The Science of Interstellar / by Karie Luidens

My review of...

The Science of Interstellar
Kip Thorne
W.W. Norton & Company, 2014
click to buy on Amazon

To clarify, this is a book review, not a movie review. I was quite vocal about my concerns with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in the lobby of the Cinemark where I saw it last December, but I won’t rehash them again here.

(Okay, but why would they need Cooper to pilot the Endurance at the last minute? We’ve seen him fly precisely one time, and he crashed, and since then he’s been a farmer who suffers from PTSD-style nightmares about said plane crash. Are you sure he’s the best choice? Are there truly no competent experienced pilots to be found? No? So you were just going to send up a crew you didn’t have faith in? Even if Cooper’s piloting skills are actually as sharp as his cheekbones, he did not know that NASA still exists until thirty minutes ago. He is so out of the loop that his fellow astronauts have to spend their first few hours in space explaining the mission’s basic parameters to him. I’ve heard enough Chris Hadfield talks to know this would never fly, surely not even at a post-apocalyptic NASA. And they’re trusting Cooper to pilot the ship into a wormhole when he doesn’t even know what a wormhole is? Seriously, they’re not gonna tell him what a wormhole is until after he’s in space? Seriously, they’re gonna reuse Dennis Quaid’s wormhole demonstration from Event Horizon?? The movie’s barely started, and I can’t even—no—)

Sorry, I said I wouldn’t do this.

Long story short, I left wishing the movie’s 169 minutes were all just Double Negative’s visual effects. Forget all these dumb characters and their personal problems. More wormhole! More black hole! Give me long sweeping glamour shots of a faraway galaxy being gravitationally lensed by spinning singularities!

And keep the deafening organ soundtrack.

Well, as long as you provide your own music for dramatic effect, Kip Thorne’s book satisfies this yen. Its substance and logic are gratifying to the frustrated soul, and it’s every bit as breathtaking as the movie could’ve been without the plot issues.

Thorne is a theoretical physicist known for his work with astrophysics and gravitational physics. He works at Caltech and didn’t have any significant Hollywood affiliations until he was drafted by producer and long-time friend Lynda Obst to work as the scientific consultant for the project that would become Interstellar. His book’s selling point is of course its tie-in with the film, and it opens with an interesting account of how the concept and the team came together. But its real value lies in Thorne’s intelligible explanations of nearly incomprehensible cosmological concepts.

The Science of Interstellar discusses it all, from black holes’ spinning and vibrating to the dynamics of gravitational slingshots and tidal waves to the reasoning behind the theoretical fifth dimension. Prepare for some whimsy as well, my favorite phrase being a subtitle on page 200: “DANGER: The Sandwich Is Unstable.” I was particularly fascinated by demonstrations of how light is intricately redirected by the warped space around singularities, resulting in layers of iterative images whose patterns defy intuition—and yet make perfect sense when explained.

Rare is the individual who can thrive in the field of astrophysics. Rarer still is the astrophysicist who can write about the field in prose so crystal clear that the rest of us not only understand it, but enjoy it. Kip Thorne is one such individual. If you like reading Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, or Brian Greene—if you like watching Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox—add Thorne to your reading list.

And if you’re still in the mood to watch Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway bicker, sweat, and panic in spacesuits, by all means rent the movie. But first pop some Redenbacher, put on some Hans Zimmer, and enjoy Thorne’s book for an evening. It’ll help you appreciate those gorgeous mathematically accurate special effects (and wish all the more that they were the film’s real focus).