Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is no ordinary science advisor. He wasn’t just on the set of Insterstellar because Christopher Nolan needed a helping hand when it came to visualizing black holes. He wasn’t just at the end of the phone for Jonah Nolan as the screenplay took shape. In fact, he’s been around since Interstellar’s inception, when he and producer Lynda Obst started work on a treatment for a film involving what Thorne likes to call “the warped side of the universe.”
“It was to be a film about warped space and time,” Thorne explains via Skype, after a day spent in London with his friend Stephen Hawking. “And it was to be a movie in which the science was thoroughly embedded at the outset. The most important rule was that nothing in the movie would violate well-established physical laws, and all the wild speculation would spring from science, not just the fertile mind of a screenwriter.”
Eight years on from that initial treatment, Christopher Nolan’s film sticks to those core principles, to the extreme that it even has contributed to scientific research into the phenomena it depicts. Thorne worked closely with the VFX team to visualize black holes in space, and they worked up simulations based on equations he provided. “It’s the first time this has happened in any Hollywood film, that I’m aware,” he says.
His collaborators were just as engaged as he was to get things right. “The VFX team didn’t even have to consult me about what explosions would look like in space, or how you don’t hear any sound once you’re up out of the atmosphere,” he says. “All the usual things that go wrong with science fiction, they dealt with without needing to consult me, and they did it all right. I was saved for the more esoteric side.”
Esoteric is right. “I think you’ll have to see (the film) several times to really understand it,” Thorne laughs. But the Nolans took these topics in stride, escalating the film’s production once they both were aboard. “It became an unstoppable train moving at very high speed,” Thorne Says. “Chris is amazing in the way he makes a film.”
The physicist would discuss the movie’s science at length with the Nolan brothers, both before and during production. Ideas flew back and forth, parsed through Thorne’s lifelong experience. “By the end, it’s hard to say where most of them come from,” he says. “There were things Chris wanted to do that I said would violate well-established laws. It’d take him a while to back down, but he would. On other occasions I’d say, ‘I don’t think that would work,’ and he’d push me and push me until I found a way to make it work.”
Thorne hopes the film, along with a book he has published that explores its science even deeper, will encourage the next generation of astrophysicists. “It’s a hook to generate interest and enthusiasm in science, especially amongst young people,” he says. “I want it to provoke curiosity in the audience.”