Black Holes in films: Science fiction of science fact?

March 25, 2024

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Summary

Black holes have fascinated authors and film makers for as long as we have known about them. There is a range of accuracy in their descriptions. Some use the best information there is at the time, others use artistic licence more liberally to create a more exciting story. There are too many to cover here so we have just picked out a few of our favourites.

black hole
Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the centre of the galaxy M87. The image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun.
 Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

The Black Hole (1979)

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A scene from “The Black Hole” (1979)https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/10/movies/black-hole-movies-streaming.html

In this film, there are two space crafts, USS Palomino and USS Cygnus, which are adrift around a black hole. However, USS Cygnus is free from the gravitational effects of the black hole due to a null gravitational field generated by the spaceship! The Palomino becomes damaged by the black hole and so the crew board the Cygnus. The Cygnus captain is trying to fly his space ship into the black hole. The Palomino crew escape but are also pulled into the black hole. Cygnus is destroyed. However, the captain merges with a robot and is sent to hell! Those of crew of the Palomino who survive end up leaving a white hole and finding a new world.

This film uses much more imagination than science in the plot. The black hole here is simply acting as a drain. There completely ignore all the heating effects around the event horizon, where material would be heated to extremes. The black hole is shown as red, whereas really the extreme heat around the black hole would create and an intense, brilliant colour. Time dilation is also completely ignored by the creators. White holes have been hypothesised, however, no evidence for their existence has ever been found.

So, there is much to complain about scientifically with this film, but it is important is some ways as it was the introduction into Disney films of computer-generated animation which we all know and love today in so many of their other films.

Star Trek (2009)

star treck black hole
In the Star Trek movie the Romulans drop a “red matter” bomb into the hole made by the drill. It triggers the formation of a black hole, which collapses the planet and wipes out the Vulcans. Bad Astronomy’s Review of the Science of ‘Star Trek’ – TrekMovie.com

Nero the Romulan villain of the film, creates an artificial black hole out of ‘red matter’ to destroy the planet Vulcan. However, then a real black hole creates a time warp that sends Mr. Spock back in time to help Captain Kirk and his own younger self try to stop Nero. Nero and his ship are destroyed, this in turn releases huge amounts of red matter and forming a new black hole. The Enterprise ship launches and detonates all of its warp cores, destroying the black hole and escapes its grasp. There are many scientific inventions in this film purely for storytelling. Firstly, red matter has no basis in reality and was purely invented to make an exciting plot. Secondly, black holes can only form when a massive star collapse and nothing (we know about) is able to destroy a black hole. In the film a matter/antimatter explosion would produce a huge amount of energy, which would feed a black hole rather than destroy it. The only way to really ‘kill’ a black hole is to starve it. Eventually, the black hole will disappear from taking in no more matter and Hawking radiation (theoretical thermal black-body radiation released outside a black hole’s event horizon).

Interstellar (2014)

interstellar black hole
Gargantua. A variant of the black-hole accretion disk seen in the film Interstellar. Credit: DNEG/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./CQG 32 065001

Interstellar (2014)

One of the most resent films with stars black holes is Interstellar. This has the most accurate depiction of black holes in science fiction, this is party due to having a Nobel prizing winning physicist Kip Thorne (who is a theoretical cosmologist) as the scientific expert on the film. The science in general in the film is good, as well as accurately portraying black holes they also depict space as silent, and show objects rotating correcting.

The film follows a NASA mission to find a habitable planet beyond the Solar System. They travel through a worm hole to another Universe. The mission is to a super massive black hole, Gargantua, which is 100 million solar masses, 10 billion light years away, and rotates at 99.8% the speed of light. There are 3 planets around it which are hoped to be habitable, each one has different time dilation due to the intense gravity of the black hole.

They have an interesting comparison for the singularity of the black hole, as the pearl in the oyster, and accurately explain that no one can see past the event horizon, as no light can escape beyond it.

The visualisation of the black hole Gargantua follows our current understanding of physics. The spectacular visualisations in the film of the were created by the world’s biggest visual effects studio, DNEG, and lead by Oliver James, himself a physics graduate from Oxford University. They collaborated with Kip Thorne to create some of the most physically-accurate images of rotating black hole ever and the film work an Academy Award and a BAFTA.

The collaboration between James and Thorne began with a question, ‘Could you give me an equation that describes the trajectory of light from a distant star, around the black hole and finally into an observer’s eye?’. This must have intrigued Thorne as they then went on to exchanged more than a thousand emails, including detailed mathematical formalism to help with the DNEG coding of the black hole.

One of the reasons simulating a black hole for the film was so tricky is because no light can escape from a black hole. DNEG had to develop completely new rendering that simulates the path light follows when traveling through space-time which has been gravitationally warped. They even include gravitational lensing effecting which occur around a black hole (this is when a massive body such as a cluster or in this case a black hole causes a sufficient curvature of spacetime for the path of light around it to be visibly bent, as if by a lens).

Inside the black hole is all artistic interpretation as we don’t have any way of knowing what’s beyond the event horizon. Eventually, Cooper, the mission lead in the film, goes beyond the event horizon and finds himself in 5-D . Here time is a physical dimension. He uses the properties of this space to communicate with his daughter and pass her information about the black hole and these worlds and thus accomplish his mission.

Conclusion

Black holes have excited and inspired authors and film makers for years. The accuracy of the depictions of black holes varies greatly between them, some go for artistic licence whereas others try to use the best physics knowledge of the days. Either way they excite and inspire audience the world over. Importantly, if you want to have scientific accuracy in a film then working with scientific experts is key.

For more detail on black holes, sign up for one of our courses today. The black holes feature in Mission Astro ‘Star-stretching Gravity’ course and our Certificate in Space Science (coming soon). We interview notable black hole astrophysicists, Prof Erin Kara and Dr Ziri Younsi during our courses, so come on board to hear the latest from the researchers themselves.

This post was written by Dr Heather Campbell for Mission Astro.

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