Yet Another Defense of Interstellar

The Golden Globes were last night. Interstellar was not even on the radar, which I consider a crime.

There is a peculiar amount of dislike for Interestellar. It had a profoundly mixed reception from fans of science fiction and I feel like it’s unjustified. Most of this dislike appears to focus on the crazy deus ex machina ending. First of all, I do actually like Christopher Nolan in general, but I wouldn’t call myself a fanboy. I am certainly not going to make the claim that he is anywhere near the caliber of Stanley Kubrick, though I do intend to draw some comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is widely regarded as a flawless movie.

Some people think it’s slow, a perception that I do not agree with or even understand. I frequently fall asleep during movies. Even action packed thrillers. But something about this movie (and it was kind of long, wasn’t it?) had me rivetted from beginning to end. There was not a moment when my attention wandered. This film sank its hooks into me with a ferocity that I had not expected. It had everything. The realistic portrayal of a family torn apart by forces beyond their control. Indeed, it’s a story that has been told many times. It’s the father going off to war. It’s the father killed in a car accident. In this case, it’s the father who’s going off to save the entire human race. It is maybe a bit of a stretch, this “only pilot that can drive this thing” scenario. But I can defend it on the grounds that this is a world where nobody looks to the skies anymore. No one flies planes anymore. The things that are flying are unmanned drones and such. This is a world that has lost its ability to imagine what could be. And so perhaps it is convenient that he happens to live next to NASA’s secret headquarters, but it is established that he is an engineer of no small skill and it is also established that he has ties to the people that run NASA, so I don’t feel that it’s a completely unreasonable plot element. It’s a bit cliche, but I feel that it works.

The tesseract at the ending is the primary beef that people seem to have with it. There was this air of the fantastical to it that maybe broke some people’s suspension of disbelief. I feel sorry for people who had this experience, because the whole thing blew me away. Here is where I’m drawing the comparison to 2001. When Dave Bowman is transported across the space and time via the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, the viewer is treated to a hallucinatory vision as Dave is transformed into the Star Child which now gazes down upon the earth.

Here’s what Kubrick is doing. 2001, like the novel it is adapted from, is hard science fiction, all the way to very end, after which, it branches off very much into the speculative. The fanciful. But I argue that it does not become actualy fantasy. “Here is what we think science is actually capable of acheiving” says 2001 through most of the movie. Here are the things that, given our current knowledge, we think it’s actually possible to acheive in a reasonable timeline.

The end, however, is a speculation of what might be possible if we could continue to develop unhindered by whatever forces hold us back. Here is a pure imagining, a chance to say, “What if,” a moment of pure speculation. Dave Bowman is reborn as a higher form of life. We might make the mistaken assumption that 2001 is just “crazy” at the end, but if we approach the filmwith the assumption that everything that happens is entirely comprehensible to a being of sufficient intelligence and insight, we can surmise that Dave has encountered some greater being(s) which have elevated him, allowed him to transcend his mortal self to become the higher being.

Nolan does the exact same thing in Interstellar. He builds a fantastically tense scenario all thoroughly grounded in science (some admittedly still theoretical, but soundly theoretical), and it is only at the end where he departs from what we know about the universe and begins to speculate about what might be possible if only we could find a way to tap it. It’s a conceit to be sure, but it’s the kind of conceit that we should be willing to indulge. It’s the kind of conceit that we need today. It dares us to dream about what might be possible if we can only be as clever as we like to think we are.

And maybe the whole tesseract inside the black hold is impossible. Sure, maybe. But remember the black holes present a paradox in which they seem to violate some laws of physics; namely there is the black hole information paradox, which states that information disappearing inside a black hole must somehow not be irretrievably lost (through some mechanism or other).

So the whole disappearing inside the black hole and actually managing to get a message out is not irretriavably stupid. Especially if we can play with the idea of a hyper advanced race of beings (possibly even hyper evolved humans), instigating it, building the tesseract in the first place, and shunting him off into this new place where time appears like a spatial dimension.

It’s not that it’s something we think it’s possible. It’s a sort of what-if. It’s not the “power of love” that saves the human race here. It’s the power of the imagination. Imagination is, as cheesy as it sounds, the most critical ingredient of science. Asking the question “What if?” is the most fundamental part of science. It’s the formation of the hypothesis, the first step of the scientific method.

The thing is, it is science fiction’s job to inspire the next generation of scientists, and I believe truly that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar does this more than most doomsday scenario movies which discourage inquiry and cause fear of what sorts of disasters scientists might bring on us in their hubris. And it does a heck of a lot more than the glut of superhero action flicks too (which are also designed to appeal to the dreamer/fantasizer demographic). I think in the future, we will see a whole crop of new astronomers and physicists who will list movies Interstellar and people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson as their inspiration, just as the last was inspired by 2001 and Carl Sagan.

Backing up a bit.


The holidays were busy. I accomplished exactly nothing. Well, except for one important thing. My original project is being put on hold for a while. I realized something very important, and if you are a programmer (and happen to be following this…the odds of which are slim, I know), then you have been expecting this: I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

That said, I’m going to tackle something a little simpler. I’m going to port a board game into Java. It’s going to be a board game where you don’t need a sophisticated interface or hidden information (no hidden hand cards yet…I’ll wait to program network play until I can get hotseat down). It will be, in short, a dry run. Something simple so I can practice my programming ability without needing to know as much about graphics.

It will still use OpenGL, specifically LWJGL. So, I’m working toward that ultimate goal. It’s just something a little more attainable. We’ll see how it goes.

Above is a scan of some tokens from the game. Do you know what it is?

Menschen sind nicht die dominante Spezies.


It’s possible that you may have to click on the comic to see it in its full glory. I’m playing around with some new formats. I’m not sure how much I like the result.

