The Science Of Interstellar, by Kip Thorne
It is entirely unsurprising, when one thinks about the larger picture, why noted filmmaker Christopher Nolan wrote the foreword to this book, read ably throughout by Eric Michael Summerer. Interstellar was one of the more notable science fiction films of recent years, a speculative fiction tour de force that shows a love for knowledge and a too-facile belief in mankind’s abilities to save itself from trouble and to become gods, or at least bulk beings. What this brief book, full of figures where even its audiobook is concerned with referring to images where words seem to fail, which is a rather alarming trait in an audiobook where it is not always possible to stare at the simulated images or even to view them at all while one is driving, nevertheless manages to do well is to provide the movie it is about with the cloak of scientific legitimacy. The author, himself a notable physicist and science advisor to Interstellar, and one of the writers of the original treatment to the film some ten years ago, is well-equipped to write about both the making of the film, as well as the scientific principles that undergird the movie and make it not only a good story, but also a good representation of how scientists see themselves and the nobility of their work. There are many ways where Dr. Throne is humble, humorous, and sounds like he would be good company for a speculative conversation, and where he is mistaken, as he sometimes is, he nevertheless makes mistakes in sincere error rather than a deliberate desire to deceive.
In terms of the contents of the book, the author takes a more or less systematic look at the wide range of science behind Interstellar, roughly in the order in which those scientific ideas are dealt with in the movie itself. He begins by talking about his unsuccessful off-and-on relationship after a blind date with a witty woman suggested by Carl Sagan, with whom Thrope worked in Contact, which came up a few times in the course of the book. The woman became a trusted friend and the two collaborated on the treatments for this book that ended up being the basis for the movie itself. Thorpe shows obvious appreciation with the Nolan brothers as well as the actors of the movie who queried him about how to approach their roles, showing themselves as deeply serious minded, if in different fields than his own. The range of science discussed is wide, from a discussion of generalized blights to gravitational anomalies and different types of black holes. The book as a whole contains about thirty chapters or so spread out over six very short disks, with a lot of images that deserve attention also. At the beginning of chapters, the author notes whether the ideas discussed within are truth (at least according to the general consensus of contemporary science), an educated guess, or speculation. There are times (such as the author’s comments on the evolution of human beings and other organisms) where his belief in what he views mistakenly as truth overwhelms the strict facts, and where he confuses fidelity to a mistaken scientific idea to fidelity to science itself.
This mistake, and it is a serious one, appears related to the story in very striking ways. In the larger frame story of Interstellar as discussed in this book, the movie shows humanity in trouble and threatened with extinction. The scientists and filmmakers had no problem with various deus ex machina solutions to giving key information to Cooper’s young daughter to help solve the problem of gravitational anomalies and allow mankind a way to escape from a doomed earth, no problem with accepting the help of multidimensional beings who create wormholes for the seeming benefit of mankind, but to accept the help of God would be a bridge too far for people who wish to be their own ultimate authorities. The book is lighthearted, it is breezy, and it is also surprisingly honest about the worldviews of Thorne and various filmmakers, perhaps because it assumes that the audience agrees with that worldview. Where that is not necessarily the case, the honesty about the willingness of Thorne and others to go only so far in speculation, only so far as it preserves the supposed autonomy of mankind and our ability to control and dominate the universe, and accept help from whatever beings we find but without any sort of obligation to obey. The author also strikingly wishes for the black hole and evolution and even naked singularities to have the attributes of fine-tuning and design without any of the obligations to accept the terms of behavior according to the laws of the designer . At least this is honestly expressed; that makes the book far more enjoyable than it would have been in less skilled and sincere hands, and manages to encourage the speculative tendencies of its readers, itself a noble achievement.
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