science | December 01, 2014

The (Real) Science of Interstellar: Lavin Speaker Kip Thorne Talks to Christopher Nolan

The new issue of Wired—guest-edited by Interstellar director Christopher Nolan—has a great interview with Nolan and Kip Thorne, the film's science visionary. “Our meetings never ended with definite answers,” Nolan says of Thorne. “They ended with questions. As a true scientist, Kip questions everything.”

The Wired Q&A reveals the working dynamic between Nolan, who “never understood algebra,” and Thorne, who also worked with Carl Sagan on Contact—that other grand space movie of our time. As much as any other  scientist, Thorne, a new Lavin speaker, has pushed for complex science to be portrayed—and realistically so—in blockbuster movies. As Wired notes, “The visual effects team even collaborated with Thorne to make sure their depictions of a black hole were accurate as well as elegant.” Here's Thorne: “For me the thing I most wanted was that the film have real science embedded in it—a range of science, from well-established truths to speculative science. This is what we wound up with. And I’m just so pleased.”

Thorne and Nolan's wide-ranging conversation enfolds quantum physics, black holes, time dilation, dimensions beyond space and time, Michael Caine, and why Anne Hathaway was “very excited to meet Kip.” It's a forthright discussion that reveals a creative partnership bolstered by mutual respect for each others work in their respective fields: movies and science.

Here's an excerpt:

WIRED:  Chris, Inception works without “real” science. Why did you need physics for Interstellar?
NOLAN: Well, it will sound strange, but to me Inception had a lot of science in it: A rigid set of rules, mathematical and geometrical in their nature, define that script. That took a very long time to work out. They’re not real science, but they have that quality. You always have to cheat in cinematic narrative, but you try to do it as little as possible and in a way that doesn’t violate the pact with the audience. In Inception, the geometry’s pretty solid.

WIRED: But without giving away too much, key Interstellar plot points—the main quest and the climactic scene—rely on hardcore science.
THORNE: In our first conversation, we discussed moving forward and backward in time and the fact that physicists don’t yet know for sure what the laws of physics allow and forbid. So Chris came up with his own rule set, and I came up with a way to fit it into what we physicists do think we know.

Kip Thorne is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus at Caltech. He is among the most influential scientists or our era, and a lucid communicator of scientific concepts to a mass audience. His most recent book, The Science of Interstellar, reveals how the movie’s stunning events and visuals are grounded in real science. In his talks, he looks at how scientific breakthroughs may shape our future.

In terms of Kip Thorne's role in motivating the project, and the actors, Nolan says this:

"The thing with good actors is, you don’t know what they’re getting from people. But there are two things going on with Kip’s involvement. One is, great actors can’t say lines that they don’t understand. Otherwise they can’t sell it. And then the other is, just by seeing somebody who has lived his life figuring these things out, they get some particular visual thing, whether it’s something you do, something you wear. It’s something that they absorb about what it’s like to devote your life to these principles."

To book Kip Thorne for your next event, please contact The Lavin Agency. Interstellar was produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, and Lavin speaker Lynda Obst, who is also available for speaking.

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