Christian Allegory in Tron

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been surprised many times to discover the hidden messages of faith in my favorite childhood movies. Don’t be deceived by the lack of overt themes of Christianity. As Ralph Wood explains in The Gospel According to Tolkien, his treatise on Tolkien’s deeply Christian fantasy world, the subtle infusion of theology is the most effective way to convey the message:

Tolkien’s work is all the more deeply Christian for not being overtly Christian. He would have violated the integrity of his art — and thus the faithfulness of his witness — if he had written a 1,200-page novel to illustrate a set of ideas that he could have expressed apart from the story itself. This is a principle not only of good art but also of good theology.

Look for the hidden messages of faith in movies. So strong is the influence of Christianity in the West that these messages often find their way into popular entertainment almost subconsciously. Although, sometimes, the message is so allegorical that there can be little doubt of the filmmakers’ intentions.

One such movie is Tron (1982). I knew almost nothing about religion when I was a kid seeing this movie for the first time, but I was still intrigued by the idea of the quasi-supernatural Users and the Master Control Program’s campaign to stamp out any “superstitious” belief in them. Watching this movie again many years later, the message became clear:

Flynn may be a sort a Christ-figure, but so is Tron, the program who teams up with him to defeat the Master Control Program. In addition to his miracles, Flynn sacrifices himself in a way that evokes both the descent of Christ into hell as well as his ascension, while in another scene, Tron communicates with his user in a way that resembles the opening of the heavens at the baptism of Christ. And all of this takes place in an environment in which programs who believe in their users are persecuted for being ‘religious fanatics,’ and are sent to their deaths in video-game battles that resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial fights. (From a now-defunct link at Canadian Christianity)

And of course the villain—whose name, “Sark,” is the Greek word for “flesh”—is the allegorical Satan figure of the movie.

Tron is not a perfect allegory, but its basis in the Christian faith is unmistakable.

Computer-generated images are now so de rigueur in movies that we take them for granted. It must be remembered that Tron was made at a time when computers were a decade away from becoming household items, and constituted both a source of fascinated hope and a cause for concern (cf. War Games, released a year after Tron). Disney was ahead of the curve in creating the computer graphics, which were astonishing at the time, and captured perfectly the cold, electronic quality of a computer world. An intriguing counterpoint to the message of the gospel.

Humility

May the Force be with all of us

In 1977 my father took my brother and me to see Star Wars, and what I saw transformed me. On that screen, which seemed so big to a little kid, I was swept away from my Earth-bound existence and became conscious for the first time of our universe.  This was the defining moment in my life and it occurred when I was six years old.

Now that I am an adult, I realize how short on science the movie was, but I will be forever grateful for the way it got me thinking about outer space in a significant way. Space was all I could think about for years after: the awe, the mystery, the unlimited possibilities. From that moment onward, a life dedicated to the study of space science was inevitable for me.

Almost four decades later, I’m a professional astrophysicist. I have Jodie Foster-in-Contact moments whenever I go to a remote observatory and watch the transcendent night sky. Every time, it transports me back to 1977 and reignites the sheer wonder and indescribable joy I felt at the sight of a sky filled with thousands of far-off suns. But the wonder is deeper and more complex than it was when I was six years old, because of what I know. I now know what powers each of those suns, I know how they formed, when they formed, that most have planets orbiting them, and, though the stars appear to extend infinitely in all directions, I know that I’m really only looking at the outskirts of the vast Milky Way galaxy. But most important of all, I now know that all of this was deliberately created.

My brother and I were brought up with little in the way of religious instruction or experiences. He and I found God after long journeys on separate paths. It was the intense love my brother felt for his children and his need to believe they would have eternal life that brought him to God. What led me to God was my love of all things space and everything I learned as a student about the creation of the universe and the way nature is so exquisitely fine-tuned for intelligent life.  Science continues to be the basis of my unshakable conviction that nothing as beautiful and orderly as our universe could be an accident.

Whenever I stand on the peak of Mount Locke wrapped in the awe of a perfect night sky, I am infused by a feeling of complete humility. But, I understand in those moments what a little girl couldn’t possibly have understood forty years ago, that I am feeling humility in the midst of God’s divine work as I view proof of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Insignificance

Whenever I teach introductory astronomy, I hand out a questionnaire to my students and ask them to describe their main challenge (if any) with astronomy in terms of their religious or philosophical worldviews. Some students are troubled by the apparent conflict between science and their religious beliefs, but the most common response by far is a feeling of insignificance in the face of their new awareness of the vast scale of the universe.

