Hollywood film sparks real-world discussion at UVic

Christopher Nolan’s science fiction blockbuster Interstellar affected more than just the Hollywood world in 2014 when Kip Thorne, one of the world’s leading experts on astrophysics and black holes, was brought on as an executive producer. The efforts of Thorne and the production team led to an accurate depiction of a black hole in space. The movie’s focus on wormholes, time dilation, and multidimensional theories fit into UVic professor Arif Babul’s PHYS 303: Creation of Space, Time, Matter, and Energy, which aims to teach conceptual physics for non-science students.

Babul has been teaching PHYS 303 at UVic for close to 15 years, encouraging students to grapple with heavy, cutting-edge concepts while relating them to pop culture examples like Star Trek, Carl Sagan’s Contact, Doctor Who, Stargate, and Interstellar.

“[Throughout the semester], we talked about black holes and wormholes, and we talked about multidimensional space-time, and then this new movie comes out which, in fact, plays on all of those themes,” said Babul on the timeliness of Interstellar’s release. Because many of his students saw the movie before Babul, Interstellar sparked a new wave of discussions and questions within the classroom.

“[The students] actually had an amazing experience when they went to see it because, unlike their friends, they could actually make sense of what was going on. I was kind of pleased to hear that because to me that means that I have successfully conveyed to them some of these concepts,” Babul said.

Before pointing out that a good physicist should be able to explain a concept to anyone, Babul said, “[The course is] completely concept based. I think most people don’t realize that physicists tend to think concepts first, and then write down the math because the math is just a language. It’s like thinking about an essay [that] you want to write, and then putting it down using English as a language.”

Babul explained that Thorne was able to map out large formulas for how light is bent around a black hole, but it requires time and supercomputers to properly render these images. However, because Interstellar was a blockbuster film, the producers had access to both these resources and therefore had no problem burning up supercomputing time to render these images. After viewing the black hole portion of the movie, Babul said, “[It] literally caused my jaw to drop.”

A Wired article on Interstellar said that, “Some individual frames took up to 100 hours to render, the computation overtaxed by the bendy bits of distortion caused by an Einsteinian effect called gravitational lensing. In the end the movie brushed up against 800 terabytes of data.”

Babul’s course changes as new discoveries and materials arise in academia—last year, the Higgs Boson, or “God Particle”, was a significant topic of discussion. Similarly, as new pop culture materials arise, the course material shifts.  With the release of Nolan’s film, Babul said, “I’ll certainly use Interstellar as a foil for next year’s class. As I said, Star Trek, Stargate, Contact, and now Interstellar will be part of the fodder for teaching students.”

PHYS 303: Creation of Space, Time, Matter, and Energy will run again in Sept. 2015.

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