Shut up about the inaccuracies of “Interstellar”

Back to the future.
Back to the future.
Image: Paramount Pictures
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Why do we go to the movies?

I can only answer for myself, of course, but I go to be entertained. That encompasses a lot of things—escaping the monotony of real life for a few hours, watching talented actors transform themselves into different people, seeing how a favorite book is rendered into a visual medium. My definition of entertainment is not ”watching something that depicts events exactly as they would occur in real life.”

And so I have a question for the people exuberantly pointing out every last scientific inaccuracy in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar: Why? What are you hoping to accomplish? Are you trying to convince people not to see the film? (That won’t work). Are you trying to take Christopher Nolan and his legions of supporters down a peg? (That probably won’t work either). I’d very much like to know the purpose behind the the internet’s Interstellar nitpicking, besides the ability to tout your own obviously superior knowledge of astrophysics.

Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar
Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.
Image: Paramount Pictures

Some Interstellar truthers are pointing to a series of tweets by cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the most revered figures on the internet, as evidence of the film’s shortcomings. But they are ignoring an even longer series of tweets made by Tyson about what the film got right, like its depiction of time dilation and the curvature of space as described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In a Facebook post, Tyson explained why he breaks down the accuracies and inaccuracies of science fiction films like Interstellar and last year’s Gravity: “not as an expression of distaste or disgust but as a celebration of artists attempting to embrace all the forces of nature that surround us.”

A friend of mine, a PhD student in physics at Columbia, shares Tyson’s enthusiasm. He has long studied the concepts explored by the film—quantum gravity, spacetime singularities, gravitational lensing—and he knows what the film got right and what it didn’t. Sure, he tells me, Interstellar took some liberties by having a wormhole materialize near Saturn, but he, like Tyson, still enjoyed the film, and appreciated that it made these complex theories accessible to the 99% of the population who don’t study quantum field theory.

His appreciation for the science of Interstellar makes it hard for me to understand why others have condemned the film’s science as if it sullied their family honor. What are they so afraid of? That Interstellar‘s pseudoscience will fraudulently inspire young men and women to become astrophysicists? That they might use the equations Jessica Chastain’s character writes on a chalkboard to catastrophic effect? (Those are real equations, by the way.) Pointing out the scientific inaccuracies of Interstellar in this way takes a rather dim view of human intellect. Those of us who love the movie know its science isn’t pitch perfect. We just don’t care.

Adam Riess
Adam Riess (left) is awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Image: Reuters/Andres Wiklund/Scanpix

As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, I took a course called “Stars and the Universe” taught by the astrophysicist Adam Riess. He took us up to the observatory in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy (made possible by a donation from a certain wealthy Hopkins alum) and my classmates and I took turns looking at Saturn and other celestial objects through an enormous telescope. It was a moving experience—there I was, looking at a ball of gas hundreds of millions of miles away, in tremendous detail. Not a picture, not an illustration, but the actual planet itself. Not long after I took that class, Riess was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (along with a few others) for discovering that the expansion of the universe was accelerating.

You might now be wondering what Professor Riess thinks of Interstellar. I wondered the same, so I asked him. This was his response:

I saw it opening day and in fact took my whole research group to see it. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the movie, including or maybe especially me. I recognized a lot of well thought out physics in the movie. It was very obvious that a lot of thought had gone into the science, especially General Relativity. It was clear that the writers used what we know about the physics of the Universe as boundaries (or at least speed bumps) for where and how the plot could evolve. The movie definitely offers teachable moments which I plan to use next year in class.

Interesting. One of the world’s foremost astrophysicists—a Nobel laureate who collects prizes as if they’re baseball cards—not only enjoyed Interstellar but also respected the science behind it and plans to use it to teach his students.

Watching Interstellar reminds me a lot of taking that astronomy course three years ago. Both class and film cultivated a sense of wonder, a desire to know more, and a feeling that the universe is an exhilarating, deeply mysterious thing that is just begging to be explored.

All that, and it’s quite entertaining, too.