The Dream of Kip Thorne: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’

Over twenty years ago I read a book by Kip Thorne about black holes and time warps that was a treasure I will never forget. In it the theoretical physics applied I knew would alter the way human beings relate to virtually everything in their lives. It has taken a long time, but finally that applied science is emerging into a film that I think will shatter the perceptions many have of their reality and I am ecstatic about its release in theaters everywhere on November 7th. I have been waiting a long time for this movie as the subject matter is one that excites great passion in me. The topic of black holes as a category of science is an obsession of my wife who spends most of her time contemplating them and how they relate to the universe. It makes for some interesting dinner conversation. As I pay attention to politics and social sciences to a large degree, she would rather not have her mind encumbered with such sluggish perceptions. But when it comes to theoretical physics and the morality of the universe—she blooms like a spring flower. The movie is called Interstellar and was developed by Steven Spielberg then taken over and directed by Christopher Nolan in 2010, whom I have said so many positive things about as a young film maker.

When the movie Back to the Future came out, the film left a mark on the public consciousness that changed social vocabulary. It was a Spielberg produced project that made discussions about the space-time continuum a topic of dinner time conversation. Mankind became smarter because of the comedy Back to the Future due to the presentation of the theoretical science involved. A few years later Spielberg did it again with Jurassic Park and the concept of DNA building of living creatures. Complicated discussion about DNA engineering soon filled the airwaves and mankind took another complicated step forward. Only through the popular action movie Jurassic Park was the hard debate about DNA framed for public dialogue. In the new film Interstellar the concept of space, time, and even the life of the earth will be brought into a focus yet unexplored properly. That is because Kip is the executive producer of this important film and Christopher Nolan along with composer Hans Zimmer are willing to take epic risks to portray these complicated elements on-screen for audiences who had been previously unaware of these scientific concepts.

Interstellar is an upcoming 2014 science fiction film directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine, the film features a team of space travelers who travel through a wormhole. It was written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, who combined his idea with an existing script by his brother that was developed in 2007 for Paramount Pictures and producer Lynda Obst. Nolan is producing the film with Obst and Emma Thomas. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, whose works inspired the film, acted as both an executive producer and a scientific consultant for the film.

Warner Bros., who produced and distributed some of Nolan’s previous films, negotiated with Paramount, traditionally a rival studio, to have a financial stake in Interstellar. Legendary Pictures, which formerly partnered with Warner Bros., also sought a stake. The three companies co-financed the film, and the production companies Syncopy and Lynda Obst Productions were enlisted. The director also hired cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema since his long-time collaborator Wally Pfister was busy working on Transcendence, his directorial debut. Interstellar was filmed with a combination of anamorphic 35mm and IMAX film photography. Filming took place in the last quarter of 2013 in locations in the province of Alberta, Canada, in southern Iceland, and in Los Angeles, California. The visual effects company Double Negative created visual effects for Interstellar.

Kip Stephen Thorne (born June 1, 1940) is an American theoretical physicist, known for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics. A longtime friend and colleague of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, he was the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) until 2009[2] and one of the world’s leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. He continues to do scientific research, and is reported to work on the 2014 science-fiction film Interstellar.[3]

Thorne was born in Logan, Utah, the son of Utah State University professors D. Wynne Thorne and Alison C. Thorne, a soil chemist and an economist, respectively. Raised in an academic environment, two of his four siblings are also professors. He became interested in science at the age of eight, after attending a lecture about the solar system. Thorne and his mother then worked out calculations for their own model of the solar system.

Thorne rapidly excelled at academics early in life, becoming one of the youngest full professors in the history of the California Institute of Technology. He received his B.S. degree from Caltech in 1962, and Ph.D. degree from Princeton University in 1965. He wrote his doctoral thesis, Geometrodynamics of Cylindrical Systems, under the supervision of relativist John Wheeler. Thorne returned to Caltech as an associate professor in 1967 and became a professor of theoretical physics in 1970, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in 1981, and the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics in 1991. In June 2009 he resigned his Feynman Professorship (he is now the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus) to pursue a career of writing and movie making. His first film project will team him with Christopher Nolan.

Throughout the years, Thorne has served as a mentor and thesis advisor for many leading theorists who now work on observational, experimental, or astrophysical aspects of general relativity. Approximately 50 physicists have received Ph.D.s at Caltech under Thorne’s personal mentorship.

