By Yuan-Sen Ting
Imagine your immigrant great-grandmother bequeathed you a panoramic artwork she had painted in her youth. The work depicts the old world she had left and the new one she had migrated to. You paid a great deal to restore the work to its former glory, and a local science museum asked to display the work in an historical exhibition about human migration. This painting so charmed a visiting film director that she became curious and offered to make a biopic film about your artist-great-grandmother. The director focused entirely on a Model-T Ford in the painting's foreground, and ignored everything else on the canvas. Anyone familiar with the painting knows this is not an example of what poetry calls synecdoche, a part standing in for the whole. No, it is an example of the director's fetishization of science, leaving out the meaning of the canvas to focus the superficial novelty of a car.
"Interstellar, what have you done?"
By profession, I'm an astrophysicist, but when I go to the movies, ready to be entertained, I can willingly suspend my disbelief, like any other movie lover (just because I study space science does not mean that I'm from outer space!) So when one of my favorite directors, Christopher Nolan, was debuting his blockbuster film, Interstellar, I recall being very excited, and eagerly waiting in line at the cinema, one Friday night in November of 2014 . Afterwards, in fact, the movie had the unanticipated and delightful effect of affirming my professional existence among my circle of friends and beyond: we did not discuss astronomy much before the movie, but suddenly many of my old friends reconnected with me to talk about science and space. But during the movie itself, as the director substituted distortions for science, I could not suspend disbelief. I experienced the uncomfortable sense that apples were being compared with oranges. During Interstellar, when the father of Murph, the lead character, falls into a black hole and is able to warp space-time to communicate with her, Murph sighs and says "Ah, it turns out that love is the fifth dimension." I was quickly thrown into reverse gear and "out" of the movie. I felt discomfited by the director's focus on the Model-T Ford in my great-grandmother's painting, while ignoring the odyssey of her immigration story. Back in the movie's audience that night, after Murph's comment, I felt freakish when I laughed while others became teary-eyed.
Being a science fiction fan, I give a wide berth for "poetic license." However, I often find Hollywood's science-fiction distorting is beyond recognition, and therefore unacceptable. I have thought long and hard about why this is the case. After all, I loved Nolan's movie Inception, which is equally unscientific. When I was young, I loved novels about the martial arts like, Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragons where the characters do crazy, gravity-defying stunts too. So why am I so critical of movies with space-based themes?
The dilemma of making an excellent space-based science fiction
Shakespeare famously wrote that, "The lunatic, the lover and the poet/Are of imagination all compact" but what separates art from noise, and good movies from bad, is observing the unspoken contract between the author and the audience. It is agreed that, for a short while, the audience will "suspend disbelief" and enter into an imaginary compact with the author in exchange for the emotional ride, or catharsis, of entertainment. Martial arts films do not correspond to reality, past or present; the audience is not asked to accept that, with time and practice, wu xia, or 'magical swordsmanship and sorcery' can be acquired. However, science fiction movies demand that viewers accept the premise that the movies' action takes place "in the not too distant future." The subtext of the movie Interstellar is that the movie's reality is possible. So when the lead character said that "Love is the fifth dimension," it was as jarring as if her response to inhaling the fragrance of a ylang ylang flower was to explain Boyle's Law.
So, is there any good science fiction? Many authentic science fiction novels are very well written. Along with Barack Obama, I highly recommend Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem. The author was the first Asian to win the Hugo Award, the highest honor in science fiction, and the first work in Chinese to do so. The story centers on the clash between human and alien civilizations, and I am sure we will talk about this the next time we discuss extraterrestrial life. In contrast to Interstellar, I thoroughly enjoyed The Three-Body Problem, not because its science is flawless, but because I appreciate the author's attempt to cast a wider and thoroughly consistent net (across all aspects of astronomy). It is imaginative and broadens our perspective, without sacrificing the validity of the science, or pandering to audience sentimentality.
The Tale of The Three Walls of Steel
To give some perspective, one of the questions I am most frequently asked is, "As an astronomer, does your working with the vastness of the universe have an impact on your outlook on life?" I usually smile and answer, "No. A few more zeros on the tail end of the numbers, that's all." I understand the question well. Ever since Galileo invented the telescope, the standpoint from which we view the universe has shifted outside our home planet. The expansion of our knowledge of space has made us reckon with the exponentially greater amounts of time needed to traverse it. And by comparison, Earth's existence occupies a relatively small amount of space and time.
Outside the Department of Astrophysics at Princeton University stands a sculpture by the famous sculptor Richard Serra, an American whose work is often described as minimalist in ornamentation and maximalist in dimension. The work is called The Hedgehog and The Fox. But my colleagues and I in the department call it " the three damn walls." The work consists entirely of three gigantic steel boards, erupting in parallel from the ground, 4 meters high and 25 meters long, and nothing else (hence, Richard Serra, the "minimalist"). Looking from the outside, these three rigid walls appear vast, but once the viewer enters inside them, the field of vision immediately becomes very limited.
The ancient Greek poet Archilochus once said, "A fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one important thing." (πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα) This sculpture is located at the intersection of three world-famous Princeton departments: Theoretical Physics, Astrophysics, and Mathematics. The sculpture's location reveals its meaning: the paradox of doing research is that the more one digs deep in one's research, the more you can lose sight of the whole picture.
For me, the sculpture and its meaning bring the field of astrophysics down to earth. My work is less that of an explorer than a conservator, who restores old master paintings in a museum. Indeed, for many academics, we spend our entire lives studying only one subject. We dedicate our lives– and do our best to repair the damage to those paintings that interest us most. Then, we frame the picture as best we can, with detailed annotations and provenances. We place the painting within that grandest of all Catalogue Raisonnes: the Universe.
In this vast museum, so many restoration projects have come before me. Our work is insignificant by itself. But when all restored paintings are put together, a bigger picture emerges. Some people have asked me if I am offended by the fact that most people might never read the annotations?
Not really. I know my work is essential because there will always be someone inspired by the works in this museum, say Cixin Liu, and write a great piece about it. And some people might simply enjoy the quiet contemplation of what was created by "the finger of God."
But what I cannot abide is the presumption of Hollywood blockbusters like Interstellar. It is as if the director ignores the works in the museum, their history, their curation and focuses on a shiny object. The director then distorts it with enlargements, or close-ups, adds special effects such that the original work is unrecognizable, and then insists this totem is the essence of the entire museum.
I am often amazed that Hollywood purports to make the vast universe small, and charges us for the favor.
(The article first appeared on Sinchew.com.my. Translated into English by Yuan-Sen Ting and Steven Maslow. Yuan-Sen Ting is an astrophysicist. He obtained his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Harvard University in 2017. He is currently a researcher working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, funded through a NASA Hubble Fellowship. Yuan-Sen is also an incoming faculty member at the Australian National University.)