Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Science of "Interstellar" isn't Science at All

The new SciFi film Interstellar, brought to you by the Nolan brothers Christopher and Jonathon, who also brought you the "Dark Night" Batman movies, is an ambitious attempt to tell a "big" science fiction story in the mold of 2001, but from a much more human perspective. While a beautiful and emotional work of art, the film relies on a number of conventions of modern mainstream physics and cosmology to tell its story. A great deal has been made of the "science" contributions of physicist Kip Thorne to the movie (he even wrote a book about it), with praise from the media about how Interstellar sticks to "real" science and is therefore a more accurate depiction of space exploration than say, Star Trek or Star Wars.

There's only one problem with that take on the film: It isn't true.

What Interstellar relies on is a series of ideas that are no more valid than Star Trek's faster than light warp drive or Battlestar Galactica's hyperspace "jumping" technologies. But because it has the approval of the mainstream science community, like science choad Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the media breathlessly run story after story about how "real" the film is. In fact, the main scientific ideas expressed in the film, from black holes to wormholes to time dilation, are not only just theoretical mathematical concepts that may or may not turn out to be true, they in fact have never actually been observed.

As I outlined in my second book The Choice, there are a lot of ideas that the mainstream scientists like to sell to the general public, like Dark Matter and the so-called "laws" of physics, that don't actually stand up to observation or experimentation. There are in fact based just on (probably flawed) mathematical equations which will eventually turn out to be just so much hoo-hoo. Ideas in science come and go. Rarely do they turn out to be correct. They are even less likely to be correct when they are based on abstract mathematics as opposed to actual observations. As Tesla himself once eloquently put it: "Today's scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality."

In Interstellar, an astronaut played by Matthew McConaughey (I know) travels via a wormhole to try and find a new home for the human race to migrate to. In the film's defense, the Nolan brothers backed way off from using the discredited Global Warming/Climate Change meme as a cause, which is one aspect of the science they got correct. Along the way, McConaughey and his fellow astronauts  experience suspended animation, travel through a wormhole, and explore planets orbiting a black hole, eventually falling into one and somehow coming out the other side. Along the way 23 years pass on Earth because of the gravity of the black hole, while the astronauts only experience a few days of time. All of these concepts are neat. They are also probably wrong.

Let's start with the first idea that film builds on, the wormhole concept. We'll let science choad Neil start us off:

The spaceship Endurance falling into a wormhole

Wormhole's are a really cool idea. They are based on an extension of Einstein's theory of general relativity (which may or may not be correct) and argues that if space and time are geometric, then gravity can (theoretically at least) distort space to the point that a 3D "tunnel" is created to another part of the Universe, or even another Universe altogether.
Artist's depiction of the Earth distorting space around it due to gravity.

Most sources of gravity, like the Earth, can theoretically distort space to some degree, but not nearly enough to punch a hole in space and come out the other side (this is akin to the concept of digging a hole to China). If enough gravity could be generated, it is possible (within the confines of general relativity) to create such a "tunnel," although how it could remain stable or the where the other end of the tunnel would be is something of a mystery. In order for this to happen, something called a "singularity" must exist inside (and at each end) of the wormhole, (or black hole). To put it in ultra simple terms, a mathematical singularity is a point at which a given mathematical object is not defined. In gravitation theory, it is a point in the equations at which the quantities that are used to measure the gravitational field become infinite.

In other words, it isn't anything measureable or definable. Or as Wikipedia puts it, "This is generally a sign for a missing piece in the theory." This means it can have any value the mathematician chooses to put upon it, or no value at all, because it doesn't really exist in this Universe. Or it is undefined simply because the mathematician has no clue what happens at that point.

But the important thing to note about singularities is that for a wormhole to exist, there must be two of them, one at each end.

