How the Movie 'Interstellar' Led to the Discovery of Scientific Phenomena
[Image Source: TEDx/Interstellar]
The research and graphics team behind the movie 'Interstellar' developed a graphics renderer so accurate, it led to the discovery of two scientific phenomena.
Generally, and frustratingly so, Hollywood and science do not mix. It seems incredibly unlikely that a movie based on scientific facts would come to light. Yet miraculously, the movie 'Interstellar' emerged as one of the biggest blockbusters of its year. Generally, sci-fi movies are more fi than sci, specifically pertaining to depictions of black holes. While previous movies have demonstrated impressive effects of a massive hole sucking in all matter, the scientific rules that they breach are rather alarming. As many academics in the scientific field know, a black hole is not a hole at, rather a massive sphere that has a gravitational field so strong, nearly nothing can escape it.
The definition of a black hole is "a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape" (Source). However, light acts rather sporadically around the curves of space-time surrounding black holes. Contradictory to popular belief, however, black holes are some of the brightest regions in space. This is due to the immense amounts of matter and light that accumulate around the event horizon- or the point at which no light can escape. The matter heats up due to incredible amounts of friction, further accumulating and expelling incredible amounts of light. In hindsight, black holes are very, very dense stars. Creating an engine which incorporates these effects while they themselves are not thouroughly understood requires extensive amounts of research.
Leading up to the break-through
The team comprised of doctors, physicists, software developers, and engineers alike, the team devised a conceptual design of a 3-dimentional hole and asked well-known physicist Kip Thorne analyze it. While the picture looks impressive, it Kip pointed out lacked a major component.
First conceptual image developed for Interstellar [Image Source: TEDx/Dan Hee Ryu]
While the picture is impressive, it fundamentally lacks a critical component black holes exhibit, gravitational lensing. Massive bodies in space effectively warp space around them, altering the path light would otherwise travel as it nears the mass. Black holes are especially dense, containing so much mass that light can be placed into orbit around the void. Furthermore, what is behind the black hole, while it may not be directly visible, as the light is warped through space, some distant objects can become visible through gravitation lensing.
The effect is far from fictional, however. The effect has been well documented by the Hubble telescope through multiple images. Such an event can be seen below.
[Image Source: TEDx/Hubble]
The orange galaxy in the middle of the photo is incredibly massive, warping the space around it, thereby bring into sight the blue galaxy behind it in the shape of a ring.
Not phased by the complexities of black holes, however, the research team continued collaborated daily with physicist Kip to develop rendering software that could emulate a black hole as close to reality as possible. Obviously, however, it is not particularly easy to visualize a black hole with the nearest one residing nearly 27,000 light-years away. As such, the team relied on dozens of scientific papers to reconstruct an engine backed by decades of real physical equations.
Further complicating the matter was the fact that the movie was destined for IMAX theaters, requiring the engine to emulate the black hole in unprecedented detail. Through months of dedicated research and development with collaborations between well-known physicists, however, the team was able to develop a game engine to render a black hole in never before seen detail. The development led an incredibly compelling image. The following video was created with the software.
[Image Source: TEDx]
However, while remaining scientifically accurate, the rendering failed to portray any depth to give the view a sense of relative relation to the black holes position, a critical component necessary for the plot of the story. With that, the team decided to add another component for visual effect. An accretion disk, which is essentially a belt of gas that orbits around a black hole gathering heat through friction as it moves, was added to the simulation. The ring gives off a compelling bright glow, adding another layer of complexity.
What's the big deal?
As the researchers analyzed their monumental success, a few peculiar phenomenons were noted. The imaging software enabled the team to explore the environment leading up to the event horizon. The incredible resolution gave the team an incredibly detailed view of some particularly interesting effects tacking place towards the edge of the black hole. As the black hole spun up to nearly the speed of light (which was included as part of the rendering code), space bent into increasingly convoluted shapes, a discovery which no one has ever before seen.
[Image Source: TEDx]
With the discovery of the spiraling warped space-time along with the techniques involved in rendering it, the team was able to publish two scientific papers. Hollywood often butchers every scientific law, however, the one exception to that being Interstellar was able to not only portray a fantastic movie, but also give back to the scientific community through its incredible discovery, perhaps marginally saving Hollywood from its often ridiculed view on science. Sometimes reality can, in fact, be crazier than fiction.
Further readings of the scientific discovery can be read through the published paper, as well as the full story can be viewed from the TedX video linked below.