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The black hole imagery of 'Interstellar' is helping astrophysics

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You may have heard that the representation of a black hole in Interstellar was not only based on real science, but might tackle researchers' problems depicting these gravitational points. Well, that just happened -- physicist Kip Thorne and visual effects outfit Double Negative have published papers detailing the code used to portray the movie's black hole, Gargantua. Rather than trace individual light rays, they followed the paths and shapes of the millions of distorted beams traveling around the hole. The technique eliminates flickering effects that not only wreck your moviegoing experience, but prevent astrophysicists from getting a clear picture of what such a scene would look like in real life.

Interstellar itself isn't a perfect role model. Director Christopher Nolan deemed the "real" imagery too bewildering for audiences that haven't brushed up on their spacetime theory, so he both switched from a blue tint to a bright red and slowed things down to maintain symmetry. The image you see above is closer to what you'd actually get after accounting for Doppler and gravitational shifts. However, the underlying software is accurate -- leave things alone and you should get realistic results. The programming is good enough that NASA researchers already hope to use it to understand the behavior of neutron stars and other celestial bodies that aren't easy to study. You're sadly unlikely to see many other movies produce this kind of scientific progress, but it's good to know that cinematic effects don't have to be solely about impressing viewers.

[Image credit: Paul Franklin, Oliver James, Kip Thorne and Eugénie von Tunzelmann, Classical and Quantum Gravity (DOI 10.1088/0264-9381/32/6/065001)]

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