So, theoretically, if we somehow possessed enough knowledge and a sufficient power source to create an intense enough gravity well, we might be able to pass from place to place in a short time through a wormhole. Or maybe not, because their existence is dependent on a singularity being present, and as we've just established a singularity is something that is undefinable and in reality, probably non-existent. Or to put it another way. there's only one problem with the wormhole concept: It exists only on paper. No one has ever seen one. Or as Wikipedia bluntly puts it: "Researchers have no observational evidence for wormholes."

So then there's that. Apparently, we live in a world where the existence of something that has never been observed is now considered "hard science."

Which brings us to black holes. In the film, the astronaut's spacecraft emerges from the wormhole in another galaxy, in a star system with 3 potentially habitable planets orbiting a black hole named Gargantua. I'm not sure why they couldn't have found planets orbiting stars in this galaxy, since recent exoplanet observations suggest the Milky Way is teeming with such worlds, but oh well.

Black holes of course, are a lot different than wormholes, because everybody knows they exist, right?


Not really. The difference between a wormhole and a black hole is that a black hole is (theoretically) the result of a collapsing star that acquires so much mass that it eventually forms a gravitational singularity, which lies somewhere beyond what's called an "event horizon."

If enough mass (and therefore gravity) is concentrated at one point, a singularity forms from which nothing can escape, not even light.

Unless it doesn't. Because no one actually has a clue what lies beyond the event horizon. It is as unknowable as the singularity is. As Wikipedia puts it: "The event horizon is referred to as such because if an event occurs within the boundary, information from that event cannot reach an outside observer, making it impossible to determine if such an event occurred." And don't bother sending a ship into one either, as is depicted (unrealistically) in the film. Tidal forces would rip you apart long before you got anywhere near the event horizon.

If it even exists...

Which it may not. A new paper by Laura Mersini-Houghton, a physics professor at UNC-Chapel Hill College of Arts and Sciences, concludes that not only to event horizons not exist, black holes don't exist either. Confronted with this new information, even Stephen Hawking has now concluded that his entire life's work, the study black holes, may have been in vain.

And there's one other issue. Like the wormhole, no one has ever observed a black hole. Even NASA's own website on black holes has this to say about them: "Because no light can get out, people can't see black holes. They are invisible." Kind of like "Dark Matter." Scientists are sure they exist, but have never seen one and probably never will.

Maybe they should just rename black holes "Unicorns."

A black hole?

But the mainstream guys, who get paid to write papers about this stuff (I wish I did) argue that while we will never observe a black hole, we "know" they exist because we can see all the light and energy they emit. Huh? I thought nothing could escape from a black hole, and now they emit light and energy? My caveman brain is confused, Cheborneck...

Proponents of black holes will also argue that we can "know" they exist because we can observe the way stars orbit around them, like the suspected supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy near the star Sagittarius A.

Artists depiction of stars orbiting a supermassive black hole.
In fact, this doesn't prove the existence of black holes at all. It only proves that there is something with an intense gravitational field near SagA that these stars are orbiting around. It may or may not be a black hole, or something like a black hole. If it is a black hole, we will never know, because, well, remember, they're invisible.

But there is another way mainstream scientists can argue that black holes exist. It's called "gravitational lensing" and it is depicted in the weird appearance of "Gargantua" in the film. Or as science choad Neil puts it on Twitter:

Well, to be clear, Einstein's notion of "curved spacetime" isn't really depicted in the film. As I covered in The Choice, the notion of space (or if you prefer "spacetime") being curved actually has to do with objects in what is called "free fall."

As I described it in The Choice: "General relativity is a theory of gravitation that Einstein developed later. He created general relativity because classical mechanics fell apart when actual experiments were conducted on objects in “free fall.” The problem was that objects in free fall – a state where no force except gravity is acting upon them at all – were observed to accelerate and decelerate relative to other objects. This flatly contradicts Newton’s first law, “An object in motion will tend to stay in that same motion unless an outside force acts upon it.” If gravity is the only force on an object in free fall, then how can it be attracted by or to another object without the use of magnetism or some other known and academically acceptable force?