Their answers reflect an intense humility, but it is often different from what I feel. Their humility, combined with the sense of insignificance, seems to lead many of them to disturbing feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness. I realized some time ago that people who do not believe in God feel the same degree of humility when they look at the night sky as I do, but they often turn the humility inward where it is translated into feelings of personal worthlessness. This feeling is not unique to the young and uninitiated in science. Physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg lamented in his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

I am fortunate to know that our vast universe is exactly the size it has to be to give rise to intelligent life.  Just about every scientist knows this, but the unfortunate non-believers are materialists for whom the vastness of the universe is also a constant reminder of the cold and deadly indifference of nature. Some non-believers, like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, hope for something after death, but largely accept the materialist view that this existence is all that there is. They retreat to gratitude for the moment, which is an intellectual evasion of their terrible truth.

Other scientifically informed people evade thoughts about the creation and fine tuning of the universe in a different manner, by pushing it beyond the bounds of investigation. They maintain that ours is one of an infinite number of universes—the multiverse—which we can never observe. They argue that we must have simply won the multiverse lottery and the jackpot was all of the conditions necessary for life. It seems to me that if people feel insignificant and hopeless in a vast universe, they aren’t going to feel any better being part of an even bigger multiverse. A darker road is taken by a few, like biologist William Provine, who simply accept their insignificance and acknowledge that a godless universe can have no meaning. It is an honest assessment for a materialist, but one that is filled with despair.

The deliberately more optimistic atheist will talk of his awe of the universe, but I know from experience that is only what he says in public to make his case. If he is capable of taking the next step in his reasoning, he can’t help but move to terrifying thoughts. He may feel wonder at the universe, but if he knows its history he can’t escape the understanding that nature doesn’t care about him. His awe, humility, and fear must all be based on the inescapable realization that ultimately the cosmos will bring about his destruction and the eventual annihilation of the entire human species. Nothing that he or anyone else does will ever have any meaning.  The atheist who looks at outer space as merely a pretty picture is deluding himself. If there is no loving God as Creator of the universe, what the atheist is really looking at in the heavens is the end of all hope or meaning.

There is no need for such a dim view of existence. Because I believe in a loving and purposeful God, when I look at outer space, I see something created with mankind in mind. I know that I am small in physical size, but huge in significance. My awe and humility expand my being through the knowledge that there is a divine power guided by God’s love for all of us. His love changes space into something more like Star Wars: a wonderful challenge that we can meet with joy because of our God-given spirit and intellect.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet

Psalm 8:1-6

To blandly go where everyone has gone before

With the new Star Trek movie coming out next week, I decided to resurrect my old review of the 2009 Star Trek reboot, which contrasted everything that was good about the old Trek with what’s lacking in the new Trek. I have little hope that the new sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, will be any better than its predecessor, but we’ll see. 

Star Trek used to be about people. It began on television ostensibly as an action-packed five-year mission to journey to far-off places and encounter new life—as creator Gene Roddenberry once put it, a sort of Wagon Train to the stars—but like most enduring fiction, it was really about the human experience. Strip away the alien planets, warp drive, and phasers, and what you had was a story about three men. Deeper than that, what you had was an interplay between three basic aspects of human nature.

Spock, whose alien features and aloofness intrigued audiences, was often seen as the embodiment of rationality. But Spock was much more than that. As half-human and half-Vulcan, he represented the eternal struggle between man’s two halves: the animal and the spiritual. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock with distinction for more than four decades, noted that Spock’s popularity took off after an original series episode entitled “The Naked Time.” In this episode, a virus spreads through the ship causing the crew to behave as though they were intoxicated and had lost their inhibitions. As Spock was forced to contend with his emotions, we realized his cool and controlled demeanor masked a violent internal struggle and deep sadness. Many who watched the show identified with his pain.

McCoy was perhaps the least complicated of the three. Though he was nominally the curmudgeon, McCoy represented human compassion, warmth, and softness. But he was by no means weak. McCoy possessed competence, intelligence, and grit—when an alien virus threatened to wipe out the crew, he always rose to the occasion. His flaw was a tendency to lose sight of his rationality, and this often placed him at odds with the calm and rational Spock.

