How ‘Interstellar’ Led to a New Discovery About Black Holes

It seems like Christopher Nolan’s new film “Interstellar” can’t get to its November 7th release date quick enough. The movie has been garnering quite a lot of buzz lately — and for good reason, too. Besides Christopher Nolan’s storytelling and the movie’s impressive special effects camera work, the film has actually led to a new scientific discovery involving black holes. That’s right, the movie isn’t just about space exploration, it’s contributing to space exploration, too.

To help with the movie’s special effects, Nolan enlisted Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist who retired from NASA’s jet propulsion labratory Caltech in 2009. Thorne and Nolan embarked on putting together “the warped side of the universe” which Wired put in layman’s terms as “curved spacetime, holes in the fabric of reality, how gravity bends light.” This involved Thorne sending Nolan’s animators pages of equations to put into their rendering software. What happened next is something even Thorne hadn’t expected. After hours of rendering the equations the computers came back with an image of a black hole. Sure, astrophysicists like Thorne theoretically knew what a black hole might look like, but they could only guess, and this was a step beyond that.


“We found that warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” special effects head Paul Franklin said. “So rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.”

This wasn’t some glamorized science fiction image, this was as close to visualizing a black hole that science had ever come. The real deal. “Science fiction always wants to dress things up, like it’s never happy with the ordinary universe,” said Franklin. “What we were getting out of the software was compelling straight off.”

The partnership for both Nolan and Thorne has paid of tremendously. Nolan got the genuine outer space images that he wanted to make his film really pop, and Thorne says that he has enough data to compile two research articles on the discovery. So when you’re watching Matthew McConaughey explore the unknowns of the universe, keep in mind that technically, the movie really did explore the unknown.

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