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Quantum Physics and Relativistics In Cinema. How does fidelity to scientific theories affect the science fiction genre


November 20, 2019.

On this day, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked with finding and annihilating a group of dangerous replicants illegally arrived on Earth. During the investigation, he moves a flying vehicle around the corners of the metropolis bathed in rain and fumes from the sewage system, uses software that allows for three-dimensional analysis of a 2D photo and looks for differences between a human being and consciousness created by artificial intelligence in human image. The reality, however, differs greatly from Ridley Scott’s dystopian vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner (1982) and earlier by Phillip K. Dick in the pages of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? published in 1968 and serving as the basis for the screenplay for the American director. Law enforcement continues to pursue criminals as human as they did decades ago, cars still need ground under the wheels, 3D photos are a visual curiosity on Facebook, and machine learning in the social consciousness exists more as a joke in which a computer learns to recognize animals in an image than a milestone in creating intelligent humanoid beings. This does not change the fact that the aforementioned date was a celebration of science fiction fans around the world, and the desire to confront the vision of the creators with contemporary realities served as a contribution to the re-screening of the work – not only at home, but also during festival screenings. Similar occasions for celebration happen in the case of every visionary work, the times of which we managed to wait for the time of action.

Science fiction

is a film genre in which the creator takes on the role of a prophet. He creates the presented world, mixing scientific theories and creations of his own imagination on the screen. Only from it depend on the proportions of both these components. As the example of Blade Runner shows, what counts in the end is not one hundred percent correctness of predictions, but a reliable transfer to film, and now a digital medium, of the moods, fears and social hopes associated with the approaching decades and centuries of civilization. It is their record in the form paraphrased by the director and screenwriter that we see after years. The inspirations of the creators naturally come from the same sources from which people draw answers to questions about the origin and future of man, natural phenomena or existential problems. When there was no scientific explanation, religion had a monopoly on the interpretation of the world around us that lasted until the nineteenth century. The development of cosmology has not so much limited humanity’s view of many hitherto inexplicable phenomena, but has opened the door in the social consciousness to a completely new direction of consideration.

dziewczyny z dubaju caly film

Diagram showing the action time of selected science fiction films.

Quantum physics issues

began to appear in the discourse of everyday life thanks to films and the first books addressed to the mass audience such as Fritjof Capra’s Tao of physics already in the 70s. However, Stephen Hawking had the greatest influence on the popularization of insightful knowledge about issues that ignited the imagination of science fiction creators. The use of wormholes for space travel, time dilation, black holes, and the beginning and predicted end of the universe are described in the bestselling Short History of Time published in 1988. This book summarizes the achievements of astrophysicists, cosmologists and theoretical physicists in the twentieth century. Hawking’s popular science work, embellished with humorous and self-ironic comments by the author, fulfilled its role on an unprecedented scale. The book reached millions of readers around the world, explaining difficult concepts in a simple, for the intricacies of the subject, way. Both the issues of relativistics and quantum mechanics as well as the figure of the astrophysicist himself have been permanently adapted by pop culture. The second half of the twentieth century was the period of the first flights into space, the development of many basic theorems in the field of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, and the emergence of computers and the Internet. However, the public’s knowledge of these topics was still very limited. It was based on the information contained in television announcements and the whispering of uncertainty and conjecture, fueled by a sense of the continuing threat of nuclear conflict between world powers during the Cold War. No wonder that the visions in science fiction films were characterized by pessimism. According to the claim that man is afraid of what he does not understand, the destruction of man at the hands of alien life forms was predicted [Alien – 8th passenger of “Nostromo” (1979), Something (1982), Independence Day (1996), The X-Files (1994-2004)], artificial intelligence [Blade Runner (1982), Terminator (1984), Matrix (1999)] or cosmic cataclysms [Armageddon (1998)]. It must be admitted that despite the cult character of many of these titles, most of the concepts presented in them cease to frighten with their inevitability and credibility. Space and technology are now more fascinating than frightening, and the real threat may come from nature, which has always been present with us, which is changing under the influence of human activity.

A new reality

and the rise of widespread knowledge of physics have changed the direction of the science fiction genre in the last few decades. Many scholars, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Fred Hoyle, Geoffrey Landis, and Carl Sagan, have been actively involved in the storytelling process, most often as feature consultants and screenwriters, enriching the pool of original ideas for worth telling stories in the film industry. Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist and close friend of Stephen Hawking, took the initiative to outline the first plot presented in Interstellar (2014), choosing astrophysical issues taken as wallpaper in the story. Over the years, he developed a concept that, after a short collaboration with Steven Spielberg, he gave into the hands of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. The film is considered a spectacular success of the combination of science and art. It managed to maintain the form of a high-budget entertainment cinema with simultaneous realism and compliance with the laws of physics, unprecedented in science fiction cinema. This was possible thanks to the desire to reach a compromise that satisfies both worlds. Thorne, confronting Interstellar’s fictional solutions step by step with scientific facts in his book, uses the concepts of truth, hypothesis and conjecture. Elements one hundred percent certain from the point of view of physics had to be preserved, with minor deviations, in their original form. In turn, areas impossible to verify by modern science left room for creative interpretation for the director and screenwriter, which Thorne did not oppose in any way. Thanks to this, during the screening, we looked behind the event horizon of the black hole and found out what was behind the library in Murph’s room. Interestingly, Interstellar received the main criticism for the imagination of the creators, allegedly incompatible with the hard laws of physics. On the other hand, a few decades ago, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which was openly inspired by Christopher Nolan, boredom was accused of boredom precisely because of the excessive realism for those times – silence and the lack of pyrotechnic effects in a cosmic vacuum did not arouse such baked goods on the faces of viewers as the then competing sci-fi titles. At that time, Stanley Kubrick also cooperated with experts, supporting himself in the production with NASA’s substantive facilities. These efforts were appreciated in retrospect, showing how the expectations of the audience of the science fiction genre have changed over the years.

Still from the “Interstellar” (2014).

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