Kirk was the glue that bound the three men together. As the alpha of the group, he represented essential masculinity: drive, passion, and strength, both physical and emotional. He was the embodiment of command. We admired his ability to weather a crisis. We trusted him to stick it to the villain and save the crew. We admired his loyalty to Starfleet, but much more so his loyalty to his ship, his crew, and especially his friends. So inherent were these qualities to his character, that we could tell instantly, even before the crew, when Kirk had been compromised by an alien interloper.

For decades, this trifecta served as the basis of the entire Trek universe. What made Trek interesting weren’t the plot contrivances that brought these three men to any particular place or time, but what they did once faced with their circumstances. Consider the definitive episode, “City on the Edge of Forever.” Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are forced into America’s past at a time just before the second world war. McCoy arrives first, and his presence threatens to set off a chain of events that will ultimately prove to be catastrophic. All three encounter a woman named Edith Keeler who runs a men’s shelter. She’s compassionate, intelligent, and remarkably insightful. Believing the three men to be homeless, she takes them in and cares for them. As Spock struggles to return them to their own time, Kirk falls in love with Edith. Spock is able to discern future events in the altered timeline and discovers that Edith’s pacifism will influence the United States government into delaying entry into the second world war, with a resulting loss of millions of lives. It didn’t happen in the original timeline, but McCoy allows it to happen in this one by preventing Edith from being killed in an accident. Spock tells Kirk that Edith must die. Kirk knows, but is tormented by the decision he must make. The defining moment comes at the end when a distraught Kirk prevents McCoy from saving Edith’s life, and allows the woman he loves to be killed. Furious, McCoy exclaims, “Do you know what you just did?” Kirk is unable to answer. Spock calmly replies on his behalf, “He knows, doctor. He knows.” Kirk recovers himself, and the three return to the Enterprise and their own time. Spock, despite his emotional reserve, understands the pain of Kirk’s sacrifice, and so do we.

This gets to a point that is central to the human experience. Since pain is unavoidable, most of us want to know that the pain we experience is endurable. We see the travails of someone like Kirk and are comforted that he is able to take this pain and not only endure it, but turn it into strength. The fifth Star Trek movie, though widely considered to be the weakest of the original-cast films, contains one beautiful moment of truth. Spock’s long-lost brother, Sybok, who has the ability to pacify people by liberating their pain and guilt, tempts Kirk with a life devoid of pain. Kirk refuses. “You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves! I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!” We are comforted that it is endurable, and that it is necessary.

These experiences helped shaped what is arguably Kirk’s defining characteristic—his resilience—which served as the linchpin of the second and third Trek movies. Faced with certain death at the hands of fanatical nemeses, Kirk never concedes defeat. Even after his son is murdered in cold blood, he refuses to yield. He may doubt himself momentarily, as he did after destroying the Enterprise in The Search for Spock (“My God, Bones … what have I done?”), but McCoy understands Kirk when he observes, “What you had to do. What you always do: turn death into a fighting chance to live,” an echo of Spock’s sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan.

Few can forget Spock’s compelling sacrifice to save the crew of the Enterprise in Khan. The titular villain, insane with rage, had suicidally set the Genesis device to go off, knowing it would also destroy Kirk, who was aboard the crippled Enterprise. The only way the Enterprise could achieve warp and escape was for Spock to enter the propulsion chamber and subject himself to lethal doses of radiation while making repairs. It was a logical choice, but few doubt that it was also a choice born out of love for his fellow crewmen, especially Kirk and McCoy. This was followed by the most poignant scene in all of Trekdom, the final moment between Kirk and Spock, separated physically (and perhaps also symbolically) by the glass shield, bidding farewell to one another. The circle is complete when Kirk observes that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life, an idea presaged earlier in the film when we learn of Kirk’s unique approach to the no-win situation of the Kobayashi Maru.

Perhaps ironically, the most cold and aloof of the films—the first of the series, Star Trek: The Motion Picture—touched on the deepest of human yearnings. In this movie, Starfleet is faced with an enormous and implacable entity that is headed straight for Earth. In desperation, the Enterprise is launched to intercept. We learn that the heart of the entity is comprised of an artificial life-form with ties to the Earth. Spock is drawn to it because of its colossal mind of pure logic. He travels from Vulcan to rejoin the crew in its pursuit of the entity, called Veejur. Veejur is entirely mechanical in form, but it has acquired so much knowledge that it has become self-aware, and is asking the inevitable questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Is this all that I am? We learn, to our astonishment, that this monumental intelligence is returning to Earth in search of its creator, desperate for a purpose. It is fitting that of all the crew, it is Spock, representing duality and inner struggle, who is most drawn to Veejur. In the end, the creator and the created merge to form something far beyond our comprehension. This story spoke to the deepest of human needs: to feel connected, to know who we are and why we’re here.

