Nolan’s magical conception of science – A physicist’s analysis of Interstellar

Black hole sun
won’t you come
and wash away the rain
Soundgarden

Punchline first: taking away the “scientific” details from Interstellar, one obtains a tale of a prophet and a messiah, evil, apocalypse, trust in  afterlife, ultimate truths, salvation. Scientology, more than science.

There’s a lot discussion raging over the internet about Nolan’s Interstellar. I’d like to add my token before reading what others wrote. I suspect that most comments from my fellows will regard the accuracy in dealing with the laws of physics. That’s what most people expect from me when chatting about the movie: they ask about extra dimensions, the possibility to exit a black hole etc. In this respect, I’d say that Nolan is far more conservative and exact than most recent research in theoretical High-Energy Physics. Nevertheless, while I am fairly sure that crossing a black hole’s horizon might be a much more mesmerizing experience than depicted, I am not interested in debating the level of rigor. I accept the movie’s fictional rules.

Sci-fi movies are the playground where utopian/distopian scenarios are explored, and they are often soaked with ideology or at least with some general concept of human nature, ethics, politics etc. So rather than chasing Interstellar for scientific exactness, I will focus on what concept of science brought Nolan to picture the utopia of a knowledge-led salvation for humanity.

I am a potential fan of Nolan, since  I like dense plots, and Nolan has always pushed his narrations to incredibly brainy but still acceptable extremes, at (sometimes beyond) the edge between plausibility and creativity. However, I always find the output a bit disappointing, especially as regards how he handles the “suspension of disbelief”, that is, the amount, quality and consistency of prior assumptions that sustain the mechanisms of the plot and upon which the spectator  abandons his prejudices. Moreover, after the memorable Memento, Nolan is now completely embedded into the big industry. In particular, this movie is extremely conventional, following in a very faithful way the “Save the Cat” scheme typical of superhero stories.

[If you haven’t seen the movie and are planning to see it, you shouldn’t read further.]

The plot: As the world is plagued by an obscure atmospheric phenomenon that destroys crops and sickens people, what remains of humanity returns to agriculture. Scientific thinking is diminished for the sake of barren survival. In this new dark age, one man struggles to follow his quest for knowledge and his personal dreams of exploring the outer space, and with the aid of his genius daughter saves humanity. The enterprise requires finding an ultimate objective truth buried into the heart of Gargantuan, a black hole. The quite spectacular reconstructed images of Gargantuan are, rightly, a reason of pride for the production given that they required the joint effort of cosmologists (led by Kip Thorne) and computer scientists, which eventually led to solve the Einstein equations to a greater precision than ever before.

Thus Interstellar looks like as pro-science pamphlet, warning against the threat of a new era of irrationalism. Nolan makes an effort in this direction by breeding speculative ideas in general relativity and quantum field theory with narration. But I think quite the opposite of this movie: the problem the Earth faces is a dogma, the solution purported is magical, the way it is pursued is anti-scientific, the final utopia is an afterworld.

At first, the spectator is asked to renounce critical inquiry on the nature of the “plague” in any of its complex aspects, on the basis that some knowledge has already decreed that it is unstoppable. Such dogmas are hardly digestible in science, but fine enough for a sci-fi movie that needs to establish pacts with the viewer and then move on in a consistent way. Still, in the face of advancing climate change that might well put the portion of humanity not depicted by the movie (because already dead) through harsh times, it is a precise choice of Nolan to imagine an external, unknown and unbeatable “evil”, of the kind that can be found in the Old Testament. This alleviates humans from their responsibilities and casts them into a wait for a celestial afterlife, announced by prophets and messiahs…

…which soon make their appearance. Nolan stages a character play where a visionary but corrupt scientist paves the way for salvation and another individual (the prophet) succeeds, with the aid of his daughter (the messiah) who perfections the old scientist’s theory. This is very much along Hollywood’s mainstream lines, widespread in all blockbusters including almost all children animations: a hero struggles to fulfill his dreams against all odds, and by reaching his smaller good he achieves a greater good for all. Sheer ideology, of the very same kind as was in the soviet movies celebrating the united working class.

Fortunately, neither one is the mode of scientific research. Science is a vast enterprise engaged by a large community, and it proceeds by failures, for the most. It may happen that a line of inquiry leads to something, and often that something is not what was looked for. I am afraid that the story-telling of science focuses too much on the role of individual geniuses who made revolutionary discoveries, not conveying the fact that most efforts are contributed or sustained by a large community. Even such great and original ideas as Einstein’s would not have flourished if they had not been considered, validated, discussed and often discarded by a vast assembly of scientists, most of which were his personal friends.

In particular, in Nolan’s movie it only takes one or two people to find and solve the equations of Quantum Gravity, eventually giving rise to a tower of discoveries in a few years, from having a fundamental theory to deriving its macroscopic phenomenology, to a technology that propels the space station, taking humanity out of the sands. This is a very positivistic view and resounds exactly with the perception that people have of science as something that is very solid, complete and inclusive. Unfortunately, we are nowhere close to this in reality. The things we actually know are nothing compared to what we know we don’t know (with Socrates). In particular, the leap from the fundamental theory of black holes to thermodynamics (which is the theory that deals with the question “can we propel?) is such a big one that still today we cannot really talk of one unified physics holding throughout these regimes. So, my impression is that Nolan’s naive conception of science is forged upon the vast amount of popularizing literature devoted to the “ultimate question” in theoretical physics, the unification of General Relativity and Quantum Theory. Surely, this problem is interesting and deep, but the idea that the solution to this problem could lead to any application in a short time is less plausible than falling into a black hole and surviving. And the perception that this is the only interesting or relevant question in physics is due to a massive propagandistic machine devoted to its own self-replication.

Still, once again let’s be tolerant and accept all of this. Yet another important detail in odour of sanctity emerges when the Robot collects “quantum data” from within the Black Hole. This data is somehow transferred to a scientist who can “complete the other half of the equation” and come up with the right theory. But. In science (and not only in science), the answer depends on the question. Uninformed on the recent developments in the theory, who instructs the robot on which data to collect? Every truth is in the eye of the beholder. If we wanted to tell to an alien civilization the content of Einstein’s equation, we should first train them to think like us. Instead, in Gargantuan there lies an ultimate, exact “truth”, to be revealed to humankind.

The truths that science teaches to our messiah are so solid that she can arrogantly impose her decisions on her stupid brother’s family, by burning down his crops and kidnapping his daughter, in a scene that is designed to be controversial.

Are all these too subtle comments? OK, so let me finally go to my main problem with the movie. What I really detest is the idea that science provides solutions to problems, possibly of enormous complexity. It’s not so. Science is a process of getting acquainted with rational critical thinking. Solutions to cogent problems are only available by magicians. The heroes of the movie operate outside of the scientific method that requires repetition of experiments and validation by the community. I think this reflects very much the perception that laymen have about science, as something providing facts, while to a great degree science is a collection of structured doubts.

Of course, once more, we could accept this for the sake of the movie… but for me that’s enough. My “suspension of disbelief” is gone, leaving room for irritation. To me, taking away the “scientific” details from Interstellar, one obtains a very mainstream tale of a prophet and a messiah, evil, apocalypse, trust in  afterlife, ultimate truths, salvation. Scientology, more than science. An obscurantist movie.

PS. The film often cites Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, from technical details such as the rotation of the space station to mimic gravity (but I think the angular velocity is mistaken in both movies…), to major themes like the interplay human-robot, etc. It must be clear that we are nowhere close to 2001 (Wall-E did better in this respect).

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