Interstellar gets Some Science Wrong ... Who Cares? / by James Wade

Source: Nasa

Source: Nasa

There has been a lot of criticism across the web (e.g., Robert Trotta over at The Guardian) about the scientific accuracy of Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's newest sci-fi thriller. There was a lot of hype surrounding this movie, in part due to physicist Kip Thorne's involvement and the simulations used to create the spectacular black hole visual. Thorne and Nolan have even published a book about the science behind Interstellar. I think that's the right approach. If you want to read accurate science, go read about it in a book or a journal. The movies are entertainment, not activism or outreach. Sure, Thorne admits his annoyance at the impossibility of ice clouds, but it is such a minor moment in the film and provides a surprising, albeit inaccurate visual.

Interstellar is not unique in receiving much criticism about scientific inaccuracies. Earlier this year, Lucy was widely mocked for spewing the common misconception that we only use 10% of our brains. What made this claim worse was that Morgan Freeman's voice repeating the fallacy in every preview of the widely marketed film. Sure, the statement is a tired one that has long since been debunked nearly as many times as it has been said. This can be frustrating to science communicators, but I think we overreact to the inaccuracy. I do not mean to place Lucy and Interstellar on the same level of accuracy in their depiction of scientific plausibilities. Rather, they represent the gambit of recent mainstream sci-fi productions.

This brings me to a larger point about science fiction more generally. The fantastical and implausible scenarios that run through science fiction literature are designed to make us ponder impossibilities. It is supposed to make us think, and these impossibilities inspire child-like imaginations. "What if we could use all of our brain power?" the middle schooler says to himself while watching Lucy tear apart bad guys on an elevator. "Could I really travel to the future by flying close to a black hole in a spaceship?" says the young girl while watching Matthew McConaughey make a face simultaneously reminiscent of loneliness and constipation on a spaceship soaring into another galaxy.

The role of sci-fi, of course, extends beyond the science. By framing a situation in an unfamiliar or unrealistic world, we are more willing to engage with controversial topics or push social boundaries as an audience. From Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura's famous kiss to portraying the tragic consequences of climate change in Interstellar, sci-fi challenges the consumer to question, predict, and wonder.

Egregious scientific errors can be distracting to scientists and engineers, but we are not really the intended audience. There are occasional examples of the miraculous achievement: a scientifically accurate work. Andy Weir's The Martian springs to mind as a recent example. Literature and film, however, deserve some suspensions of our disbelief.  We do not watch Star Wars to learn scientific facts, we watch to get lost in the fantasy world in a galaxy far, far away.

At this point, I realize I'm whining about whiners, though I do find that criticizing the critics is necessary. We want to encourage scientific literacy, and that starts by making science approachable. Across social media, you can commonly find smug comments discrediting any mainstream depiction of science. It feels like no one can be excited about any of it without being dismissed as naive and shallow. We should be more welcoming as a community. Sure, identify the inaccuracies, but don't let them ruin the experience.