Saturday, November 1, 2014

Black holes in the movies

Dennis Overbye gripes about a new movie in the NY Times:
But the movie doesn’t deserve any prizes for its drive-by muddling of Dr. Hawking’s scientific work, leaving viewers in the dark about exactly why he is so famous. Instead of showing how he undermined traditional notions of space and time, it panders to religious sensibilities about what his work does or does not say about the existence of God, which in fact is very little. ...

But when it came to science, I couldn’t help gnashing my teeth after all. Forget for a moment that early in the story the characters are sitting in a seminar in London talking about black holes, the bottomless gravitational abysses from which not even light can escape, years before that term had been coined. Sadly, a few anachronisms are probably inevitable in a popular account of such an arcane field as astrophysics.

It gets worse, though. Skip a few scenes and years ahead. Dr. Hawking, getting ready for bed, is staring at glowing coals in the fireplace and has a vision of black holes fizzing and leaking heat.

The next thing we know he is telling an audience in an Oxford lecture hall that black holes, contrary to legend and previous theory, are not forever, but will leak particles, shrink and eventually explode, before a crank moderator declares the session over, calling the notion “rubbish.”

The prediction of Hawking radiation, as it is called, is his greatest achievement, the one he is most likely to get a Nobel Prize for. But it didn’t happen with a moment of inspiration staring at a fireplace. And in telling the story this way, the producers have cheated themselves out of what was arguably the most dramatic moment in his scientific career. ...

His discovery has turned out to be a big, big deal, because it implies, among other things, that three-dimensional space is an illusion. Do we live in a hologram, like the picture on a credit card? Or the Matrix?

None of this, alas, is in the movie. That is more than bad history.
Bad history, but I am sure that it would be bad physics either way. No one has shown that 3D space is an illusion. Hawking radiation from black holes has not been observed, and probably won't be. And he won't get that Nobel prize. (Possibly he might get some credit from some analogous radiation that is not from black holes, but I doubt it.) No we do not live in a hologram just because some funny stuff happens on the event horizon of a black hole.

Meanwhile, Sean M. Carroll raves about a new movie:
I haven’t seen it yet myself, nor do I know any secret scoop, but there’s good reason to believe that this film will have some of the most realistic physics of any recent blockbuster we’ve seen. ...

Kip recognized that a wormhole was what was called for, but also realized that any form of faster-than-light travel had the possibility of leading to travel backwards in time. Thus was the entire field of wormhole time travel born. ...

I know that Kip has been very closely involved with the script as the film has developed, and he’s done his darnedest to make sure the science is right, or at least plausible. (We don’t actually whether wormholes are allowed by the laws of physics, but we don’t know that they’re not allowed.) ...

And that’s not all! Kip has a book coming out on the science behind the movie, which I’m sure will be fantastic. And there is also a documentary on “The Science of Interstellar” that will be shown on TV, in which I play a tiny part.
I should reserve judgment until I see the movie. It will probably be entertaining. But if the plot uses wormholes for Earthlings to escape global warming and colonize another planet, then I would not call it realistic physics.

Update: Interstellar has some great reviews, but the Bad Astronomer hated the silly and nonsensical physics plot (relativity, black hole, wormhole).


  1. If you truly want to be entertained by Sean M. Carroll's site, read the reactions to what he writes. One person actually said something incredibly intelligent. The argument went something like this; The amount of time it would take to get someone to get to the wormhole (as posited near a gas giant in the outer solar system) would take quite a while (over 18 months at least), and if you could for arguments sake get through the wormhole and start poking around on the other side, where the heck are you going to get the fuel, food, and oxygen to do it? What are the odds the wormhole would pop out anywhere near another solar system with a habitable world? The absurd improbability of this venture begins to compare with the Drake's equation. Would it not be easier (by many magnitudes) to turn human know-how into repairing OUR planet, than traipsing around the cosmos looking randomly for another planet that could come even remotely close to supporting human life? I noted this comment got voted several thumbs down already.

    Sean in his infinite wisdom has decided that comments on his site should be determined by the scientific method of 'popularity', er, ah, I mean consensus, and if enough people don't like your opinion, it gets hidden so others don't get offended views divergent from the rest of the herd. So much for the scientific method and actual skepticism, wiped clean away by fawning groupthink and political correctness. Sean really does need more critical skepticism and less ass kissing to keep him scientifically grounded.

  2. Yes, I made a critical comment on Sean's site about a month ago, and I was quickly voted down and the comment was hidden.

    Wormholes are a fantasy. As you say, they would be impractical, even if they did exist. Hawking has said that we need to escape Earth, but no matter how advanced our technology, it will be million times easier to fix Earth than to run to another planet.

  3. This is a vindication of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics. The fact that Dennis Overbye expects a Hollywood movie to contain anything whatsoever in the way of historical or scientific accuracy is clear proof that he has been living in a parallel universe.

  4. Good point. I remember when the 2003 movie The Core came out, and the makers were bragging in interviews about how they used scientist consultants to make sure that the science was accurate. It is hard to see how any part of it could be considered accurate.

  5. Hmmm... The Core... wasn't that the movie where the entire premise of the film was made possible by the 'scientific' plot device metal called 'In-obtanium'? Well, at least they didn't call it 'NoSuchThing-ium'. How can one argue with science like this? Laugh at it until you fall off your chair, yes, but argue with? Err, not so much.

    If you want an even better laugh fest than 'The Core', watch the 2013 'Elysium' which was billed as 'social commentary' and 'scientifically inspired' as well. My sister and I counted so many colossal logical and scientific plot holes in the first twenty minutes we started giggling with each new piece of CGI reality negation and utter ignorance of human anatomy. The only thing that spoiled this surprise sci-fi comedy laugh fest was the tired socialist drivel coming out of Matt Damon (who in real life has millions of dollars, lives in a well heeled gated community and sends his children to private schools) admonishing everyone else for being 'greedy and elitist' onboard the orbiting gated community. I guess high comedy sometimes imitates low life and bad art.