What the Hell Happened in Interstellar?
So it’s been about a week since the release of Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Interstellar. In that time, theories, criticisms and praise of the film have run rampant on the internet. However, I have a feeling that some people (including the other guys at NerdSpeak I saw Interstellar with) left the theater scratching their heads. Interstellar is a big movie in every sense of the word. It’s nearly three hours long, casually throws out complex scientific ideas, and even skirts the edges of hard sci-fi. So, let’s break down some of the more confusing and complex parts of Interstellar. I’ll try to do this in a question and answer sort of way based on the questions I’ve heard from others who have seen the movie and also the discussion I’ve seen around the Internet. With all of this being said, some pretty huge spoilers for the film will follow. I highly suggest you see it before reading this for two reasons: 1) the movie is awesome and 2) this will seem like a bunch of random explanations that don’t make a whole lot of sense out of context. So, go see the movie. This article will still be here when you get back. Anyway, let’s get started.
Why does Cooper obviously love his daughter much more than his son?
I’m not sure, but his son does grow up to become Casey Affleck. So, there’s that.
Are gravitational anomalies a thing?
They are, and in fact, here is a gravitational anomaly map of the United States.
Gravitational anomalies are simply areas where gravity is higher or lower than expected. And that’s pretty much all there is to it. Isolated gravitational anomalies like the ones caused by Murph’s ghost? Well, that’s a different story. Those are pretty much impossible to track even if they do occur.
Are the robots in Interstellar, like, totally cool?
Totes. TARS is just, like, SO COOL.
Could astronauts really reach the wormhole near Saturn in 2 years?
Well, let’s do some simple math.
For the sake of simplicity, we will assume NASA launched the mission in Interstellar when Earth and Saturn were at their closest (AKA closest approach) which is about 1.2 billion kilometers. So in the film, it is stated that it will take about two years to make the trip. Two years equates to about 17,520 total travel hours. Some quick division will give you a rough speed estimate that the crew of the Endurance must travel in order to reach Saturn’s orbit in two years: 68,493 kilometers per hour. Considering the fastest manned spacecraft could travel was recorded at a top speed of 39,896 kilometers per hour, well… We will just have to assume that technology of Interstellar’s near future is significantly better than our own. Still, it’s not totally improbable.
How does the hyper sleep work?
Well, this is one of those times that the Nolan brothers leave us in the dark. Hyper sleep is a staple of the science fiction genre, yet science fiction is all it is. Sure, we currently are advancing and further developing cryogenics, but there is still no known way to essentially stop the aging process of a human relative to time. Interstellar does very little to broach the subject so I think we will just have to chalk this up as pure science fiction for now. However, if space travel is ever going to become a valid mission, some form of stasis will become necessary.
Are wormholes a thing?
Hypothetically speaking, yes. They are traditionally called Einstein-Rosen bridges, named after the master of general relativity Albert Einstein and another important physicist Nathan Rosen. The theory of general relativity does in fact account for wormholes believe it or not. However, there has never been any observable evidence. It’s probable, but not proven. Perhaps you are now wondering if we could actually travel through a wormhole if we ever found one. Well, if wormholes were to be traversable like the one in the film, a great deal of exotic matter would be needed to stabilize the bridge.
Exotic matter is a broad term, but in this context it is generally understood that matter with negative mass is necessary to stabilize a wormhole enough to travel through it. Remember how the scientists in Interstellar mention that a wormhole would have to be purposefully created by beings? Well, this is likely true as well. So, good job Interstellar.
Why does time move slower on the water world planet?
The answer to this is simply a tenet of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity called Gravitational Time Dilation. In essence, the idea states that perceived time will be different based on the gravitational potential of the observer. The closer you are to a strong source of gravity, the slower time will go in comparison to someone farther away. For example, in Interstellar, the water world planet that Cooper, Brand, Doyle and TARS landed on is pretty close to the super strong gravitational pull of the black hole Gargantua. Rommily and the Endurance remained safely outside of the gravitational pull and therefore did not experience the time dilation. That is why two decades passed for Romilly while only an hour or two passed for Cooper and Brand. This is a totally possible thing, even though it hasn’t been observed on a scale quite like the one the movie presents.
What exactly was Professor Brand’s big lie?
Sigh. Okay, so there is a branch of physics called quantum mechanics which basically is the study of the smallest units of matter and energy and how they interact. Brand’s problem was that he couldn’t quite work out how the observed quantum mechanics were related to gravity. You see, gravity is a classical system of understanding how astronomical bodies interact. Quantum mechanics describes things on a whole other level that doesn’t always necessarily mesh with the ideas of gravity. Confused? You should be, because that is some advanced theoretical physics. I could go farther but I lack both the qualifications and knowledge to explain quantum mechanics any more than I already have. Either way, just know that Brand realized long ago that he could not solve the problem of launching the mega space station into space. He just, you know, didn’t tell anyone.
