Monday, November 17, 2014

what's wrong with Interstellar?

Mind you, I haven't seen the movie. This is more of an explanation of why I'm disinclined to see it - a decision that has to be made, by necessity, in the absence of the knowledge that comes from actually seeing it. But this is based on articles by people who have seen it. Anybody here who has seen it is welcome to correct any erroneous assumptions here, and to convince me it's better than that. Remember, I hadn't been planning to see Star Wars until someone talked me into it by persuading me it wasn't as bad as all the hype from the studio had convinced me it would be. (It wasn't, until years later when I realized that, actually, it was.)

I have two problems with the plot of Interstellar as I understand it. The first is the wormhole.

Wormholes are, or at least were when I was studying cosmology, a purely theoretical concept. It's possible that the matter absorbed by a black hole could be ejected in some other location, providing a way to transport between far-flung galactic-scale distances. The only catch is that it wouldn't be that much faster than light, if at all, as it would take hundreds of years in exterior time to be absorbed by the black hole and who knows how much longer to come out. Oh yes, and you'd be pulverized into individual subatomic particles in the process.

Ever since wormholes were theorized, they've been used in SF as a replacement for the purely imaginary hyperspace of earlier works, one with a possible actual scientific basis to it. Writers use it as if it were like the London Underground: you go in this station here and come out a few minutes later at that one there, with no idea of where you were in between. It's a time-saver shuttle with no interference with anybody who happens to be going in the other direction.

And that's fine for routine run-of-the-mill SF. The only thing that ever bothered me about that was the pretense that, as an actual method of transport, this was any more believable than hyperspace. The problem with it here is that Interstellar purports to some sort of real scientific plausibility. It has Kip Thorne as a consultant! It talks about Stephen Hawking! But it's no more seriously scientific than Babylon-5.

There's another problem, even if you grant the wormhole. The reason the astronauts are traveling through the wormhole is that Earth is becoming uninhabitable - OK, that unfortunately is very believable - so we need other Earth-like planets. Previously such planets' existence was pure guesswork based on lack of evidence, but recently we've acquired some evidence, and they may well be abundant. But stars are still interstellar distances apart - that's why it's called that - and without advanced equipment of the kind we don't have, you can't just mosey around checking them out for planets, like they do in, say, Dark Star, the way you'd run around to various grocery stores looking for elusive foods like bean sprouts or peanut sauce mix (two items I have had to look for this way). You'd have to use the same painstaking telescopic techniques we're using now, and once you found something that way, you'd have to mount a massive expedition to travel several light-years through regular space to check it out to see if it's really suitable. Wormholes are not like the Underground in the sense that you can pick your station from a list already knowing what you'll find when you get there.

And if you did do all this, you could still do it just as easily from here as from the other end of a wormhole. There's no need to go that far to look for other Earth-like planets, and they won't be much closer together anywhere else than they are here. (Even galactic clusters are not that compressed.) Unless you already knew there was a specific one right there by the other end of the wormhole, for a sufficiently interstellar-scale value of "right there," in which case how would you already know that? And on a plot-planning level, it's not necessary to include a wormhole to postulate a planet you can get to that easily, for a sufficiently cheap SFnal value of "easily."

I wouldn't bring any of this up except that reports by those who've seen the movie include the feeling of being scientifically ripped-off by the lack of actual plausibility, and this is what concerns me.

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