Interstellar, and the Quest to See a Black Hole

Interstellar, and the Quest to See a Black Hole
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Imagine an object in space so dense and massive, with a gravitational pull so huge, that not even light can escape. Spacetime, itself warps around, twisting and bending. Once there was a star, but it collapsed long ago, morphing into this mind-bending monstrosity. Is it a trick? Does it hail from a foreign dimension? How can this be real?

The film Interstellar, which is now nominated for five Academy Awards, features the most accurate representation of a black hole mankind has ever seen. The depiction has been hailed not only as a groundbreaking achievement in cinema, but also as a step forward for science.

On screen, the black hole -- called Gargantua -- seems to come alive. Off screen, it began with humble origins: on a chalkboard. The man wielding the chalk was theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Armed with complex math and decades of experience studying black holes, Thorne drew up pages and pages of equations. Mindless mumbo jumbo to most, they constituted a set of instructions to the animators at special effects studio Double Negative, who took Thorne's math, and with some tinkering, welded it into reality.

It was an arduous process for man and machine alike. Double Negative's specialists had to re-write their rendering software, and the studio's workhorse computers ran for days just to construct a single frame. (In movies, there are usually twenty-four frames per second.) As Adam Rogers described in Wired, correctly modeling how gravity bends light caused the most headaches.

In the end, it was all worth it. Audiences witnessed an astounding space spectacle, and Thorne and Double Negative simulated a black hole with more accuracy than ever before. Thorne even reckoned they made a few scientific discoveries in the process.

Turns out, he was right.

In a paper published yesterday to the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, Thorne and Double Negative chief scientist Oliver James published the code used to create Interstellar's black hole, Gargantua, and demonstrated how it could be readily adapted for scientific research

Intermixed within the code are equations that trace the distorted paths of light rays as they are bent by gravity. These equations helped remove unwanted flickering and distortion seen from stars and nebulae in the background of the simulated black hole in Interstellar.

Thorne thinks this code may help astronomers and astrophysicists to produce even clearer images of other cosmic sights. According to NewScientist, Double Negative has already been contacted by researchers at NASA studying neutron stars, the densest, fastest-spinning objects in the universe besides black holes.

“This new approach to making images will be of great value to astrophysicists like me. We, too, need smooth images," Thorne said in a press release.

Seeing Gargantua in theaters was a real treat. After all, no human has actually seen a real black hole; we've only detected them by their immense gravity.

"By observing how individual stars orbit a point mass that gives off no light, we can infer that — at the center of our galaxy — there’s a point mass many millions of times the mass of our star. It emits no light and has no emission signatures of any type," astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explained.

But with any luck, we won't remain blinded to the majesty of real life black holes for too much longer. Astronomers from institutes across the world are combining the power of thirteen radio telescopes to produce the first ever image of a black hole, or, more specifically, it's event horizon, the outer boundary. The project, called the Event Horizon Telescope, aims to have an image in three years.

Such an image likely won't rate too highly in terms of visual splendor. For a photograph as radiant as what we saw in Interstellar, we'll have to wait a while longer. The technology to produce an image like that remains in the realm of science fiction.

(Image: Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros.)

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