Star Trek has endured for over four decades, from campy television to sweeping cinema, because of its unique approach in addressing the human condition and in speaking to our fears and weaknesses, to our hopes and strengths, and to our need for connection with one another. Everything we admired about Trek was lovingly packaged with a veneer of science fiction, and rounded out with action, excitement, and humor. We enjoyed the cultural affectations of Scotty and Chekov, the feminine allure of Uhura, and the swashbuckling soul of Sulu. We were entertained by the strange planet surfaces, the scanty female costumes, the exotic villains, and especially the patented Captain Kirk flying kick. But that’s never what Star Trek was really about. It was always about the human condition, and precious little of that was apparent JJ Abram’s reboot of Star Trek.

As a hardcore Trekkie, I was compelled to see the new film for no other reason than it bore the Star Trek name. But as much as I love Trek, I’m not a purist on the molecular level—I wouldn’t care if the nacelles were the wrong shape or if incidental details about the characters were changed. I only hoped for the spirit of the old Trek, but in this regard I was sorely disappointed. I realize the limitations imposed on reintroducing complex characters with long histories in just two hours, so my expectations were modest: I wanted early incarnations of my favorite characters and a reasonably compelling story. What I got were hollow caricatures with familiar affectations draped over a bare thread of a story. Oh, look, there’s young Kirk! What a rebel, that Kirk, for stealing a car and driving it off a cliff. Wow, doesn’t that Heroes guy look just like Spock? And Scotty’s still got his funny accent.

The most developed character was Spock. We witness the torment of his youth, the struggle with his dual nature, and his love for his mother, which he was regrettably never able to express as a grown Vulcan. There are hints at the Kolinahr, the final purging of all emotion, which he was shown to have eschewed in the very first Star Trek movie. It is appropriate that Spock is still not in full control of his emotions as a young Starfleet officer, as when he lashes out physically at a young Kirk, but *** spoiler alert*** his deliberate relationship with Uhura is inexplicable and wildly out of character. *** end spoiler ***

Kirk failed to move me in the least. I was hoping for some hint of his torment at the hands of his academy nemesis, Finnegan—which no doubt shaped much of his character as an officer—but instead the defining experience of his academy days is the reprimand for his solution to the Kobayashi Maru test. He is not portrayed as having much discipline or ability to follow, which is essential to command. And, as with most male characters these days, he seemed more boy than man.

The portrayal of McCoy (by Eomer!was probably the most faithful, but I missed his role as Kirk’s conscience.

Simon Pegg, who is generally wonderful, hammed it up as Scotty in a manic, campy homage. But I prefer the serious and stolid old Scotty, who was practically wedded to his engines.

It’s unfortunate that Uhura, who was given scant screen time in the series and movies, was also underdeveloped in the reboot. What I remember most about Uhura from the original series was her femininity and allure. It made her defiance in episodes like “Space Seed” and “Mirror, Mirror” all the more exciting. Like most of the Star Trek characters, you realized there was more to her than what you saw. But the new Uhura is as bland as a space-turnip. Not only are her characteristic curves missing, but her allure and strength seemed absent as well. She was soft and warm—irritatingly so—and this was offset by occasional bursts of spunkiness that seemed out of character.

The plot—what there was of it—was not compelling. I dislike intensely what was done with the timeline, which essentially wiped out decades of history in the Star Trek series and movies. No more will be said about this, lest I give away too much. Not that there is much to give away, because it hinges on the most boring and ill-motivated Trek villain since Malcom McDowell scampered around on Veridian III trying to get back into the Nexus. Face tattoos and shaved heads are not the defining qualities of scary villains. Nero and his henchmen looked like sulky Euro-skinheads who play vampire RPGs and glower to gloomy music. Nero lacked passion; his motivation was vague and unconvincing, and his spaceship reminded me of an immense space-cockroach.

