Garwulf's Corner

Garwulf's Corner
Why Interstellar is An Important Science Movie, and Other Matters

Robert B. Marks | 15 Apr 2015 16:00
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Interstellar Quiz

I am a skeptic. This means that I require proof before I accept a claim, and I go where the evidence takes me. This also means that my world gets bigger and more amazing with every new fact I learn.

I love being a skeptic - I can't imagine wanting to live any other way.

And, I absolutely loved Interstellar.

For those who haven't seen it, Interstellar is a throwback to a type of science fiction we might not have seen since 2010: The Year We Made Contact. It's hard SF with the emphasis on "hard" - a movie based so far in real science that the filmmakers not only enlisted a physicist as their science adviser, but actually listened to him.

(And, for an amazing feeling, do a web search on "Interstellar science accuracy," and watch as physicists argue over rotational mechanics of a black hole while throwing around graduate-level equations and models - how often do you see that happen regarding a movie?)

Forget whether you understood the ending. Forget whether you think Christopher Nolan can direct emotional scenes - just think about the tidal wave. The massive, mountain-sized tidal wave bearing down on a tiny spaceship on a planet in orbit around a black hole. Think about the wonder and awe that scene creates, the sheer spectacle. And then remember that it's based on real, hard science.

This is why, if I had to pick the most important movie of the last year, Interstellar would top the list. It makes science cool and amazing, and we need that, today more than ever.

Back towards the end of my early career, I was the senior writer and editor for the Queen's University Electrical and Computer Engineering newsletter and news site. While I was there, one of the issues I covered was a disturbing trend that had appeared - not only were there fewer women focusing on science and technology (aka STEM, for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in North America, there were fewer science students period. One of the big concerns was how to get people enrolling into science-based higher education.

Today, there is some debate about whether there is a STEM talent shortage or not. It's a bit hard to tell, really - when I did a Google search to confirm it for this installment, I found studies and statistics-based arguments that go both ways. But there is certainly an anti-intellectual bias in modern society, which has opened the door to a running debate over previously settled science such as evolution, and a general skepticism over science as a whole.

Some of this is not hard to understand - a religious revival in the United States has led a number of communities to reject ideas not supported by the Bible. And, the level of politicization, character assassination, and failed doomsday predictions in the public debates over climate change would leave anybody wary of a scientist touting a computer model.

It wasn't always this way, either. Around the turn of the 20th century, the world lived in constant amazement at the new wonders appearing every day. In the late 1940s to 1960s, the atom was considered to be the key to the future, where we would one day not just stand on the moon, but on other planets as well.

It seems like we have lost a lot of that wonder and enthusiasm. It's almost as though technology has become so common that we've come to take it for granted.

But science still matters - it is science and technology that drives us forward, opening up new ideas and possibilities. We live in this amazing universe, and every new fact we learn about how it works makes it even more wondrous. We have split the atom, and even broken the light barrier (that's right - around a decade and a half ago, scientists were able to make a particle travel faster than the speed of light). And we need to keep going.

For that to happen, science needs to be seen as awesome, wonderful, and just plain cool. Movies like Interstellar, and games like Kerbal Space Program, are a major step in the right direction. We just need to keep going.

But don't take my word for it. Find a copy of a book like The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, and give it a read. And then, even if everything the author(s) says proves to be dead wrong, just try to not have your mind blown by the time you reach the last page.

Wouldn't you want to know more?

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Author's Note: My new story in The Eternity Quartet, "Of Wizards and Watchers," is now available for download from Amazon.com - so, if you're a fan of comedic fantasy, please check it out!

Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, Garwulf's Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.

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