Was Matt Damon… The bad guy?
I know. This one is as hard to understand as the quantum mechanics stuff. But if you makes you feel any better, his character did have noble intentions. Damn you, Matt Damon.
How did Cooper and Brand experience so much more time slippage after Dr. Mann damaged the Endurance?
Remember all that stuff about gravitational time dilation? Yep, it comes into play here. The explosion Dr. Mann caused, knocked the Endurance out of the icy planet’s orbit and into the gravitational pull of Gargantua, the rotating black hole. As Brand and Cooper got closer, the time dilation got more severe due to Gargantua’s insane gravitational pull. Because of the brief period they were falling into and escaping the black hole’s gravity, Cooper and Brand lost at least 50-60 earth years. Ouch.
So… What in the hell happened with Cooper in the black hole? Is any of that even possible?
Let’s be honest. Nobody anywhere knows exactly what would happen if you fell into a black hole. A leading theory is spaghettification. What is spaghettification?
Rather than being the process in which a black hole cooks you a delicious plate of classic Italian spaghetti, spaghettification is the process in which anything or anyone that falls into the singularity of a black hole is stretched and elongated like a noodle. Sounds awful, right? Well it is, because the human body does not make good noodles. That would be truly terrible spaghetti. But you know, scientists really aren’t sure what would happen to a human if they fell into a black hole. Perhaps they would see some pretty lights, be rattled around a bit and eventually fall into a five dimensional world. I’ll just chalk this one up as, “I don’t know”.
The bookshelves? What is with the bookshelves?
Okay, well I will give this a try. Cooper ends up in a world where (maybe) humans have become five dimensional beings in the distant, distant future. Essentially, on top of height, width and depth, time and gravity are also dimensions of space. They can be physically manipulated just like any object that takes up physical space. That is why Cooper is able to interact with gravity through time. If you’re lost, think of it this way. Time for a five dimensional being is like a series of rooms. If they want to go to a specific time, they go to a specific room. Bam. Gravity would have a physical representation, like the threads in the film. Don’t get me wrong though, this is the fiction-iest of science fiction in Interstellar. All that matters is that Matthew McConaughey was Murph’s “ghost” from the beginning of the film. He sent himself to NASA, communicated with his young daughter, briefly embraced Brand as they were traveling through the wormhole and eventually sent the quantum data from the black hole to adult Murph. Hey, if you wanted a happy ending, some pretty crazy shit had to happen, right?
How did the data from the black hole help Murph in the past?
I suppose it stands to reason that a lot of questions about gravity and quantum mechanics could be answered if we could directly observe a black hole’s singularity. But no one knows, and they likely never will in a thousand generations. Either way, that data solved Professor Brand’s equation and allowed Murph to work out how to launch the space station and get humanity off of the dying planet. As I have said before, we have to remember that Interstellar is a science-fiction film. We just have to accept the creative licence that the Nolan brothers took in order to make a compelling story.
So, Cooper ended up… Where? When?
This is where things get a little fuzzy. Let’s assume that the bookshelves and the black hole traveling were all real and not some image borne of Cooper’s dying mind. That’s a whole other theory that the Internet has latched on to. Here is my interpretation:
Cooper is dumped out where the wormhole had once been in orbit around Saturn. Since 80 years have passed since Cooper’s departure from Earth, and at least 60 years have passed since he relayed the black hole’s quantum data to Murph, humans have found a way to make gravity their bitch and are now living in the mega space station. Perhaps we could call it coincidence that Cooper just happens to be dumped into space very near where the space station is, but I doubt the five dimensional beings (whoever they may be) did it on accident. Especially if they really are just future humans who know that Cooper still has an important journey to complete.
Why did Cooper only spend a few minutes with the elderly Murph when he fought so hard to get back to her?
So Cooper is going to find Brand on the third planet that orbits the black hole? But when is that? And where? Oh god, I’m so confused…
So to cap everything off, I’m going to give the mother of all descriptions and speculation. So keep that in mind, I am speculating a bit. When Cooper ejected his ship into the black hole, he ensured that Brand would make it to the third planet in the system that could potentially support life. Once on that planet, Brand would begin the population bomb in which she incubates fertilized embryos and essentially grows an entire colony of people on the new planet. Also, this planet just so happens to be the planet that her long lost love landed on in the first mission through the wormhole. Let’s say that once he was in the black hole, time stopped slowing down for Cooper around the same time Brand was able to escape the black hole’s gravitational time dilation. That means that Cooper was dumped out of the black hole around the same time Brand was landing on the third planet. I guess. So then Cooper goes to find/rescue/profess his love for Brand. But you see, the wormhole was closed at this point. Which means that Cooper was going to be forced to fly across the universe without a spacetime shortcut to find Brand. All in that little Star Wars-like spaceship. Oh well, at least he still has TARS. TARS was awesome.