Film TED Talks

The plot of ‘Interstellar,’ in 10 TED Talks

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Since the first teaser in late 2013, we’ve been in countdown mode for Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s new outer-space epic that promises to blast us through space and time and wormholes. If you’re as excited as we are but can’t clear three hours to go see the whole movie, here’s the plot we could figure out from obsessively watching trailers.

The story begins on an Earth devastated by drought and climate change. Guys, we’re running out of food! It’s dystopian, but unless we take action, we’re heading there in reality too. In this talk, Jonathan Foley makes a case for “terrafarming” — thinking of the planet’s food systems as one big connected whole.

Curious how such a devastating climate change might happen? Gavin Schmidt shows us how emergent global patterns are causing our climate to get less predictable (scary, but they make hypnotizing GIFs).

As an aside, I don’t know about you, but I’d like to try to fix Earth before we start talking about flying through a wormhole to colonize another planet. And so would Vicki Arroyo, who offers smart ways to think about adapting to the new climate:

But in the movie anyway, we’re pretty sure the world will end, just like Stephen Petranek warned us about:

As part of the Kepler mission, Dimitar Sasselov and his team were part of the first boom in finding extra-solar Earth-like planets — a few hundred, for a start (we know now there are thousands):

So we know roughly where we’re going: to check out some Earth-like extra-solar planets to move into. How do we get there? Well of course we’re going to shoot a giant rocket full of people through a black hole. Andrea Ghez has been exploring what a black hole is — and where the closest one to us might be:

And we’re driving a rocket built in semi-secret, because the days of mighty nation-backed efforts to get to space are over. The future, says Burt Rutan, is in public/private exploration. But no matter what, we can’t stop exploring:

And who do we send? Someone kind of crazy. This talk from explorer Bill Stone captures the fear and wonder of one human going further away from humanity than ever before — in extremely deep caves, and in a potentially one-way trip to space:

Why do films like Interstellar move us so? Fiction or nonfiction, we dream of exploring beyond the world we know. David Deutsch may have said it best — we humans are at best chemical scum, a lucky accident, but we can dream of a place in the cosmos too:

Bonus: The consulting physicist on the film (and an executive producer) is theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, and while Thorne hasn’t given a TED talk, you can see him here in a rather ridiculous quiz show at TEDxCalTech, alongside his fellow Feynman Chair holder John Preskill (and a very special guest).

Bonus to the bonus: While helping develop the graphic effects for the film, Thorne discovered a few new properties of black holes. Read Wired’s wonderful short item on how that worked.