Senior HTF Member
- May 9, 2003
In anticipation of this week’s Blu-ray release of Interstellar, Home Theater Forum was invited to a press event at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena on March 18th. This event focused on the true science found in the science fiction of the movie, including a guided tour of the JPL facility, a brief interview with writer/producer Jonathan Nolan and astrophysicist/producer Kip Thorne, and an afternoon Q&A session with Nolan and Thorne, moderated by physicist Sean Carroll.
The event began with the tour, which included a close look at a replica of the Curiosity Rover currently at work on Mars. Curiosity is essentially a combination laboratory/dual supercomputer on wheels, continually finding and examining materials on the Martian surface and relaying the information back to NASA on Earth.
Across from the Curiosity replica stands a device that I don’t believe a photo would capture adequately – it’s an assembly of vertical fiber optic pillars, showing a dazzling array of continually moving light streaks – either cascading upward or downward. These light streaks represent the communication actually happening between NASA on Earth and various probes elsewhere in the solar system. Lights moving upward indicate instructions from NASA. Lights moving downward indicate information and responses coming from, shall we say, abroad. Sometimes there are minimal bunches of light streaks. Other times, there’s a regular fireworks display going on. It all depends on how much information is being transmitted in either direction.
The tour group was then led into the Mission Control room, which is the actual place at JPL where these operations are monitored. (It should be noted that there are multiple facilities that coordinate to monitor the various probes – all of them track the continuing telemetry as it comes in.) A short video was also presented to the tour group, showing the landing of Curiosity on Mars – an event that actually occurred sometime before the telemetry got back to JPL. (And issues of time are quite important when it comes to this material, and Interstellar…)
As an added bonus, our Mission Control Guide revealed the very center of the universe to us, in the middle of the floor.
Following this area, the group was taken to a separate building where landing systems are being developed to eventually allow for a controlled parachute/braking descent onto Mars. The reason for this is simply that a parachute will function quite differently on Mars than it will on Earth, where there is an oxygen atmosphere and a different quotient of gravity.
With that, the tour was concluded. At this point, I was given an opportunity to interview Jonathan Nolan and Kip Thorne for a few minutes. I was able to ask each man a single question, so I tried to choose carefully here. As a warning to anyone watching this video, there are MAJOR SPOILERS HERE. If you have not seen Interstellar, I strongly recommend doing so before reading the rest of this paragraph or watching the video. I asked Thorne a question regarding time dilation, specifically regarding how our characters continue to receive active telemetry from Miller’s Planet, considering what they find when they get there. Thorne gave me the simplest answer he could – that the information comes through very slowly, thus allowing people on the other side of the wormhole to actually only be receiving the very first moments of information before Cooper’s team arrives. For Nolan, I went straight to the heart of the ending of the movie. On many internet sites, there’s been a bit of pessimistic chatter about what really happens to the characters in the final act of the movie. I pointed out that the pessimistic approach some bloggers have taken would seem to contradict the rather optimistic theme of the movie as a whole. I simply asked Nolan if he agreed. Nolan told me that he normally would let the movie speak for itself, but in this instance he wanted to emphasize the optimism. He freely admitted that he and his brother have made several films with downbeat or nihilistic conclusions – but Interstellar was not intended to be that kind of film. Nolan said that this interpretation would probably be the way the movie’s Dr. Mann saw things, and I wouldn’t rely on Dr. Mann’s judgment…
The final portion of the event was the discussion and Q&A session with Thorne and Nolan, moderated by Sean Carroll. In this discussion, Thorne provided several visual aids, including a graphic representation of what a wormhole would theoretically look like both in cross-section and as seen from one side or the other. This was all fairly dizzying material, and you can review it in the sections presented here:
Looking at the event in total, this was a fascinating way to examine a movie that literally crosses time and space in spectacular fashion. On behalf of Home Theater Forum, I thank Paramount, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and everyone involved for inviting us to the event. Interstellar is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, and as a fan of this movie since viewing it on film in a theater in January, I strongly recommend you give it a look.
Interested readers can check out a related website that delves into the science of Interstellar: http://www.interstellarmovie.com/bitesizescience/