good as ours. He tends to be tight-lipped about future projects, and this is especially true of Interstellar.

Slated for release in 2014, it’s reportedly based on the work of Kip Thorne, a noted astrophysicist who is known for, among other things, helping to introduce the theory behind wormholes into sci-fi, and winning a bet against Stephen Hawking that led to him gaining a year’s subscription to Penthouse. Clearly, a jet-setting scientist if there was ever one.

I should, before this venture begins, tell you that this is a piece of speculation regarding the yet-to-be-released hard sci-fi epic – be warned, there be dragons and potential spoilers ahead. (Mind you, if they do turn out to be spoilers, we totally called it). We’ll be taking a brief, layperson’s view of Thorne’s work – which, even if you aren’t an accredited astrophysicist, is relatively easy due to his numerous interviews and books written for the non-scientifically minded among us.

Kip Thorne also has the unique pleasure of working with Christopher Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, on working the Interstellar script and consulting for the movie, which recently went into production. Like any other Nolan movie, it is dripping with talent, both behind the camera and in front of it. But what do we know of the story so far and how much can we speculate from that?

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Since this is a sci-fi movie based on theoretical physics, it is important to understand where this work comes from and what it means…

The story so far

The official synopsis for the movie reads as follows. “The new script chronicles the adventures of a group of explorers who make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.”

There’s also the little matter of corn – which, as reported by Ford Macleod Gazette, may play a central role in the movie. According to that story, corn is the last remaining crop on Earth, and in the search for somewhere new to grow it, scientists decide to start looking for land on other planets – which is where those wormholes come in. Or you know, it could just be Nolan being Nolan.

But how does the noted scientist Thorne play into all this?

The inter-galactic explorer

There are a few, simple primers that we need to approach Thorne’s work – which I could not do as much justice to as he could, but will help in explaining the next step.

First is the concept of spacetime – it’s a concept that we’re all mostly familiar with (especially those who read comics, sci-fi or almost any fiction nowadays). Spacetime is the simple, grand but ingenious idea that most of us have accepted as fact already – the space time continuum is four dimensions: space taking up three, with time being the fourth.

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This is very useful in helping to mathematically model, as well as generally help understand, the laws of physics as they apply across the universe. It’s also a concept that Einstein worked on with regards to general relativity – it was thought that, in a very general and understated manner, when modelling the spacetime continuum in a physical representation, it had a curvature in it.  Quantum theorists have since argued that spacetime may not be as continuous as previously thought as well – but lacking the proper qualification to argue either way, I will refrain from talking about it.

Thorne believed that within areas where the spacetime was ‘warped’ – there could exist wormholes, which would be propped up by this warped spacetime. Very simply, wormholes (or Einstein-Rosen bridges) fit into the theory of general relativity; different masses could place varying amounts of pressure on this ‘folding’ of spacetime, resulting in a ‘shortcut’ or direct link between different areas, making travel across galaxies possible without the need for advanced technology or ships that would take millennia to invent and construct. Think of a piece of paper folded in two and a something thread through both sides – this would be the bridge. This is a simplified example to attempt to give an analogy to something that is potentially un-visualisable as we’re looking at four dimensions here – not just two.

Esteemed scientist Hawking is reportedly said to believe that these wormholes currently exist in quantum foam hypothesis – the smallest environment in the universe, theoretically speaking. Hawking and Thorne speculate that these tiny wormholes are occurring all over the universe, but that they’re both unstable and miniscule. For humanity to use them as a form of travel, we would have to extend them and enlarge them – which is where both scientists place caveats before us. We may encounter some trouble.

How’s that? Well, to take a very general example, think of a microphone next to a speaker. That screeching feedback loop that occurs? That’s a pretty close estimation to what would happen if we tried, in any way, to amplify these theoretical wormholes. One current solution to this problem is naturally ‘exotic matter’ – matter which contains negative energy density and a large negative pressure.

What is a wormhole’s likely structure? We suspect – thanks to the work of Einstein and Rosen – two mouths and a throat.  Every physicist since has warned of their potentially high instability and high potential radiation.

