Can you explain the science in Interstellar?

"Interstellar" in the fact check : To the limits of physics

Humanity is threatened with death, so a chosen few are looking for a new home planet in a distant galaxy. With this plot, Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" is currently thrilling the audience. For the adventurous journey, the creators had to muster a lot of imagination, after all, in 2014 mankind won't even make it to the moon, let alone other star systems. How much science and how much fiction is in "Interstellar"? Information about this is provided by Bernard Schutz. Until his retirement in August he was director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam and did his doctorate with Kip Thorn, researcher at the California Institute of Technology and scientific advisor for film.

The scenarios in detail:

Interstellar travel through a wormhole

This term refers to abbreviations in space-time, a four-dimensional structure. For us humans who only know three dimensions, this is difficult to imagine. The following analogy, which is also used in the film, can help: If you draw two points on a piece of paper, the shortest distance is a straight line. If you fold the sheet of paper, the points come much closer and the path between them becomes shorter.

Thorne has worked a lot on theoretical assumptions for wormholes, but no one has found them yet. They are considered highly speculative. “To generate it, you need negative energy,” explains Schutz. In classical physics this does not exist, in quantum physics it looks different. “If you take a closer look at a quantum field, there are tiny fluctuations that have negative and positive energy.” But there is still a wall between the physics of the nanoworld and the familiar macroworld. In order to build a wormhole, one would have to somehow collect the negative energy and bring it together, says Schutz. “Nobody knows how that could work. And above all, whether we could control such a wormhole. ”However, he does not consider it to be ruled out that this might one day be possible in the future.

Expedition into the black hole

The movie hero Cooper flies his spaceship into a black hole. For all that is known so far, this means certain death. Physicists argue about whether an astronaut is burned or torn to shreds. But Cooper is amazingly fit because Nolan and Thorne pull hard on the railing of the theory. Now the plot is not to be spread too much here. Just so much: further dimensions and the negative energy that is necessary for the wormhole could also be used to counter the enormous forces in the black hole, says Schutz. Here, too, the scenario is speculative, but it cannot be ruled out that it could work that way.

Information is sent in the past

In classical physics, it is impossible to send messages or even travel back in time. The thought game that otherwise it would be possible to murder one's own mother in her youth is well known - which raises the question of who then gave birth to the time traveler. But here, too, there is a loophole in the theories beyond standard physics. "If you can create wormholes, you could also travel back in time," says Schutz, summarizing the thoughts of Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking, who worked on it. The idea behind this is that wormholes can connect different points in space-time with each other and thus enable journeys into the past - where the above-mentioned paradoxes would arise. "That's why Hawking wanted to exclude this possibility, but he couldn't."

Schutz emphasizes that "Interstellar" touches on many topics that he and his colleagues work on. Your goal is to find a comprehensive theory in which the phenomena of the quantum world and the macroscopically visible universe are brought together. "If we had this theory, we could say clearly what is possible and what is not," says Schutz. "But as long as that doesn't succeed, there is still a lot of leeway - and the makers of the film take advantage of it."

On one of the distant planets, time passes extremely slowly

Compared to the scenarios based on previously unproven theories, the time lag is almost a familiar phenomenon. Cooper lands on a planet very close to a black hole. One hour there corresponds to seven years beyond the planet. In fact, the closer you get to a large crowd, the slower time goes by, experiments show.

Astronauts spend long flight times in a deep freeze

The idea behind this is to shut down your metabolism. This means that less air and less food are used. Collective sleep probably also helps against boredom and group anxiety. In fact, this is being researched with a view to a Mars mission. But the astronauts shouldn't just get into a cold room, because then there is a risk of serious organ damage, warns Jürgen Bereiter-Hahn from the University of Frankfurt (center), who is involved in a "hibernation project" by the space agency Esa.

First of all, the metabolism must be shut down in a targeted manner, and it must also be ensured that the organs are protected. According to Bereiter-Hahn, this is not yet possible, but there are promising approaches to put the body into such a sleep mode with certain hormones. "I think it is realistic that we will be able to use these processes in 20 or 30 years," says the biologist.

A planet full of ice

The crew visits a planet, the surface of which is completely icy. Quite possible, for example planets like Jupiter and Saturn also have ice moons. They may even harbor life in subterranean fluid reservoirs. The frost planet in the film also has clouds of solid ice. How these hold up against gravity, however, is a mystery.

The earth is sinking in the dust

Likewise illogical are the scenes on earth, where dust storms rage constantly and cover everything and everyone with fine sediment. In order to get so much material into the air, besides wind, you need huge bare, sandy and dry areas. However, endless corn fields are shown. Maybe the dust is coming from a wormhole.

For those who want to know exactly, Kip Thorne has written a book: "The Science of Interstellar", which can be bought on the Internet for around 20 dollars.

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