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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com

Norm Sperling’s Great Science Trek: 2014

San Luis Obispo
Santa Barbara
Palm Springs
Death Valley
Tucson
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Tampa
Everglades
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key
Miami

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard
mid-South

APRIL 2014:
near I-40, I-30, and I-20 westbound

MAY 2014:
near US-101 northbound
May 17-18: Maker Faire, San Mateo
May 23-26: BayCon, Santa Clara

California till midJune

JUNE 2014:
Pacific Northwest

JULY 2014:
Western Canada, eastbound

AUGUST 2014:
near the US/Can border, westbound
August 22-on: UC Berkeley

Speaking engagements welcome!
2014 and 2015 itineraries will probably cross several times.

How True is “Interstellar”?

© Norman Sperling, November 13, 2014

The main message of “Interstellar” is true. Parents do anything they can, and go anywhere they can, for the good of their children. Except for a few uncommitted losers, this holds across all cultures and times. My astronomy students told me to see this movie, but didn’t warn me about this theme, and I didn’t bring anywhere near enough handkerchiefs.

The setting is what makes this movie spectacularly memorable. Certainly the special effects are Hollywood’s best. Nebulae and planet surfaces should look like those. Saturn looks like that. I didn’t notice any specific starfields; the background at the beginning looked like a random scatter instead of a real starfield, and the narrow range of brightnesses was fakey: no bright stars, no faint stars.

I really liked the robots.

The black hole and wormhole effects are imaginary. The view inside a black hole is based on Kip Thorne’s best equations but it’s still speculation. The experience there was more a salute to “2001 A Space Odyssey” than a scientific rendition.

Wormholes don’t seem to exist. I remember when they were hot topics. Black holes had come up at the end of the 1960s and, though bizarre, resisted all attempts at disproof. After a few decades, most astronomers accepted that black holes are part of reality.

In the 1960s and 1970s another extremely puzzling phenomenon challenged astrophysics: quasars. They looked like bluish dots (“quasi-stellar”). They have indistinct spectra with a few absorption lines that bore no resemblance to anything recognized in the 90 years of astronomical spectroscopy until then.

Quasars couldn’t be isolated blue stars because all blue stars are young, so remnants of the nebulae they formed from should still hang around. Also, blue stars don’t live long enough to wander far from their original nebulae, but quasars appeared quite isolated.

If they were as far as galaxies, they were impossibly bright. Anything that tiny, that energetic, held too much energy in too small a volume, and must instantly explode itself.

For these and many more reasons, quasars didn’t make sense as objects like stars in our galaxy, nor as objects related to far-away galaxies.

In the 1970s, some scholars tried linking the 2 mysteries. If black holes take in fantastic amounts of energy, and quasars give out fantastic amounts of energy, maybe quasars are “white holes”: outlets for energy that black holes take in. To transport that energy from the black holes to the while holes, they pushed the “wormhole” idea from the 1950s to extremes.

By the 1980s data built up to show that quasars (and their lower-power cousins, BL Lacertae objects and Seyfert galaxies) were powered by ejections from the neighborhoods of supermassive black holes. If quasars aren’t white holes, there’s no need for wormholes to transport energy to them. The wormhole idea fizzled.

Except in one cultural niche, a favorite of mine. Science fiction often tells stories in astronomical settings. That poses plotting problems: planets and stars are so far apart that action would have to pause for decades or even millennia between scenes. Invoking wormholes lets a story move along briskly by simply declaring transportation to be nearly instantaneous.

“Interstellar” depends on wormholes to travel way faster than light.

A glance at reviews online shows a split. Reviewers who didn’t understand the science therefore thought the movie didn’t hang together, and parts were silly, and their minds wandered. Reviewers who did get the science granted the willful suspension of disbelief, and thought the story more credible. The distinction is in the education of the beholders. The *eyes* of the beholders were nearly unanimous: they loved the space and spacecraft scenery. To enjoy more spectacular, out-of-this-world scenery, any day, in any quantity, browse through astrophotos and spacecraft pictures.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

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