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Thorne has himself stated that if one mouth of a wormhole was moved to a place where the flow of time is different, say the center of the universe, then time travel might be theoretically possible. Thorne also wrote a paper in 1988 with a graduate student regarding how ‘traversable’ wormholes may work with regards to a shell of exotic matter holding them open.

But okay, how does this all relate to Interstellar?

The speculative story

The title of the movie gives us a slight clue – it’s about travel ‘between’ the stars.

Christopher Nolan, and by extension his brother, are known for focusing on characters (specifically male ones) that have a deep and troubled psyche thanks to their past. They struggle with their own identities, but focus on very simple goals.

The characters they create are always cloaked in a shadow and a dagger of a narrative, but at heart, they are truly succinct beings with goals to realise that push them forever onwards. Each of Nolan’s films grapples with questions of reality – both of the universe at large and of the internal self. His work is littered with overarching themes such as self-doubt, a dreadful and all-consuming fear, and questions of morality. 

For a filmmaker who apparently takes delight in a forever changing landscape of reality, a wormhole-based story would appear to be a goldmine. Nolan uses personal dramas to ground wider commentaries and grander mythologies.

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So, let’s take a swing at the possible story.

With all its big-name casting, Interstellar is almost certainly going to be an ensemble piece like Inception. Expect one central protagonist, with many intertwining stories featuring other supporting characters. The Iceland location – which has doubled up for other hostile environments, such as the setting behind large chunks of Prometheus – also lends itself to a potential Earth-related disaster, as well as a dangerous alien environment.

Taking into account Thorne’s research interests and Nolan’s background, previous work, recent gossip and rumours – the following is my best guess at what the story is going to look like:

Earth, in the relatively near future, is plagued by an environmental catastrophe that necessitates devising a new way to support life on Earth – or a possible relocation. A team, made up of a variety of characters from different walks of life, are forced together by circumstance to explore a potential wormhole – a very dangerous and potentially unstable gateway to another place. The wormhole itself represents humanity’s desperation – it could have potentially devastating consequences if travel was attempted and may be a one-way ticket.

The team will undoubtedly, similarly to the team in Alien Vs Predator, be made up of a collection of people of different expertise – a sci-fi staple.

Due to the instability of such a phenomena, look for either artificial amplification (which will almost undoubtedly fail) or a natural failure as the wormhole collapses or re-arranges itself.

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The team will be led by one or two obsessive characters who are plagued by a dark past, which will dictate every choice that they make. They’ll venture through this portal, finding themselves in a potentially hazardous environment. As humanity attempts to become a master of this spacetime phenomena and look to exploit it quickly by taking ‘calculated’ risks, they realise just how out of their depth they are – expect drastic consequences for those travelling through it and for Earth.

As humans look into the ‘grass is greener on the other side of the wormhole’ metaphor in detail, expect the wormhole to either relocate, or collapse, leaving some (if not all) of the team stranded. Potentially, look for time travel either way – they may be able to ‘see’ into the past to try and help stop the oncoming catastrophe or to travel into the future to see the consequences. The latter appears more likely.

Time travel will help raise central questions of perception and understanding that help shape the protagonists – expect a possible apex to the narrative when the story travels in time (either by wormhole or by general jumping around) to that significant and life-defining moment for the protagonist that helps define his central goal. The best guess is a responsibility for a decision that ended up costing the life of a loved one, which will cause him to take certain risks during his wormhole travels.

Climate change appears to be a central theme, so we can take a guess at the planet becoming similar to a giant desert after the catastrophe. Humanity will start travelling through the wormhole by gaining a shallow understanding of how they work, vindicating some scientists’ theories about them. One of these scientists, as either an expert or a previously considered ‘quack’ will be among this exploratory party.

Those stranded by the collapse of the wormhole will either try to find the mouth of the wormhole (if it has relocated) or will attempt to artificially create or enlarge another one to allow their return home.

This return becomes endangered by a rogue event, at which point a character – probably the main dramatic lead – will redeem themselves by sacrificing some part of their mission (or potentially their lives) to help save humanity. The sacrifice may even ensure the continued survival of the human race.

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And that’s about the size of it – well, as far as I can figure…