Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”: Big-Budget Crowd-Pleasing Holiday Blockbuster About Quantum Mechanics

Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan, never one to keep it simple. (photo credit: charlieanders2 via photopin cc)

With the fabled Dark Knight trilogy firmly behind him, Christoper Nolan is well into working on his next major motion picture, according to a joint announcement today from Paramount and Warner Bros., who will be dividing the spoils and the world between them. With a scheduled release date of November 7, 2014, Interstellar is still in the formative stages, by which I mean we know next to nothing yet except for what Entertainment Weekly succinctly summarized:

Developed from a script by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan Nolan, the sci-fi movie is a time travel epic based on scientific theories developed by American physicist Kip Thorne, who will executive produce. The press release announcing the distribution news describes the film as “a heroic interstellar voyage to the furthest reaches of our scientific understanding.”

For now, that’s all we have. Collaborations between the Nolan brothers have yet to create dreadful results. Their track record tells us it won’t be a straightforward ninety-minute shoot-’em-up. Based on the precedents set by Nolan and Nolan’s innovative narrative explorations of dreams, memory, anarchy, class warfare, and Robin Williams’ serious side, I expect a time travel tale crafted under their watch to be a mind-bending reexamination of that sci-fi subgenre in a way we didn’t already see in Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the various conflicting Terminator products, and several hundred Star Trek episodes.

If the Nolans plan to incorporate the work of a real physicist into the script instead of borrowing from other time-travel films (which is typically how those films are made), you can bet that at some point half the audience will be lost, no matter how hard they concentrate, no matter how many pages of grad-school textbook exposition are seamlessly woven into the dialogue.

The proactive solution is obvious: if we intend to enjoy Interstellar to the fullest, then we have nineteen months to subject ourselves to as many intensive, self-taught science classes as possible before it arrives in theaters. If you knew of Kip Thorne’s work before this press release, chances are you’re ahead of the game, probably a professional in the field or somewhere tangential. The rest of us envy your head start and ask that you refrain from laughing at us. By all means, the humanitarian act on your part would be to bestow your knowledge upon us simpletons so that we might all laugh together.

The core of our lesson plan would begin with the most relevant paragraph from Kip Thorne’s WikiPedia entry as it stands at this moment:

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 generalised, 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.

Breaking down the concepts as simply as possible without spending years on this entry, the subtopics of our amateur coursework should include the following:

* “Lorentzian wormholes”. Or “wormholes” to the layman. This part isn’t hard if you followed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or if you’ve seen other fictional characters travel to bizarre lands such as Quor’Toth, Apokolips, the Other Side, the Fifth Dimension, the Negative Zone, the Stargate Land of Perpetual Egypt, and so on. However, differentiating between kinds of wormholes may be important for our grounded, realistic time-travel purposes — i.e., Lorentzian (two-way) versus Schwartzschild (one-way). I’m already picking up on one lesson here: scientists are rather fond of naming concepts after other scientists, instead of opening a Greek/Latin dictionary and indulging in any clever etymological free-styling.

* “Vacuum polarization of quantum fields”. Distilled as best as I could, I’m 30% certain this refers to the use of specialized electromagnetic fields to control the spaces between subatomic particles, which would purportedly tap into the very building blocks of reality itself and bend them to our will so we can do cool stuff.

* “Quantum fields in quantum states”. Groups, regions, or collections of micro-mini-microscopic particles that are…next to each other? Or merely jacked into one another? Depending on our observational scope? I think? Somehow their existence has to permit “threading” in a metaphorical sense in order for wormholes to work.

* “Averaged null energy condition”. This is the thing that has to be altered, controlled, negated, or whatever so that we can “thread” the things beginning with “quantum” and open all the wormholes we want. It involves calculus equations. My calculus days ended nearly twenty years ago. I may need to borrow my son’s scientific calculator so I can spend some time staring at the keys and remembering all the funny shapes that used to hold so much meaning for test-taking purposes.

* “Negative energy”. This has nothing to do with that least favorite relative who’s always telling you that you’re wasting your life. This has something to do with measurements of energy that magically equal numbers less than zero — perfectly nonexistent and quantifiable at the same time. It sounds like anti-matter, but that might be a different thing, and I’m unaware of any star fleets that power their ships with negative energy, though I know a few people who seem to be walking renewable energy sources in that regard. If only we could convert them to starship fuel and thereby put them to more constructive use.

* The abolition of time-travel paradoxes. The last sentence of that excerpt is intriguing, the idea that time travel paradoxes wouldn’t exist because all conceivable realities, before and after a given timeline alteration, could somehow exist in their own zones anyway, rather than one decision causing any one reality to cease to exist. I think that’s what that last sentence means. It sounds as though we’re opening the door to the possibility of our reality consisting of a multiverse not unlike the DC Comics multiverse, except with infinite realities created by infinite tiny differences, instead of stopping at exactly 52 and declaring that the multiverse ends just so. Bottom line: we’re not allowed to poke fun at any plot loopholes because technically they aren’t contradictions due to every event happening just fine even though not all events are beholden to direct causality with one another. Everyone got that?

Those few standout phrases in that excerpt are, I’m sure, the tip of the iceberg. Each concept seems to unfold into another arcane concept, each of which in turn cannot be understood without scrutinizing several other underlying ideas and submitting them to all manner of high-level contemplation and conjecture. Thus do we merely glimpse at the surface of Kip Thorne’s toil in this area, an ongoing refinement and constant reconfiguring of a networked array of myriad graduate theses.

Now that my head hurts, that’ll do for now, class. We have our homework assignment: learn the entirety of quantum mechanics before November 2014 so we can fully appreciate the intricate splendor that shall be the Nolan Brothers’ Interstellar, which promises to make Inception look like The Expendables. I won’t be surprised if there’s a final exam after the end credits, so bring your calculators just in case.

[WikiPedia excerpt shared under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.]

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