Science inspired Interstellar, and film now returns the favor

© Classical and Quantum Gravity, 2015. Reproduced by permission of IOP Publishing

Science inspired Interstellar, and film now returns the favor

Who says Hollywood trivializes science? The 2014 blockbuster movie Interstellar has spawned its own academic paper, published online today in Classical and Quantum Gravity. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who came up with the original idea for the movie, worked closely with the London-based special effects company Double Negative to ensure that the wormhole and black hole shown were as realistic as possible. Using physics equations provided by Thorne, the company’s computers mapped the paths of millions of rays of light through the warped spacetime caused by a fictional black hole. As well as producing Oscar-nominated visual effects for the movie, Thorne and the effects team also unearthed some unexpected physics, such as that an observer close to a rapidly spinning black hole would see more than a dozen images of individual stars just outside one edge of the black hole’s “shadow.” These multiple images are caused by the spinning mass dragging spacetime into a whirlpool that bends the light rays around itself many times. The team, once their film work was done, carried out a number of research simulations with Thorne, studying how the swirling spacetime distorted star fields behind the black hole (above). As a virtual observer moves around the black hole, it could see the swirling spacetime constantly creating and annihilating images of individual stars. The multiple-image effect was observed only on the side of the black hole where spacetime is being dragged toward the observer, which the team concluded was because some light was being “flung” outward.

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