In a somewhat desperate attempt to salvage Newton, upon which virtually all of modern physics was based, Einstein proposed that space-time itself must be 'curved.' In his view, objects in the vacuum of space “fall” without any measureable force being exerted on them because space itself is curved. Kind of like a ball rolling down a hill even though nobody pushed it down the hill, and there is no gravity to pull it down the hill, either.  The only problem with this notion is that as far as we know, or at least as far as mainstream physicists are willing to admit, such a behavior can only be caused by gravity or magnetic attraction, and both are measureable forces, and they were sure there was no gravity or magnetism acting on the test subjects during the experiments…"
As I (quite successfully) argued in The Choice, what Einstein did not consider (because the dogma of the day did not allow him to) is that there is a 5th force in the Universe besides gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. It is called dynamic torsion, and it while its has been observed numerous times it is not being seriously examined by the mainstream physicists, because it would require them to give up on Einstein altogether. So when science choad Neil comments on this he really doesn't have a clue what he is talking about. Unless he does.

I bring this up because what science choad Neil is referring to is actually gravitational lensing, which may in fact be a real phenomenon, but he is trying to justify Einstein's curved space solution by covering it with the same blanket. In fact they are separate issues. The gravitational lensing is not the same thing as the concept of curved spacetime, and his attempt to claim otherwise is deceptive.

A distant galaxy distorted into a horseshoe shape by the effects of gravitational lensing. 

As to gravitational lensing itself, it is a real phenomenon in which the light from a more distant object is bent and distorted by the gravitational field of a more local object. This does not in anyway prove the existence of black holes however, because, as Wikipedia puts it, "...(gravitational lensing) has never been directly observed for a black hole."

Which makes it another Unicorn.

Another key aspect of the film is the (theoretical) effect on the passage of time by an intense gravitational field, like the one theoretically generated by a black hole. Let's let science choad Neil tell us all about this effect, which is called "time dilation."

Time dilation is supposedly caused by differences in either gravity or relative velocity. In other words, if you accelerate close to the speed of light, you will age more slowly compared to an observer on Earth. Likewise, the closer you get to an intense gravity field, like a black hole, time theoretically passes more slowly. These concepts have been presented fictionally in books like Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and in Interstellar when 23 years pass on Earth while only a few hours pass for the main characters due to their proximity to Gargantua the black hole.

Unlike black holes, wormholes and the curvature of space, there is some evidence to support time dilation, but it is pretty sketchy. As an example, identical nuclear clocks have been used to measure the passage of time on Earth relative to the passage of time in orbit, in near weightless conditions. The clocks farther away from the 1G gravitational field of Earth were found to operate faster than the ones on Earth. But this is categorically NOT proof that time passes more slowly under the influence of gravity. It is only proof that clocks operate more slowly under the influence of gravity. Since no one has a clue what time really is, the idea that we can measure it is a fairy tale. None of these experiments have actually measured the speed of time. They have only measured the effects of gravity on mechanical instruments, i.e. clocks.

Which is not the same thing.

The simple fact is that black holes, wormholes, time dilation and curved space exist only on paper. There is in fact no observational evidence of their existence. In fact, many of the observed effects cited to support their existence often have perfectly viable alternative explanations that make far more sense. But to admit that would be to admit that their precious equations may be wrong, and that is a place that mainstream cosmologists just can't go. But the simple truth is, no matter how many degrees Kip Thorne or science choad Neil throw around, no matter how many times the media calls their work or the film 'hard science," it isn't. It isn't science at all, because NONE of it is testable, or even based on observation.

You can no more find truth in a mathematical equation than you can hear a beautiful melody by reading musical notation. Science is observation, experimentation, measurement and insight. It isn't numbers on chalk board.

It is possible that black holes, worm holes, time dilation and the curvature of space exist. I'm just arguing that no proof of any of them exists today.

That shouldn't keep you from seeing the film. It is a tremendous artistic achievement. But to pretend it is based on "hard science" or proven theories rather than pure, unsubstantiated speculation is folly.

Enjoy the movie.

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