On one corner is the movie praised for its science; on the other, the film Neil De Grasse Tyson has called the most scientifically inaccurate ever. Ready? Fight!
This is the Science of Fiction.
I think it’s safe to assume that most of you have at least heard about the film Interstellar. Directed by Christopher Nolan and starred by Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain, the 2014 movie was a hit. Many consider it the best sci-fi movie ever made (thus far). And part of this success is due to the black hole in the movie.
Nolan consulted with no other than Kip Thorne, the person who would win a Nobel Prize in Physics two years later for his contributions to the film industry. (Haha, just kidding! His Nobel was for his role in the first detection of gravitational waves)
Interstellar starts on a dying Earth, but there was hope that humanity could find another planet to call home. One of the candidates orbited a black hole, the Gargantua. And all of the cool stuff in the movie happens because of how time passes near the black hole.
Lesser known today is Disney’s title The Black Hole. Released in 1979, the movie directed by Gary Nelson was Disney’s biggest gamble until that time. A bet that did not pay off. The end result was, let’s say, underwhelming.
On their way home after a deep space exploration mission, the crew of the spacecraft Palomino met by chance the long-lost USS Cygnus near a black hole. The spaceship’s mysterious null-gravity field allowed it to remain close to the black hole without falling apart because of the strong gravitational pull. So the Palomino’s crew decided to investigate. Troubles ensue from there.
Let's compare them!
At this point, you are probably thinking this is an unfair play. After all, which category could The Black Hole possibly win?
The Black Hole won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. Interstellar won for Best Visual Effects, so we can call it a tie in this department. Interstellar has TARS and CASE, but The Black Hole has V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B, both winning points for their sassy robots.
But today, I will compare them in their historical relevance to the popularization of science. Here, the Disney film becomes a strong contestant.
Try to remember, when was the first time you heard about black holes?
When Interstellar came out, the level of detail about the visuals and physics surrounding the Gargantua was awe-inspiring. Before the movie, the usual depiction of a black hole in the media was either a dark sphere surrounded by some sort of ring or a black disk with swirling matter reminiscent of a drainer. Nolan’s film changed this.
When the production team contacted Thorne (five years before the actual picture of a black hole was released), he knew exactly what a black hole should look like. In 1978, The physicist Jean-Pierre Luminet had drawn by hand how light would bend around a black hole, allowing us to see it. This was the first scientifically accurate illustration of a black hole! So Thorne based Gargantua on Luminet’s drawings.
Thorne, of course, simplified the design to make it appealing to the general audience. He wrote to Luminet, explaining why he omitted important details from the image.
“In case you may be wondering about the accretion disk depicted in the movie trailers for Interstellar: The Doppler shift was left out of the images, because (as you showed long ago) it makes the disk highly asymmetric, and much harder for a mass audience to grasp.” (Thorne to Luminet)*
Interstellar’s success shifted the public perception of how a black hole looks. The dark sphere and cosmic drainer illustrations are still associated with black holes. But since Interstellar’s release, there’s an underlying understanding that those are creative works of art, not accurate.
So Interstellar introduced the mass audience to a proper representation of black holes. The Black Hole, on the other hand, introduced the mass audience to black holes!
Black holes are so strange that the first reaction of the scientists to this idea was denial. For fifty years after the birth of general relativity, it was a super niche topic considered by very few people within the scientific community. Things changed during the sixties, with the theory gaining support from observational evidence. The once-denied hypothesis became a possibility. There might exist black holes out there in the universe.
At the beginning of the 1970s, astrophysicists and relativists started to spread the word about black holes. And Disney saw potential in this “new” scientific “discovery.”
The movie began production in 1972, and it was Disney’s most extravagant venture to that date. It was an attempt to draw a more mature audience. Rumor has it that Disney wanted to hop at the success of space sagas like Star Trek. The film The Black Hole was plagued with production problems from the beginning, and its release date was pushed forward several times. It premiered in 1979, two years after the first film in a franchise that would become the ultimate space saga.
The Black Hole was no match to Star Wars. It fell into oblivion.
Although not the first entertainment media to feature a black hole, Disney’s movie was a super production from a major studio that invested heavily in marketing. For most people of that generation – including many scientists – it was the first time they remember ever hearing about black holes.
The movie might have been quickly forgotten, but the black hole stayed. From then on, the whole world got the news that there could be a monstrous object in the sky that would trap anything inside it. And the image created in this Disney movie was associated with black holes for decades... until Interestellar.
“Why did Disney not use Luminet’s drawing?” you may ask. As mentioned, Luminet had a reasonably accurate drawing of how a black hole could be visualized in 1978. But not only was The Black Hole already in the late stages of production but Luminet was also denied publication in a scientific journal. At the time, his drawings were deemed artistic and not scientific. He published the pictures in popular science magazines in France, going unnoticed for quite a while.
As you see, both The Black Hole and Interstellar impacted the popular perception of black holes. Remember it when you (re-)watch them.
So, when was the first time you heard about black holes? Let me know in the comments.
(Btw, if you are interested in the history surrounding black holes, I’m writing a book about it! Keep an eye out for it in the future.)
See you next post,
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.
You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.
** Quote shared by Luminet during a talk he gave and I attended.