As one might expect following the release of any highly anticipated film from a well-respected director, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was met with some rave reviews but also some harsh criticisms. All character issues aside, many people have been taking aim at the science in the film. It seems odd that such scrutiny is given to a movie when the director’s previous film involved a billionaire who dressed up as a bat to fight crime, who also managed to heal a broken back with a rope and some push-ups in an undisclosed hell-prison with only a dedicated CNN feed and an insane inmate to keep him company, but there you go.
In fact, all the science dissection of Interstellar prompted celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson to offer his support for the film’s underlying scientific themes. He certainly enjoyed the film and was willing to forgive a number of science fiction issues, but we have to remember that the CBS interviewers are asking the difference between a black hole and a wormhole, so there’s a certain degree of dumbing down his answers needed. Tyson also claims Contact to be his favorite and the most realistic science fiction movie he’s ever seen, so we have to wonder if he’s just pushing for the McConaissance above all else.
Instead of focusing on a sweeping examination of the science as a whole in Interstellar, I have to wonder about one part, and let’s give a big, fat SPOILER ALERT before getting to it. If you haven’t seen Interstellar, you’ll probably want to do that before reading this, considering there will be plenty of things said about the plot and even the ending of the film.
Here’s what I wonder about: Miller’s planet. If you’re looking for a new home to colonize, would it even be conceivable to go with a world along the rim of a black hole. Was it ever a good idea to visit Miller’s planet at all?
The Answer: Never for humans, but it’s possible someone else thought it was.
Miller’s planet orbited a black hole known as Gargantua, which caused all sorts of problems for the landing team. Not only was it responsible for towering tidal forces in its two-foot ocean, which created waves hundreds of feet tall, the massive gravitational field also caused time to dilate. This actually isn’t a new concept for science fiction. Stargate SG-1 used this concept routinely. However, it is one of the few times this has been committed to the blockbuster movie screen.
Simply put, massive gravitational fields will cause time to slow down for bodies close to them, which is what the Endurance team experienced. Every hour on the planet meant seven years passed outside of the gravitational field. That’s a compression factor of 61,320, which is enough to keep Matthew McConaughey looking eternally young.
Tyson suggests that visiting a planet on the edge of a black hole is a terrible idea, tweeting, “Personally, I’d stay as far the hell away from Black Holes as I can.” That’s because, in addition to time dilation, black holes can also have unpredictable impact on space. They’re a phenomenon that we have very little direct knowledge of, and even though Romilly (David Gyasi) had 23 years to study one up close while he was waiting for Cooper (McConaughey) and Brand (Anne Hathaway) to return, there’s a lot about them we will never understand in the foreseeable future.
One concern for Miller’s planet would be whether it would maintain a stable orbit for the long term. Black holes continually suck up surrounding matter, which is what causes that bright accretion disc seen around the singularity in the film. This ring is the last outpost of normal space before matter is sucked in past the black hole’s event horizon. It spins fast and can generate electromagnetic radiation (mainly in the form of x-rays) before disappearing forever. Of course, that matter has to go somewhere, which is into the black hole itself, continually increasing the mass. How long would Miller’s planet last on the lip of that black hole before plunging into the accretion disc and send humanity on the run again?
This might be a possible explanation of where all the sunlight is coming from on Miller’s planet, Tyson suggests. However, he also suggests that this was left unexplained.
While there could be another sun in that system, which no one mentioned because they were so fixated on Gargantua, this was unlikely. While planets orbiting binary star systems do exist, the suns must be relatively close together and of reasonably close sizes. Otherwise, gravitational forces would make it difficult for a planet to achieve a stable orbit.
Still, even if Miller’s ship had managed to reach the planet…
How would they have even receive Miller’s message?
In the film, it is explained that complex data could not be sent back to Earth through the wormhole. Instead, they had to rely on rudimentary pings and signals. However, the time dilation factor comes into play here as well. Just as time would be slowed down by a factor of 61,320, a signal from the planet’s surface would be affected. This would make the ping more like a piiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing, only with the word being about as long as the screenplay to Interstellar.
There’s no way around sending a ping across space. It would be done with a form of electromagnetic radiation. While the speed of light would remain constant, the gravity would dramatically increase a ping’s wavelength and decrease its frequency. Had the original ping been sent back as a 30 GHz EHF signal used in radio astronomy, it would have dropped down to the AM radio band range. Had it been sent as a visible light laser signal, it would have dropped down into radio frequency range. The question then becomes whether anyone would receive that signal? And if they did, surely someone would have noticed something was wrong.
In any case, as the astronauts contemplate the time dilation on Miller’s planet prior to landing, not one of these genius scientists take into account that Miller herself is already experiencing the phenomenon. While she had been sent there a decade before, it was pretty obvious from their own math that she would have landed only an hour or so ago. Sure, they figure this out once they encounter the tidal waves and head back to their ship, but it was pretty clear on the onset this would happen.
So if Miller’s planet was such a terrible choice, and it would have been nearly impossible to communicate even with rudimentary pings…
Who would have sent them there?
The film makes it pretty clear that humanity in its highly evolved, multidimensional future state was responsible for sending back messages and constructing a way for humanity to travel to another world. However, there’s another possibility, and it also has to do with Miller’s planet.
When the astronauts arrive on Miller’s planet – both Miller herself and the Endurance crew – they land in the ocean to face lethal tidal waves. Two astronauts are left behind, literally dead in the water: Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Miller.
However, a dead body is more than just a dead body. Human beings are a cesspool of bacteria and other microscopic organisms. When a person dies, those microbes don’t just die with it. Some of them will literally start to feed off the body itself, which is one of the reasons bodies rot so effectively. The suits of the two dead astronauts in the ocean of Miller’s planet would quickly be torn apart by the tidal waves and release trillions of microbes into the sea.
It is possible that many of those bacteria would eventually die on the barren world. However, bacteria can be persistent, and they can also be hardened and surprisingly resilient in the harsh conditions of space. Add to this the unpredictable effects of evolution so near a black hole, and it is conceivable that the dead bodies of Miller and Doyle seeded the planet with life.
Fast-forward billions of years, and it might be possible that intelligent life evolved on Miller’s planet. Perhaps this intelligent life transcended three dimensions and used its powers to bring these bald apes from Earth through a wormhole to a planet unsuitable to save humanity on the outer edge of a black hole. Unlike the future humans who would have no business luring astronauts to such a hostile world, these beings would find it implicitly necessary to have Miller and the Endurance mission land.