The Science of “Interstellar” and STEM Education


 "Interstellar," the new scifi film directed by Christopher Nolan, explores a number of complex and fascinating scientific phenomena and concepts, including black holes, gravity, wormholes, a fifth dimension, and in particular Special Relativity. As a scifi buff, I found the movie to be very entertaining. And as a science educator, I thought that there were many possibilities for connecting the movie to my work. 

Science of interstellarThe producers of "Interstellar" have played up the science realism of their work. Christopher Nolan has maintained in various interviews and stories that he wanted to create a movie about interstellar travel that was based on solid science. Kip Thorne, a renowned astrophysicist who consulted on the film has even published a companion book called "The Science of Interstellar." 

There's an official educational website connected to "Interstellar." On the site you will find an educator's guide, three activities for students, an online quiz, and a digital game that allows you create your own solar system and travel through a wormhole. It's pretty sweet, if limited to just understanding Special Relativity.


There are many other interesting issues that "Interstellar" brings up that a science educator could examine with her students, including:

  • The societal importance of astronomy, astrophysics and space exploration
  • The actual threats to humanity faced by Climate Change
  • The challenges of space travel and space colonization
  • What is gravity (HINT: It isn't love.)

There are of course hokey, non-scientific aspects to "Interstellar" that exist to support the story. Phil Plait is one of the most vocal critics of the science in "Interstellar," and his views do need to be considered.  On the other hand, Neil Degrasse Tyson actually has tweeted lots of positive comments about the science in "Interstellar," which is somewhat surprising given his critiques of the science in "Gravity" a year or so ago.

At an aspirational level, the film might serve the role that films and television shows like "Star Trek" and "Apollo 13" served for generations before — to inspire young people to wonder about our place in the universe and inspire the quest to explore it. From a practical point of view, it makes the vocations of scientist and engineer seem that much more heroic and honorable. And two of the main female characters are scientists!

Overall, I think it's an ambitious, often moving story about humanity's quest for survival, the incredibly hard choices people have to make, and what defines us as a species. I think films like "Interstellar" can inspire people to appreciate the wonder of the universe and spur them to understand it better. It certainly inspired me.

Interstellar film 800


And BTW, see "Interstellar" in 70mm IMAX if you can. It's probably the last blockbuster film ever to be released in this format, since all IMAX theaters will soon be converted to digital.


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