Kip Thorne’s concept for a black hole in 'Interstellar.' Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

The Physics Behind “Interstellar’s” Visual Effects Was So Good, it Led to a Scientific Discovery

23 Oct , 2014 by

While he was working on the film Interstellar, executive producer Kip Thorne was tasked with creating the black hole that would be central to the plot. As a theoretical physicist, he also wanted to create something that was truly realistic and as close to the real thing as movie-goers would ever see.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan – the film’s director – wanted to create something that would be a visually-mesmerizing experience. As you can see from the image above, they certainly succeeded as far as the aesthetics were concerned. But even more impressive was how the creation of this fictitious black hole led to an actual scientific discovery.

In short, in order to accurately create a visual for the story’s black hole, Kip Thorne produced an entirely new set of equations which guided the special effects team’s rendering software. The end result was a visual representation that accurately depicts what a wormhole/black hole would look like in space.

Artist's conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

Artist’s conception of the event horizon of a black hole. Credit: Victor de Schwanberg/Science Photo Library

This was no easy task, since black holes (as the name suggests) suck in all light around them, warp space and time, and are invisible to all but X-ray telescopes (due to the bursts of energy they periodically emit). But after a year of work by 30 people and thousands of computers, Thorne and the movie’s special effects team managed to create something entirely realistic.

Relying entirely on known scientific principles, the black hole appears to spin at nearly the speed of light, dragging bits of the universe along with it. Based on the idea that it was once a star that collapsed into a singularity, the hole forms a glowing ring that orbits around a spheroidal maelstrom of light, which seems to curve over the top and under the bottom simultaneously.

To simulate the accretion disk, the special effects team generated a flat, multicolored ring and positioned it around their spinning black hole. Then something very weird and inspiring happened.

McConaughey explores another world in Interstellar (top). Thorne’s diagram of how a black hole distorts light. Credit: Kip Thorne

Thorne’s diagram of how a black hole distorts light. Credit: Kip Thorne

“We found that warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” explained Paul Franklin, a senior supervisor of Academy Award-winning effects house Double Negative. “So rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.”

The Double Negative team thought it must be a bug in the renderer. But Thorne realized that they had correctly modeled a phenomenon inherent in the math he’d supplied.

“This is our observational data,” he said of the movie’s visualizations. “That’s the way nature behaves. Period.” Thorne also stated that he thinks he can get at least two published articles out of it.

But more important than that is the fact that Thorne, a thoroughgoing scientist and lover of the mysteries of space and physics, has a chance to show a mass audience some real, accurate science.

The movie premiers in North America on November 7th.

Christopher Nolan and Kip Thorne explain the science behind creating the movie’s black hole.

Further reading: Wired

, , , , , , , , ,



Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
hde226868
Member
hde226868
October 23, 2014 12:37 PM

Nice article. Just to clarify: visualizations of accretion disks around black holes have been properly visualized since the early work of Cunningham & Bardeen, in 1972/1973 or Luminet 1979. See, for example,

http://adsabs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-ref_query?bibcode=1973ApJ…183..237C&refs=CITATIONS&db_key=AST

for a list of papers that mainly include visualization calculations.

There has also been a very nice set of visualizations of black holes by Ute Krauss (http://www.spacetimetravel.org/galerie/galerie.html) and recently by Thomas Mueller.

I think what is new here is the coordinate system in which the calculations were done, this is a really technical aspect, but please do not get the impression that “Interstellar” has the first ever correct visualizations of a flow around a black hole…

jonaD
Member
jonaD
October 23, 2014 2:47 PM

I don’t agree with the white fuzz… I believe we should be seeing a set of airy discs, concentric rings surrounding the singularity, each disc with its own chromatic aberration and so… circular rainbows. As a ship accelerates towards a singularity, the closest discs should phase blue, so depending on both the Fraunhofer angles and the relative velocities, this shifting would tell us both the off axis and the speed differential. So no, I don’t agree with the white fuzz.

Herb9964
Member
Herb9964
October 23, 2014 2:48 PM

“Lead?” Really? Oy!

agoodall
Member
agoodall
October 23, 2014 4:44 PM

The title also calls the movie “Intellstellar”. Looks like it was written in a hurry. *S*

Frankisntien
Member
Frankisntien
October 23, 2014 4:40 PM

LOL Science? To begin with wormholes at the center of a spinning black hole are a convenience theory for interstellar space travel. Just because the mathematics says its possible doesn’t make it so. To state something is mathematically sound is no different than stating a sentence is grammatically sound. Just because you can write a grammatically correct sentence that states leprechauns are real doesn’t make them real…

Alkaid
Member
Alkaid
October 23, 2014 7:01 PM

I’m kind of puzzled. Perhaps I misunderstand what you are saying?

There is a LOT of observational data which strongly supports the existence of black holes. Rejection of the idea of black holes would require invocation of either some other object which would likely have to be stranger than a black hole, or a pretty wholesale rejection of our knowledge of Physics.

There is a lot of cosmology which is on rather shaky grounds, the existence of black holes is on surprisingly firm ground.

Alkaid
Member
Alkaid
October 23, 2014 7:02 PM

I should point out that wormholes are, of course, not at all on firm grounds if that was the only point you were making.