Aside from the frantic camera work, which was dizzying, the technical aspects of the film were unremarkable: the CGI was good, but nothing to distinguish it from any other sci-fi movie.

In stark contrast with earlier Trek films, the soundtrack was utterly forgettable1. In fact, the entire movie was forgettable. In editing this review for its repost, I struggled to remember moments from this film, and the only scene that came to mind was the only scene with any emotional punch—the death of Kirk’s father at the beginning.

It’s tempting to consider this a case of the second law of thermodynamics applied to movies (if no creativity enters the system, things eventually fall apart)—after five television series and 10 feature films it’s certainly possible that there’s simply no creativity left to keep Trek alive. But I think the failure of the Star Trek reboot to resonate on a human level has less to do with entropy and more to do with the times in which we live. Star Trek started in the 1960s, when Americans had a different attitude about life; people who made movies and television during that time understood that there is a spiritual yearning in most people, and they created entertainment that resonated with it.

In the 1960s, science fiction was entering the mainstream, but it wasn’t until 1977, when Star Wars was released, that its popularity soared. Star Wars ushered in an exciting era of cinematic space fantasy and science fiction, because its creators somehow, either accidentally or deliberately, managed to tap very deeply into the spiritual yearning of its audience. The studio that owned Star Trek was clever enough to capitalize on the sudden mania for space action that Star Wars generated, and because of the enormous good will Trek had amassed through a decade of reruns of the old television show, the franchise was successfully launched onto the big screen. Looking back over six original-cast films, it’s surprising the franchise was able to stay true to itself for so many years. Some of it was schlock, but most of it managed to maintain its original appeal, because it never strayed too far from what made Trek great. Sadly, the virulently humanist element that has pervaded Hollywood for the last 20 years doesn’t understand spirituality, which is why so much of what’s on television and in movies today seems flat and unengaging—including the Star Trek reboot. The essence of Star Trek has been lost, and the name simply exploited by sticking it on what is otherwise a generic action movie.

[1] A day after I saw the movie, I could not for the life of me remember a single note from the soundtrack. This is how it used to be:

Opening scene from Contact

The opening scene for Contact is quite possibly the best opening scene in a movie, ever. (When you watch this clip, it’s recommended that you change the resolution to 720p HD and turn up the volume.)

This is a wonderful illustration of the principle that distance (and motion) is equivalent to time. The speed of any signal, whether light or sound or carrier pigeon, is always finite. It takes time for a signal to travel the distance between the source and the receiver, so this means the signal is always telling us something about the past. Back in the days when people communicated with each other using letters, it took a week or two to receive them, depending on how far they had to travel; when the recipients read those letters, they were always reading about something that was recent to the sender, but already one or two weeks in the past for the recipient. Similarly, when we look at the star Betelgeuse, the light that we see has taken time to travel the distance between Betelgeuse and the Earth, and so we are seeing it as it was in the past (at a distance of 400 trillion miles and with light traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per hour, we are seeing Betelgeuse as it was 640 years in the past). Conveniently, such vast distances are often expressed in units of light-years (the distance light travels in a year), which also tell us at what point in cosmic history we are observing something.

In the opening scene of Contact, the further away we travel from Earth, the older the radio transmissions become. We first hear contemporary (for 1997) music, then the soundtrack gradually shifts to music and news from further and further in our past. Once we get beyond a certain point we hear static, then silence.

But sounds don’t travel through space, I hear some of you saying. True. However, radio signals are light waves, not sound waves. The radio waves, which carry information, are transmitted in all directions and are picked up by a receiver with an antenna (say, an AM/FM radio) that converts the radio signal into the sound you hear. So, in principle, anyone who might be not too far out in space could pick up our terrestrial radio and television signals and learn all kinds of interesting things about the inhabitants of Earth.

Perhaps you are wondering from how far out in space someone could receive intelligent signals from Earth. The scale of the Contact sequence isn’t quite right—it was fudged a bit for creative/dramatic purposes. The truth is, if aliens are zipping past Pluto at this moment, they would receive transmissions from Earth that are from only five and a half hours in the past. Little Green Men near our closest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, would receive transmissions from the year 2009. Civilizations on a planet orbiting the star Alpha Mensae (33 light-years away), however, might catch old episodes of Dallas. Someone passing close to the star 51 Pegasi (50 light-years away) might be aware that someone named John F. Kennedy has been assassinated in a place called Dallas. An alien near the star Regulus (77 light-years away) could be watching images of Hitler opening the Olympic Games in Berlin. Further still, near the star Eta Herculis (112 light-years away), curious beings might just now be detecting Marconi’s radio transmissions. Beyond this distance, the Earth is silent. Considering that our Milky Way galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, we’ve barely announced our existence to the neighbors down the street. Not that this is entirely lamentable. Personally, I find it comforting that so little of the universe is aware of the Kardashians.

