What Interstellar Means

Does science, technically, “mean” anything?

First off, sue me, I liked Interstellar.

I probably shouldn’t be so defensive. It did, after all, rate a robust 73 percent on the Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes. It has made $662 million worldwide (as of this writing). And yet, while the film was initially hyped as Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece and a likely best picture nominee, a Bing search of “Interstellar disappointment” yields 142,000 results, including some comprehensive critiques like this.[1]

I went in with low expectations. Having three boys, I’ve seen every Nolan movie, of which I liked two.[2] Having read the early, equivocal reviews, I planned to miss this one, breaking my Nolan streak, but one of my boys really wanted to see it. And it turned out I had a great time. I was on board with its most-basic endeavor: to look out our window and wonder at What's Out There: "We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” I loved going on Interstellar's journey, occasional moments of egregious melodrama and all.

That said, the film is packed with what strikes lay people like me as endless scientific mumbo-jumbo (we need information from a black hole to answer a—seemingly real— two-entire-blackboard-long equation that will enable exploiting a gravitational anomaly to . . . how did this movie make $662 million again?). And, beyond the mumbo jumbo, we find allegedly scientific conjectures that seem like crazily romantic deus ex machina moments, but which nonetheless have famous scientists like Kip Thorne at Caltech swearing to their hypothetical scientific-ness.

It’s the film's wildly romantic climax that’s kicked off the most interesting conversations about science and meaning. Doing my best to keep this as spoiler-free as I can, I’ll just say that Matthew McConaughey, in great jeopardy in another galaxy, seemingly miraculously manages communication with someone he loves on earth. Interstellar milks all the nuttiness it can find in this idea. It takes a big swing.

But that big swing had its costs. Did I mention the article that listed the top ten reasons critics are calling Interstellar a disappointment? Reason number one: the ending. My older boys, for instance, were on board with the movie right up until this bonkers climax.

Kip Thorne, photo by Keenan Pepper, Creative Commons licenseAnd yet it didn’t buck me off of the movie’s bronco, to the point that I both read Thorne’s The Science of Interstellar (and should I ever need to know how to slingshot around a black hole to get where I need to go, I’m all set) and got in touch with a physicist friend to help me understand what the hell was going on here.

There are two theories about the ending, one of which suggests a meaning-rich universe far beyond what ignoramuses like me [3] could have guessed was possible. The first theory is that the ending dives deeply into one model of physics, quantum mechanics, by focusing on this thing called quantum entanglement. David Brooks wrote on this in the New York Times. Quantum entanglement, broadly speaking, suggests that particles which have interacted will still interact even when separated—in the case of Interstellar—by basically infinity. When applied to people, this would yield a truly nutty thought: even vastly separated from his loved one, McConaughey's character has meaningful, earth-altering interaction with her because they are each “particles” who’ve interacted through their love for each other. The movie pumps up this idea by philosophizing about whether love itself qualifies as a potentially scientific force that we need to account for.

Brooks quotes the poet Christian Wiman: “If quantum entanglement is true, if related particles react in similar or opposite ways even when separated by tremendous distances, then it is obvious that the whole world is alive and communicating in ways we do not fully understand. And we are part of that life, part of that communication.”

This theory has all sorts of fascinating implications about many things, among them the world of religion, a particular interest of mine. To whatever degree Isaac Newton shaped modern thought, he also shaped modern religion. Thanks to Newton, the deists used the metaphor of God as a clockmaker who created the universe like a machine and then left it alone to run. And evangelicals and mainliners also seem to be mostly Newtonian. Influential leaders like Rick Warren talk about “biblical principles” that, if kept, will “work” because that’s the way God set up the universe. The spiritual world is mechanistic in this sense: garbage in, garbage out and so on.

But what if quantum mechanics ends up shaping our thought-life to the degree that Newton did three hundred years ago? Suddenly we might have a God who is far more interactive than we thought. In this world, might we regard God as a particle that has interacted with every being ever? Might this inform how we look at the Bible? So the prodigal son only begins to turn back to his father before wham! his father is smacking into him. Perhaps they’re related particles! Maybe that explains the power of praying for another person. Maybe when we pray for someone across the miles bam! we're in a quantum-entanglement relationship which then triangulates with God. Maybe the most interesting and basic story in the universe is one of love and interconnectedness and how that narrative plays itself out. I’m getting excited about this!

But there is another theory.

The second theory is that what’s happening in the film's climactic scene isn’t explained by quantum mechanics, but by Einstein’s gravity (or general relativity). Thorne goes this direction. This understanding involves more things that sound like mumbo-jumbo to the uninitiated: things like superbeings creating a tessaract (evidently a tessaract is a four-dimensional cube—something that, much as Thorne walked me through it, I couldn't wrap my three-dimensional brain around) and then moving it through the "bulk" (some sort of multi-dimensional space that enables shortcuts) to another dimension quite near to McConaughey’s loved one, and then letting him figure out how to use gravity to communicate with her. No crazy quantum entanglement, no cosmic unity through love, but a math problem figured out by higher beings who understand Einstein.

While liking Interstellar and the sorts of deep questions it suggests, my physicist friend, Northwestern professor Brian Odom, initially throws cold water on making meaning out of it:

"The quantum interconnectedness of everything encounters a problem in that quantum entanglement is incredibly delicate. We can set it up in the laboratory, but the moment one of those entangled particles interacts with anything else, like the atmosphere, the entanglement is forever broken. So, it takes a tremendous amount of care to preserve entanglement. Furthermore, the rules of quantum mechanics are such that even if entanglement is preserved, there can be no 'action at a distance.' So we have no mechanism here for love to mysteriously act at great distances. (One caveat I should mention that might change all this is the many-worlds picture of quantum mechanics, which calls into question our traditional understanding of reality.)"

So, okay, as fun as it is with such attractive people as Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway taking us on this journey, maybe we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. But, that said, Odom is on board with an update of the way we think about religion.

"Yes, indeed, Newton seems to have influenced theology, and Rick Warren is still living in that world. And, yes, quantum mechanics shows us that we didn't know as much as we thought, and the actual universe allows for a mysterious interconnectedness to exist—albeit delicately. So I think you're on solid ground when you assert the idea that theology's underpinning assumptions have been scheduled for an update for some time now."

Does science “mean” anything? On its own premises, no. But that’s the question Interstellar, for better or worse, won’t let drop. Anne Hathaway’s dour and unsentimental scientist nonetheless says, “So listen to me when I say love isn't something that we invented. It's observable. Powerful. It has to mean something.” Marrying that comment with a journey into the black vastness of space is what made Interstellar controversial, is what led my older boys to opt out and is what sparked a good chunk of the 142,000 Bing entries on how disappointing it was. That marriage might be crazy wishful thinking. But you can’t say it’s not interesting.


[1] The top ten reasons critics are calling Interstellar a disappointment: 10. Too much exposition! 9. Too long! 8. Too bombastic score! 7. Too corny and contrived! 6. Actors are too good for the material! 5. Bad dialogue! 4. Poorly written women! 3. Bad sound mix! (Does that one seem nitpicky to you?) 2. Poor editing! 1. Disappointing ending! (We’ll come back to this one.)

[2] Thank you for wanting to know! Batman Begins. Insomnia.

[3] I got out of my physics requirement in high school by finding a little-known course called “Science.” For our final, I kid you not, we made fudge over Bunsen burners.

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