Thorne is known for his ability to convey the excitement and significance of discoveries in gravitation and astrophysics to both professional and lay audiences. In 1999, Thorne made some speculations on what the 21st century will find as the answers to the following questions:

  • Is there a “dark side of the universe” populated by objects such as black holes?
  • Can we observe the birth of the universe and its dark side using radiation made from space-time warpage, or so-called “gravitational waves”?
  • Will 21st century technology reveal quantum behavior in the realm of human-size objects?

His presentations on subjects such as black holes, gravitational radiation, relativity, time travel, and wormholes have been included in PBS shows in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom on the BBC.

Black hole cosmology

Main article: Hoop Conjecture

Thorne has made contributions to black hole cosmology. Thorne proposed his Hoop Conjecture that cast aside the thought of a naked singularity. The Hoop Conjecture describes an imploding star turning into a black hole when the critical circumference of the designed hoop can be placed around it and set into rotation.[5] That is, any object of mass M around which a hoop of circumference can be spun must be a black hole. As a tool to be used in both enterprises, astrophysics and theoretical physics, Thorne has developed an unusual approach, called the “Membrane Paradigm“, to the theory of black holes and used it to clarify the “Blandford-Znajek” mechanism by which black holes may power some quasars and active galactic nuclei. Thorne has investigated the quantum statistical mechanical origin of the entropy of a black hole and the entropy of a cosmological horizon in an inflationary model of the universe. With Wojciech Zurek he showed that the entropy of a black hole of known mass, angular momentum, and electric charge is the logarithm of the number of ways that the hole could have been made. With Igor Novikov and Don Page he developed the general relativistic theory of thin accretion disks around black holes, and using this theory he deduced that with a doubling of its mass by such accretion a black hole will be spun up to 0.998 of the maximum spin allowed by general relativity, but not any farther. This is probably the maximum black-hole spin allowed in nature. He, along with his mentor John Wheeler, additionally proved that it was impossible for cylindrical magnetic field lines to implode. Both Hawking and Thorne have theorized that a singularity exists in the interior of a black hole.

Wormholes and time travel

Thorne was one of the first people to conduct scientific research on whether the laws of physics permit space and time to be multiply connected (can there exist classical, traversable wormholes and “time machines“?). With Sung-Won Kim, Thorne identified a universal physical mechanism (the explosive growth of vacuum polarization of quantum fields), that may always prevent spacetime from developing closed timelike curves (i.e., prevent “backward time travel”). With Mike Morris and Ulvi Yurtsever he showed that traversable Lorentzian wormholes can exist in the structure of spacetime only if they are threaded by quantum fields in quantum states that violate the averaged null energy condition (i.e. have negative renormalized energy spread over a sufficiently large region). This has triggered research to explore the ability of quantum fields to possess such extended negative energy. Recent calculations by Thorne indicate that simple masses passing through traversable wormholes could never engender paradoxes – there are no initial conditions that lead to paradox once time travel is introduced. If his results can be generalized, they would suggest that none of the supposed paradoxes formulated in time travel stories can actually be formulated at a precise physical level: that is, that any situation in a time travel story turns out to permit many consistent solutions.

Relativistic stars, multipole moments and other endeavors

With Anna Żytkow, Thorne predicted the existence of red supergiant stars with neutron-star cores (Thorne–Żytkow objects). He laid the foundations for the theory of pulsations of relativistic stars and the gravitational radiation they emit. With James Hartle, Thorne derived from general relativity the laws of motion and precession of black holes and other relativistic bodies, including the influence of the coupling of their multipole moments to the spacetime curvature of nearby objects. Thorne has also theoretically predicted the existence of universally antigravitating “exotic matter” – the element needed to accelerate the expansion rate of the universe, keep traversable wormhole “Star Gates” open and keep timelike geodesic free float “warp drives” working. With Clifford Will and others of his students, he laid the foundations for the theoretical interpretation of experimental tests of relativistic theories of gravity – foundations on which Will and others then built. Thorne is currently interested in the origin of classical space and time from the quantum foam of quantum gravity theory.

All of that complicated dialogue will be presented with a coherent and compelling story driven by the director Christopher Nolan. It will be an epic event to say the least as many of Kip’s theories described above will be presented in Interstellar. For my wife and I it will make for marvelous diner conversation afterwards—an event that is rare indeed. It’s the kind of thing that we talk about often and it will be a pleasure to see such obscure topics presented in a way that elevates the future dialogue of the human race. On November 7th 2014, mankind will take a new step forward toward a fate that has not yet been written.

Rich Hoffman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s