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CosmosUp | August 16, 2022

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‘Interstellar’ Science Team Explain True Black Holes

‘Interstellar’ Science Team Explain True Black Holes

It may be another case of life imitating art, but the visual effects technology used for last fall’s Christopher Nolan sci-fi epic ‘Interstellar,’ may lead the way to further understanding of how real life black holes actually function – particularly the extreme power they wield, giving traction to new methods in astrophysics research.

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In a new paper published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity, the team has described an innovative computer code that was used to generate the film’s iconic images of the wormhole, black hole and other space objects. Using their computer code, called Double Negative Gravitational Renderer (DNGR), theoretical physicist Prof Kip Thorne from California Institute of Technology and scientists at the London-based visual effects company Double Negative found that when a camera is close up to a rapidly spinning black hole, peculiar surfaces in space, known as caustics, create more than a dozen images of individual stars and of the thin, bright plane of the galaxy in which the black hole lives.

In order to develop the sharpness and clarity of space that we see in Interstellar, particularly the worm hole, the rather ominous black hole Gargantua (the massive black hole at the center of the story) and other stars, the team decided to try another approach. While people typically a single light ray to generate pixel for a computer code, the result is usually a flickering effect for the stars and nebulae when they float through the frame, and the technicians wanted to try something different.

“To get rid of the flickering and produce realistically smooth pictures for the movie, we changed our code in a manner that has never been done before. Instead of tracing the paths of individual light rays using Einstein’s equations – one per pixel – we traced the distorted paths and shapes of light beams,” said the study’s co-author Oliver James, who works for the visual effects company Double Negative, in a new press release.

“This new approach to making images will be of great value to astrophysicists like me. We, too, need smooth images,” added Prof Thorne, who is the senior author of the paper.

The techniques developed for Interstellar could have unexpected benefits beyond black holes. James says he’s been emailed by researchers on a NASA project planning to study spinning neutron stars who say the team’s equations could help them interpret real astronomical data.

“Initially when the film came out everyone was really excited that real science was being used to make films,” says James. “As film makers we’re now really excited that our science might get used in NASA projects to do things we’ve never thought of.”

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