Shane Davis / Astronomy

My primary research involves the study of black holes.  I will be the first to admit that black holes are fascinating objects, but I am still struck by how these objects can capture people's imaginations.  The properties that make black holes fascinating to many are also the properties that make them difficult to understand. The behavior of space and time in the vicinity of black holes is so far removed from our everyday experience that our intuition fails us. Einstein himself pioneered the teaching of general relativity (his theory of gravity) via thought experiments.  One can go far by imagining astronauts in the extreme environments near black holes, but this is often challenging.

For this reason, I was excited when I heard that Christopher Nolan was making a big budget movie that would involve black holes and wormholes.  What particularly delighted me was that Nolan was collaborating with Kip Thorne, one of the world's primary experts on black holes to try to make the film as scientifically accurate as possible.  In making the film “Interstellar”, Thorne and Nolan have created one of the most sophisticated realizations and visualizations of the thought experiments we use to teach students.  Thorne has made a further contribution by writing a popular book on the “The Science of Interstellar”, explaining the physical processes that drive the plot of the movie.

I believe the film and book are very promising pedagogical tools for teaching students about black holes and grappling with the complexities of Einstein's theory of gravity.  And they have already succeeded at capturing students’ interest as I have received a number of questions about the film from students in the past year. I even considered building an entire introductory astrophysics course around the film and book, but ultimately decided on developing a black holes course with a broader focus.  Nevertheless, I think the idea retains merit and would work as a sort of mini supervised reading course.

Therefore, my proposal is to get an interested group of students together to study the film with a focus on the representation of astrophysical phenomenon in the vicinity of black holes. I envision 3-4 meetings.  The first meeting would be a group viewing of the film.  Students would then be given several weeks to read “The Science of Interstellar” along with several on-line articles discussing the pros and cons of the scientific representations in the film.  Subsequent meetings would be weekly or bi-weekly and provide an opportunity to discuss the astrophysics of the film in great depth and debate the strengths and weaknesses of the film (both artistic and scientific).  Meeting will allow students to ask questions about the material covered in the book and will highlight topics that remain confusing or unclear.  Since I will be teaching an introductory undergraduate course on black holes in the fall, I will attempt to primarily draw students from that course.  Hence, the meetings will also allow the students to apply the material they have learned in their coursework.

Proposed budget:

Food for 15-20 students + 1 professor for 4 meetings: $1,600

15 copies of “The Science of Interstellar” for students: $225

TOTAL $1,825