Interstellar

Matthew McConaughey stars in "Interstellar."

FAIRBANKS — Is the grass greener on the other side of the wormhole? The characters of the movie “Interstellar” hope so since they need to find a new home before the old one gives way.

While imagination is at the heart of this film, the movie’s director, Christopher Nolan, worked closely with respected physicist Kip Thorne to keep the science behind the story legit. We asked a mathematician, biochemist and physicist from the University of Fairbanks Alaska what they thought about wormhole travel, hibernating in space and returning to Earth younger than your children. Here’s what they had to say.

The science behind deep sleeps

It turns out there are two good reasons why the astronauts in “Interstellar” had to go through some deep sleeps. One is to keep them from eating all the food aboard the spaceship. The other is to keep them from getting on each other’s nerves.

At least those are the reasons the European Space Agency gave UAF biochemist Kelly Drew as to why they wanted to hear more about her research of the “deep sleep” in Arctic ground squirrels. ESA plans to send people on a trip to Mars. If the space flight takes two years, then inducing people to hibernate might help with psychological and food store issues.

“This was serious stuff,” said Drew, a professor of biochemistry. “ESA was really excited about the opportunity to move forward to produce a hibernation-like state in human so that it will facilitate travel to Mars.”

Drew attended an ESA conference last month and talked about her studies on how the brain in Arctic ground squirrels chemically induces and controls hibernation. Unlike the humans of “Interstellar,” these undeniably cute little creatures can’t escape Earth during times of food shortages. Instead, they hibernate up to eight months during the cold, arctic winter and reduce their metabolism to about 2 percent of the normal rate. 

If Drew can figure out how the brains of ground squirrels control hibernation, then there might be a way to induce the human brain to put the body in a therapeutic hibernation that can help with certain medical conditions or on space flights.

But hibernation may not be the only thing that helps crews conserve food, she said. Having an all-female crew might be the way to go. Women have slower metabolic rates than men, and petite women have some of the slowest metabolic rates of their gender. Having some yogis in the crew wouldn’t hurt either. They’ve been known to use meditation to control their metabolic rate.

Not quite the picture of the “Interstellar” crew — three muscular men and one tall woman. No wonder they needed so much “sleep.”

Traveling through wormholes

It sounds like a nightmare. You’re running in this tunnel, trying to make it to the other side. As you run, the tunnel walls begin to close in, crushing and condensing you into nothing more than a point. 

This point of no return is known as a singularity, and it’s a common feature of the wormholes that UAF mathematician David Maxwell has encountered — theoretically speaking, of course. 

He said typical wormholes collapse before you can traverse them. “It’s as if the geometry of the universe conspires against you and kills you,” he said.

Maxwell studies general relativity, a branch of modern physics that can paint a mathematical picture of features like black holes and wormholes in an interstellar landscape.

The associate professor of mathematics said that while wormholes are allowed by the equations of general relativity, they have never been observed. If they do exist, they may never attain stability like the one in “Interstellar,” which provides a shortcut from our galaxy to another.

So what are wormholes? Imagine the universe as an inflated balloon. The balloon represents the universe as a space, but this space evolves over time. In physics, however, “space and time are really all one thing and when you bend space, you’re bending time,” Maxwell said.

Wormholes bend spacetime. If you place your forefingers on each side of the balloon, press in and imagine that your fingertips could touch, you can create a shortcut in your universe. Unfortunately, the singularity is still the deal breaker.

Kip Thorne, the physicist and the resident scientist for “Interstellar,” found a work-around solution for the wormhole. People could use a special type of matter to fortify the wormhole and keep it open. This matter may be hypothetical, but it’s still within the realm of possibility even if it “pushes physics to the speculative extreme for the sake of a good story,” Maxwell said.

So the bottom line is that traversable wormholes are not possible right now. But then again, what is “now” in the world of relativity?

Returning to Earth younger than your child

Can your child ever become older than you like in the movie “Interstellar?” You might think it’s a fanciful concept until you learn that your feet are older than your head by the time you die.

Maxwell said it works like this: even when standing still, you’re still moving since our planet is rotating. Your feet travel in a smaller circle than your head as the planet turns. This means your head is traveling faster, and so time slows down for your head relative to your feet by one billionth of a second if you live to a ripe old age. This relationship between space and time is described by the mathematics of special relativity.

You may be shrugging your shoulders and saying, “What’s the big deal?” Yet if you amplify this effect with space travel, things can get pretty gnarly. Associate Physics Professor Curt Szuberla has his students calculate how long it would take a rocket ship to take a round trip of 334 light years out to a distant star and back. Without going into specifics, Szuberla said the ship is going “freakin’ fast.”

“The trip in the ship’s frame of reference would take 20 years time,” he said. “But by the time you got back to Earth, 337 years would have passed on Earth.”

If you were aboard the rocket ship in Szuberla’s scenario, you wouldn’t see your child again. But you might get to meet your great, great, great ... well, you get the point.

So there you have it. Well, not all of it. The film also delves into black holes, different dimensions and sustainability on Earth. If you’re a science fiction fan, then watch “Interstellar” and you’ll have a lot of fodder for late night conservations – as mind bending as the movie. 

Meghan Murphy is the public information officer and recruitment coordinator for the University of Alaska’s College of Natural Science and Mathematics.