Goldsmith vs Williams

When I was a kid in the 1970s–1980s, it was a golden age for movie soundtracks, particularly in science fiction / science fantasy. Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams were giants in the genre, having composed two of the most memorable sci-fi themes of all time. Goldsmith is best known for the theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which later became the theme for the television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Williams is known for many popular movie themes, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, but is arguably best known for Star Wars. The names of these composers are practically synonymous with science fiction, but these composers could hardly differ more in style.

Goldsmith’s style is grand, remote, cerebral. In my opinion, he’s most responsible for the ‘spacey’ ambiance of hard sci-fi. In this piece from Alien (1979), called “Hypersleep,” there is a vague nautical element—you get the sense of a lonely ship navigating an endless cosmos. Like much of his space-music, it is stark and beautiful. This universe is cold in its beauty—it offers wonder, but no quarter.

In “The Cloud,” a piece from ST:TMP (1979), we get a sense of the enormity of the unknown entity heading for Earth and of the secret it contains. Again, there is a nautical element, highlighted by electronic whooshes that evoke memories of earthly oceans. The music is a little brighter here—the universe of Star Trek is less harsh and hostile than that of Alien, but no less grand and mysterious.

In contrast, Williams’ style is robust, familiar, romantic. It is evocative of adventure, human relationships, and spirituality. Consider this piece from Return of the Jedi (1983), which frames the moment when Luke reveals to Leia that they are brother and sister. This piece, like most of Williams’ compositions, is suffused with warmth and emotion.

“Tales of a Jedi Knight / Learn About the Force” (Star Wars, 1977) is no less filled with awe and mystery than Goldsmith’s “The Cloud,” but it is more optimistic and tinged with a sense of adventure. Here we have the budding relationship between a master and his young apprentice. With Williams, you don’t get the sense of a harsh and hostile universe, but one in which purpose and hope are woven into the fabric of its cosmos, even while it is momentarily under the sway of a dark and oppressive force.

Though Goldsmith and Williams differ in style, they have one element in common—the sense of awe and grandeur they convey through their compositions. It’s impossible to imagine the universes of Alien, Star Trek, and Star Wars without the character and dimension of their music.

Physics-inspired sci-fi movie in the works

Good news for hard sci-fi fans: Christopher Nolan, the critically-acclaimed director of the Dark Knight movies, is looking to direct and produce a science fiction movie based on the theoretical work of renowned CalTech physicist, Kip Thorne. The script for the movie, titled Interstellar, was co-authored by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, and features “time travel and alternate dimensions and sees a group of explorers travel through a wormhole.” The movie is tentatively slated for a 2014 release.

Thorne, one of the world’s foremost experts on general relativity, has been a mainstay of gravitational physics for decades. He co-authored the seminal textbook on the subject, Gravitation, with two other giants in the field, Charles Misner and John Wheeler, and also wrote the outstanding popular-level science book, Black Holes and Time Warps. For nearly two decades Thorne held the position of Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at CalTech, named after the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, who, like Thorne, had a particular interest in making physics concepts accessible to a wider audience. Thorne retired from the position in 2009 to focus on other projects, including penning a classical physics textbook and co-authoring the script for Interstellar.

This is not Thorne’s first foray into science fiction, however. When another well-known popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, approached him for help with Sagan’s novel, Contact, it was Thorne who suggested the use of wormholes to transport people over vast distances through space. Thorne subsequently developed the idea theoretically, which has since seen even more popularization in science fiction, most notably three of the later Star Trek television series.

SETI is okay to go

The search for alien intelligence in the cosmos is back on, thanks in part to a donation by actress Jodie Foster. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, better known as SETI, was forced to halt its operations in April after losing government funding.

Foster portrayed an astrophysicist who searched for radio signals from intelligent beings in the 1997 movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. I recommend both highly, as they portray the interrelation of science and faith in an intelligent and balanced way.

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