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Through the wormhole

If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. One of the premises for the new film Interstellar is a near-future Earth ravaged by drought and famine (and if Futures had a galactic credit for every time such a dystopia crosses the desk, well…). Setting aside the nagging worry that a future of happy, well-fed people living in a well-balanced climate never seems to cut the mustard, what makes this film special is the science.

Contrary to popular belief, moviemakers usually do make an attempt to have  their most fantastical ideas rooted in a degree of reality (that even extends to animation, witness the advice received for Finding Nemo). True, they will sometimes register the boundaries of real science and then blissfully go ahead and break the rules anyway — but at least the complaints department gets to be forewarned.

But Hollywood has a lot more to offer than great movie mistakes and a sense that time travel would never work like that (I mean, a DeLorean!!). As John Hurwitz noted in his Futures story The method last month, there is the potential for serious scientific payback. And in a moment of life imitating art, there is more than a nugget of truth in that tale. As Kip Thorne reveals in an exclusive Q&A in this week’s Nature and in the extended podcast interview with Zeeya Meralli below (from the Nature Podcast team ), Interstellar gave as much as it took.

Thorne, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, was an adviser and executive producer on Interstellar, giving director Christopher Nolan not only the original idea for the film but also insight into black holes and wormholes. But Thorne got an unexpected bonus. In helping with the visualization of black holes, he found that the special effects offered unparalleled modelling power. That revealed fresh insights into gravitational lensing — insights that are publishable as scientific papers.

It’s not every movie that can lay claim to a place in the scientific literature — I’m still waiting for the spin-off paper from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. (Rumours that Godzilla has submitted a paper on radical urban planning among kaiju could not be confirmed at the time of publishing.) But this positive outcome from Interstellar suggests that there may be more that Hollywood bucks could offer cash-strapped scientists. Perhaps there’s a better way to fund the next particle accelerator after all — time to dust off those script proposals …

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