BCstargazer
Member
BCstargazer
October 24, 2014 2:20 AM

So it’s kind of a “gray” area then…no, wait wink

skyboltman99
Member
skyboltman99
October 24, 2014 5:41 AM
You’re wrong and what is absolutely hilarious and horribly sad at the same time is the fact that you are completely unable to recognize how wrong you are because you’ve been totally sold by the pseudo-physicists that are occupying the upper reaches of modern academia in particle physics, gravitational physics, astrophysics and cosmology. Black holes are now and always have been an intellectual fiction. To understand what the pseudo-scientists in academia are calling ‘black holes’ would require a wholesale rejection of much of our knowledge of modern physics; not all… but quite a bit. First you have to learn what is true. But I can tell you one thing that is taught that is not true at all.… Read more »
squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
October 24, 2014 8:34 AM

You’re right, what we need is a Stalinist purge of all these so-called “cosmologists” who are only in it for the money

I… I don’t know where to begin

BubbaGump
Member
BubbaGump
October 24, 2014 6:15 PM

My goodness, I’ve searched high and low for a publication of any sort that might be related to you. Would you please steer me in the right direction? With your insights I’m sure you’ve been published, even if it is in the National Equirer.

CustomDesigned
Member
October 25, 2014 7:37 PM

It is not hard to find confirmation of his claim about Coulombs law:

http://www.singtech.com/pages/definitions.html#anchor587207

It seems, however, that it *is* in textbooks, it’s just that high school physics textbooks oversimply stuff a lot. E.g. my daughters textbook keeps going on about the “force of gravity”, and I have to explain that gravity isn’t actually a force – it’s what you feel when some other force, whether rocket engine or surface of the earth, accelerates you. The planet surface we live on is an accelerated frame of reference.

squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
October 26, 2014 5:15 AM

@CustomDesigned

That “confirmation” of his claim is actually his own website (I did some googling), so perhaps not the corroboration you were looking for wink

skyboltman99
Member
skyboltman99
October 24, 2014 5:08 AM
Black holes are intellectual fictions. They certainly are not ‘scientific’ even if people (and the number of people doesn’t matter since real science is not consensus based …. it’s fact based!) believe that it is. We might as well say that there are magical gnomes living on the moon and that the closer we get to one the more invisible do they become. How nice to say that quarks can never be torn apart from their union into a particle such as a proton. It is always convenient to give reasons why something that you believe exists cannot be observed and then call the whole thing ‘science’. Science comes from the Latin ‘Scientia’ which means ‘to know’. There… Read more »
pkmondol
Member
pkmondol
October 24, 2014 9:34 AM

Wow… so even the astrophysics community has to deal with “truthers”? SMH…

Mr. Science Truther, please do tell us then what exactly are the super massive objects at the center of galaxies, along with why light mysteriously bends around objects that emit no light?

Fraser Cain
Admin
October 24, 2014 1:32 PM

I can’t believe you’re suggesting executing scientists skyboltman99. Tone down your rhetoric or find another place to share your views.

khms
Member
khms
October 24, 2014 3:37 PM

It is always convenient to give reasons why something that you believe exists cannot be observed and then call the whole thing ‘science’.

And it’s even more convenient attacking vast areas of science as non-science without using a single scientific argument.

Of course, don’t be astonished if you get laughed out ot the room.

BubbaGump
Member
BubbaGump
October 24, 2014 6:00 PM

Always a pleasure to read posts by self-proclaimed scientific experts. These semi-pseudo-quasi-faux scientists/people attack everything and everyone associated with the perceived scientific “establishment”. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Bohr, Heisenberg, Hawking, Feynman, Wheeler, Thorne, Witten, Bose, Penrose, Dirac, Et al, are all fair game. It must be very difficult to carry all that additional weight with a head size almost too big to fit through a door. Please continue to dazzle the community with these conspiracy like posts.

ranaweera
Member
ranaweera
October 24, 2014 11:19 PM
Westerners have this way of painting things black that don’t really understand. They say that the scientific method has no place for religions, yet they still seek a ‘knowledge’ that is absolute, they still, quite rigorously try to find a truth that is absolute, one that exists all by its own – God. Western world is quite good at solving problems, but they never arrive at the answers. They find it not a fundamental error to use invalid concepts for validating others. Take the definition of Zero for instance. In western Maths it is defined as ‘nothing’ (forgive my English), but they are quite contend of using a symbol to represent ‘nothingness’. How is it possible? How can… Read more »
squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
October 26, 2014 5:18 AM

Well, pure black is an absence of light (there is no emission of any photons) rather than a ‘color’ per se, so it’s an accurate description of a singularity.

InverseFalcon
Member
InverseFalcon
October 27, 2014 2:15 PM
I really don’t see any problem here. Why exactly should the symbol be imbued with the qualities of the thing it is representing? You might as well complain about the existence of the word “nothing”, that’s essentially the same argument. Words and symbols are conceptual pointers, not the things themselves they are pointing at. And wrapping your head around the absence of a numerical value, or just the idea of absence in general isn’t quite as hard as you make it. As for black holes, I suppose it would be more correct to label them as dark holes, or something else, but keep in mind the word “black” has more than one meaning here. Sure, it can mean… Read more »
knealy
Member
knealy
October 30, 2014 3:39 PM

One thing I have never understood in the depiction of black holes: they are always shown like an eclipse. If the accretion ring glows brightly and is really a sphere rather than a ring, why wouldn’t we see a bright sphere pretty much like a star, rather than a ring surrounding a black disk? Wouldn’t the entire event horizon surrounding the black hole as a sphere glow brightly, and so we wouldn’t see black at all?

wpDiscuz