How gravity can break your heart

Image credit: Jorge Figueroa

In the movie Interstellar, a main character, Dr Brand, played by Anne Hathaway, puts forth the idea that love is a force of nature, like gravity or electromagnetism. She says,“Maybe it means something more, something we can’t understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artefact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive,” then goes on to explain, “Love is the one thing we’re  capable of perceiving that’s capable of transcending dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it yet.”

I do not propose that we take her claim seriously, but it remains important, for it overthrows our pre-conceived notions of what a force of nature is and can be. When I think of forces, I think only of invisible, larger-than-life mechanisms. I picture them cold, and disparate, in a way. The idea that a feeling as personal as love could be akin to it is just outrageous enough to be mesmerising.

This gradual, creeping disintegration of the artificial barriers we place between physics and love continues throughout the rest of the film. (Spoiler alert; skip the next two paragraphs if you have yet to see the film.)

Just about halfway through the film, for example, we see Cooper’s (the main character who flies the ship) crew, which consists of the scientists Romilly, Doyle, and Dr Amelia Brand, launch itself through a wormhole in our solar system, just by Saturn, to find itself in a distant galaxy with potentially habitable planets. They decide the first course of action will be to explore what they call Miller’s planet, named after a researcher who was sent to explore it twelve years ago. Yet on Miller’s planet, time is severely dilated because of its proximity to a nearby black hole, Gargantua — as such, an hour on the planet is equal to seven years on Earth.

One image from this part of the film is seared into my memory. Just before it, we see a video message from Cooper’s daughter, who remains on the quickly shrivelling Earth. She tells Cooper, “Today is my birthday. And it's a special one, because you told me... you once told me that when you come back we might be the same age. And today I'm the same age you were when you left.

So it would be a real good time for you to come back.”

Then we see Cooper onscreen, and this is the image I cannot shake off. He gazes at his daughter in a whole other galaxy. Everything is painfully still; the only movement comes from Cooper’s heart-wrenching weeps, his face contorted into the picture of anguish, body trembling, then positively shaking in waves and waves of emptiness.

This is the beauty of Interstellar — the way it takes love and science, those two goddesses, the pinnacles of passion, and smashes them together. It is almost too much to bear. In it we find a blazing, pulsating reminder of how gravity can break your heart.

The level at which we conduct research has far surpassed the observable. Researchers constantly make predictions about the very big and the very small, so it can be difficult to keep in mind the true meaning of what we discover, to feel the intimacy of an equation the same way you feel that of another person.

In the film, Dr Brand says, “I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade whom I know is probably dead.” Interstellar places humans squarely in the face of what is most terrifying about the universe — its power to devastate us. Watching it, I began to ask: why this world, this gorgeous, elusive world?

Ultimately, it reminds us to have a sense of perspective: in our search to understand the vast world around us, we cannot forget that we, too, are a part of it.

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