When A Movie Influences Science...

Nov 15, 2014 By Aarathi
Aarathi's picture

Yes, you did read that right. In a sort-of reversal of roles, a movie is paving the way for a scientific discovery.

Christopher Nolan’s movie - Interstellar, was released in early November. We may have already seen from the trailers, that it involves space travel, black holes, gravity and a whole lot of scientific concepts.

Kip Thorne is a theoretical physicist whose research was the original inspiration for Interstellar. He was also the movie’s executive producer, and more importantly, its scientific consultant as well. While working with the visual effects team to create a large spinning black hole, they attempted to make their model as scientifically accurate as possible.

Amazingly, while creating some of the visual effects for a spinning black hole in the movie, the team was stunned by a discovery. They found that their digital creations gave them new perspectives on the appearance of the black hole itself and its behavior!

What's A Black Hole?

A black hole is an extremely dense region in space where matter is packed tightly within a very small area. This dense matter exerts a very strong gravitational pull - so strong that nothing can escape, not even light! The distance from the black hole, beyond which nothing can get out, is called an event horizon. Think of event horizon as an invisible boundary around the black hole.

Does this mean black holes are invisible? Not quite. You see, black holes have normally been indicated by their accretion disc - a collection of primarily stellar gases and space dust that orbit around it, and from where this matter is sucked into the black hole itself. Because of the tremendous force of gravity, the accretion discs radiate heat and X-rays as they react. 

An Unexpected Discovery

A spinning black hole like that in Interstellar would create a radiant and glowing accretion disc, simply due to the heat and speed of movement. So the team attempted to generate an accretion disc to depict the black hole for the movie.

They found that the immense gravity of a black hole, actually bends a part of the universe around it – producing a warped effect known as gravitational lensing. The team realised that to an observer, the light from a star behind a spinning black hole would bend in the warped space-time around it. This would create beautiful and multiple ‘light’ reflections of the star around the black hole’s event horizon. The black hole itself would appear like a funnel with a ring of light around it. 

So, when they fed in all the relevant data and positioned an accretion disc around it, the team was quite literally ‘star-struck’. The black hole was enveloped by images of distorted starlight as they expected. However, they were surprised to see that the same time warp acted on the accretion disc as well, producing beautiful halos from different angles (see the video below)! 

Who knows, movies in the future could indeed open up newer avenues for science! It’s all a question of paying attention to the finer details and being open to learning. So, have you seen Interstellar yet?

Source Wired.com, Discovery.com