Wednesday 29 March 2017

Lessons could use movie science

Matthew McConaughey played a desperate astronaut in sci-fi movie hit Interstellar
Matthew McConaughey played a desperate astronaut in sci-fi movie hit Interstellar

The cosmic science behind blockbuster movie Interstellar could be used in lessons on general relativity, according to the authors of a physics journal paper.

Accurate mathematics and computer simulations went into the film's depictions of a giant black hole and a wormhole tunnelling through the fabric of spacetime.

In February, a scientific paper from members of the special effects team, including theoretical physicist Professor Kip Thorne, was published in the Institute of Physics journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

It introduced new science and revealed what a spinning black hole whirling space and light around it might look like close up.

Now the same team writing in this month's issue of the American Journal of Physics argue that Interstellar offers "a variety of opportunities" for students grappling with Einstein's general theory of relativity, which examines the way gravity arises from massive objects warping space and time.

Lessons showing how basic relativity concepts underlie wormhole visualisations in the film would be "motivational", say the authors.

It would also be possible for students to explore in a realistic fashion "what it looks like to travel through a wormhole".

The paper includes numerous equations and diagrams of wormholes connecting separated parts of the universe.

Prof Thorne, from the California Institute of Technology, worked with visual effects company Double Negative to ensure that the stunning images used in the film were scientifically accurate.

The team concluded: "As we wrote this paper, we became more and more enthusiastic about the educational opportunities provided by our Interstellar experience.

"The tools we used in building, scoping out, and exploring Interstellar's wormhole - at least those discussed in this paper - should be easily accessible to fourth year undergraduates studying relativity, as well as to graduate students. And the movie itself, and our own route to the final wormhole images in the movie, may be a strong motivator for students."

Interstellar features a crew of astronauts who travel through a wormhole in search of a new home for humanity.

Wormholes are "shortcuts" through spacetime that can theoretically exist although none have ever been discovered.

Traditionally they have been depicted in sci-fi movies as portals or doorways in space through which a spaceship can pass and vanish to reappear in another solar system or galaxy.

Physics determined that the Interstellar wormhole looked somewhat different - more like a giant marble hanging in space.

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