That said, I want to talk about friends. I have been de-friended on Facebook twice that I am aware of. And I have de-friended one person. All three incidents are the result of political discussions.

It seems to be more and more the case that Facebook has become, not so much a way to stay in touch with old friends, but instead a place to find out just how much vitriol you can shovel into a sentence without being accused of harassment and having your account suspended.

I friend everybody. But that’s because I’m compulsive that way. Anyone who wants to be my friend, can be. If I have even the slightest inkling that I might know them, or if they have the right mutual friends, I will accept just about any friend request. That said, I will start by explaining myself. The first and only person that I have personally de-friended was this dude that responded to a simple status update wherein I called out the GOP for their flagrant attempts to tap dance all over women’s rights. This guy started tossing around some very frustratingly bad rhetoric about Planned Parenthood. He basically parroted every stupid, senseless lie that the GOP has been spreading about the PP these last few months. I argued with him for about 16 hours or so (which, in Facebook time, is really only like fifteen minutes). And then I realized that, despite the fact that we have mutual friends, I actually had no fucking clue who this guy was. So I de-friended him. Maybe someday in the future we can hammer out our differences in person. Until then, however, I just don’t think we can be friends.

Both of the times that I have been de-friended were as a result of status updates that expressed disgust with the drug war and support for legalization of…various medicinal herbs for…recreational use. One of these two was a guy I went to high school with. The other one was my first cousin. As in, my mother’s sister’s son. We probably share a few alleles.

And so I was wondering about the nature of friendship. Facebook aside, I would guess that there are around two dozen people that I would consider friends. Only about six of those are what I would call inner-circle friends; that is, people that I will go out of my way to see when I go home for the weekend (I teach at a community college about five hours from my hometown).

I have 308 Facebook friends. I do not actually know who all of them are. I do not know if I could pick them all out of a lineup. If I saw them in person, I would not know their names. But they are there. And they all have relatively unrestricted access to my political views and pictures of the food that I cook.

It occurs to me that the word “friend” means something very different on Facebook than it does “in real life.” It also occurs to me that it is possible that I might find myself to be much happier if I bring both definitions into closer alignment. Then again, where is the fun in that?

Sie haben einen Freund in mir.

Locutus of Dobbs!

Part of my continuing Bob-Dobbs-themed photo-editing series. GiMP was used.

I already posted this on facebook. But I want proof that I designed it first. You know, just in case someone wants to hire me as a graphic designer.

Behold, mortals! Submit your slack applications in triplicate or be assimilated!

Unobtanium a reality!

Unobtanium has been used in sci-fi more than once. And it doesn’t get old. It cracks me up every time. In the James Cameron spectacular Avatar, I believe it was supposed to be a sort of room-temperature superconductor. However, I don’t want to talk about unobtanium in the “Avatar-sense.” And honestly, I think how they used the idea of unobtanium in Avatar was a little silly considering the rest of the film took itself so goddamned seriously.

Instead, I want to talk about unobtanium the way it was envisioned in one of the single worst (and one of my favorite) disaster films: The Core. I’m talking about one of the biggest box office bombs of the last eight years. I’m talking about the movie where, mysteriously, the Earth’s core stops spinning (!) causing the Earth’s magnetosphere to stop…being magnetic. Our intrepid heroes, played by Aaron Eckhart and Hillary Swank drill to the center of the planet to set off a nuclear reaction in order to get the core spinning again.

The reason I like this movie is the fact that the “fi” to this movie’s “sci,” the method whereby the film explains itself, actually gave me the giggles for several days after seeing it. You see, whoever wrote this movie knew that the problems involved in digging through to the Earth’s core were fairly insurmountable. Mainly pressure and heat. Lots of both. And so, where films like Journey to the Center of the Earth solve this problem by ignoring it and pretending the Earth’s interior is actually populated with dinosaurs (etc), The Core does something a little different. It trades one science problem for another. Imagine a vessel capable of drilling through the hardest rock, sort of like the Technodrome, only less cheesy. The reason this vessel is not crushed as it delves ever deeper into the mantle, is unobtanium. This hypothetical mineral becomes harder and stronger the more heat and pressure are applied.

Essentially what the filmmakers did was a little literary sleight of hand. They traded one scientific problem for another, and simply ignored the new one completely. Indeed, they did us one better, they hung a lampshade on it by calling it unobtanium. Unobtanium!

And the reason I didn’t roll my eyes at this movie (while I did at Avatar) is the fact that this movie was never (I assume) intended to be taken all that seriously.

In the interests of full disclosure, today’s image is not my own joke. My wife and I both appreciate The Core quite a bit (despite its obvious terribleness). When my wife was shopping for wedding rings, she told me that she wanted to get the unobtanium rings, but the shelf was too high. I’m pretty sure I came close to crapping my pants when she said that. And so, credit for the joke goes to her.

Obviously, unobtanium is a joke. Can’t possibly be real. Or can it? Researchers at Rice University have created a new synthetic material, an alchemical blend of aligned carbon nanotubes and inert polymers, that, when exposed to repeated stress, actually becomes stiffer. I feel no shame in admitting that I almost crapped my pants when I read this article, too.

I mean, think about it. Something that I laughed at as a joke in 2003 is actually sort of possible? The hows and the whys of it are maybe irrelevant to the layperson. Merely the knowledge that a synthetic material can have properties of this nature is astonishing. I guess I do have a few questions about it, though. For instance, what happens if you stop applying stress? Does it lose some of its accumulated strength? And then if you start applying stress again, does the strength return? Does this material have an unlimited capacity for gaining strength? Will there be a point where you start to experience diminishing returns?

I guess those scientists need to get to work.

I would also like to mention one last thing: Saturn is sending us radio messages. The video is actually somewhat haunting.

bitte schön