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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Interstellar: The Science From the Fiction

I have always been fascinated by the sky. I can remember a birthday as a young child when my dad gave me a star guide. It was very simple and made of stiff paper, and had a visible view of the sky that rotated depending on my location and the season. It seemed mystical the way it knew to show the same patterns of tiny dancing lights in two-dimensional form that I could observe from any location I was to travel. My star guide always accompanied me on summer camping trips where I would have an undiluted view of the night’s sky. I would wait all day in anticipation for the sun to fade and the sky to darken so I could look out to the stars in contemplative bewilderment, pondering my place among them. My lifelong curiosity of space and the desire to better understand the literal universe made choosing this astronomy class an easy decision for fulfilling my physical science credit.

I am also an avid moviegoer. Like with space, the enjoyment I get from watching a good movie was developed early in my childhood. My mom would take us to rent a few movies on VHS to get us through the homebound weekends in the cold of winter. My tastes for different movie genres has changed over the years, but the one thing that has remained constant is the satisfaction I feel when I am presented with ideas that challenge what I know. Sometimes I’ll ruminate on it for a bit, inspired to learn more; I will rush to my computer to conduct a little research to gain a better grasp of these foreign concepts. This is often the case with the science fiction genre. My lack of knowledge in astronomy and physics gives me great pause and causes me to further explore the science presented by the movie, so I can daydream about the possibilities for the future with more accuracy.  The movie Interstellar was no exception. It is safe to say that the first time I watched it, I was surely entertained, but the concepts such as wormholes and gravitational time dilation flew well above my head. My newfound education on the subject of astronomy from attending class this last semester, coupled with genuine interest, is precisely why I have selected to critique the science discussed in the film Interstellar (Nolan “Interstellar”).

One of the first ideas I found interesting was the creation of artificial gravity in space. The film depicts the crew aboard a circular vessel consisting of twelve individual box-shaped modules that are connected by tunnels. These modules can be disassembled and used to build a base if a habitable planet is ever found. Shortly after docking on the spacecraft, the pilot engages thrusters that initiate a spin cycle, rotating the ship 5.6 times per minute, which produce an effect similar to gravity. The idea behind artificial gravity is the use of centrifugal force. Merriam-Webster defines this as “the apparent force that is felt by an object moving in a curved path that acts outwardly away from the center of rotation”. The acceleration a body would feel is proportional to the distance of the rotating center. One problem this creates is that the body’s blood would be forced to the feet, and the head would feel less gravitational affect. To correct for this, the size of the ship needs to be large enough that a human body would have more distance from the axis. Another issue is that the smaller the ship, the more rotations are needed to create a force similar to the gravity experienced on Earth. Too many rotations per minute would be rather disorienting to a human. While it is entirely possible to simulate gravity in space, the ease of movement seen in the movie seems less realistic considering the rate of rotation.

Another main topic in the film was the use of a wormhole. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity allows for the possibility of a wormhole’s existence. The story begins by telling of a disturbance in space that was noticed near Saturn some forty-eight years before and the anomaly was determined to be wormhole. Later in the movie the space crew used this wormhole to travel some ten billion light years away to another galaxy containing the possibility of other habitable worlds. The wormhole was depicted as a spherical hole in spacetime that had a reflective quality similar to that of a crystal ball. Wormholes currently only exist in theory, so while we don’t really know what one would look like, the filmmakers were able to rendering software based on multiple equations that were written by an astrophysicist who heavily researched the topic for the film. Many now believe the resulting digital manifestation to be an accurate depiction of a wormhole should one ever be seen. Although wormholes are conceivable, they are also thought to be highly unstable making it impossible for matter to pass through them without them collapsing. It stands to reason that in reality the space crew would not have been able to travel to another galaxy through a wormhole, even if one large enough existed (Contributor).

The last bit of science I want to mention that is central to the plot of the movie is a supermassive black hole called Gargantua. This fictional black hole has a mass one hundred million times the mass of the sun, rotating at ninety-nine point eight percent the speed of light. As a result it has several planets that orbit around it. Gargantua also has a gas and dust filled accretion disk that loops over and under the black hole due to gravitational lensing. The accretion disk is additionally tasked with providing light and heat to the black hole’s orbiting planets. In the film, one of the characters falls through the black hole and is eventually found and rescued by the humans that were his present but are now the humans of his future thanks to time dilation cause by the intense gravity he experienced in Gargantua. According to Stephen Hawking, it is possible to fall into a black hole and come out the other side, but you would no longer be in our universe, and you would have been exposed to intense radiation along the way. So again, the events presented in this part of the movie do not stand up to reality and what we currently know about the behavior of black holes. Ultimately the movie was incredibly enjoyable and showed a large amount of imagination, stretching the boundaries of what we know into the realm of things yet unknown, but did not stray too far from actual science (Hawking; Rogers).

Works Cited

Artist, Karl Tate Infographics. “The Spaceships of ‘Interstellar’ Explained (Infographic).”, 7 Nov. 2014, 03:05pm ET,

Contributor, Nola Taylor Redd “What is a Wormhole?”, 20 Oct. 2017, 10:53pm ET,

Crew, Bec. “WATCH: Could We Actually Create Artificial Gravity?” ScienceAlert, 1 July 2016,

Hawking, Stephen. “Into a Black Hole.” Stephen Hawking,

Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain. Paramount Pictures, 2014. DVD.

Rogers, Adam. “WRINKLES IN SPACETIME: The Warped Astrophysics of Interstellar.” Wired, Conde Nast, 7 Jan. 2015,

Keywords: artificial gravity, wormhole, black hole, movie critique



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