Sunday, December 07, 2014

In the mind's eye: the topology of Interstellar

So, I finally saw Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar (2014), after carefully avoiding all possible spoilers for weeks.

Wow. Just wow.

So much to say and think. I haven't looked up any reviews or commentaries yet, wanting to write about what really struck me without clouding my thoughts.

The first thing, soon said, is ROBOTS! Coolest. Robots. Ever. I hope they were based on real proposals for robot architecture because I want those robots.

The second thing is the representation of multidimensional space. The moment I realised the behind-the-bookcase space was five dimensions was revelatory. Amazing how they did that, how they made a 2D representation of 5D. Really fuckin' impressed, excuse my French.

As I was starting to understand how they put it together, two books I have been profoundly influenced by sprang to mind, followed by a third.

One was Greg Egan's wonderful novel Diaspora (1997), which is all about different kinds of non-Euclidean space. Egan has an extraordinary ability, through words alone, to make you almost see and feel higher dimensional spaces. My copy is hiding in the bookcases somewhere or I would at this point be quoting large chunks to demonstrate the sheer brilliance of it.

Much later, I was writing a paper about how gravity structures the archaeological record in Earth and space and the necessity of coming to grips with non-Euclidean space (The Gravity of Archaeology, which you can find here). I had to read a lot of topology, and in my quest for understanding I came across another extraordinary book: J.R. Weeks' The Shape of Space: How to visualise surfaces and three-dimensional manifolds (1985). Unlike Egan, he could legitimately use lots of diagrams (I have a feeling that diagrams might be a bit of a mood-killer in a novel), but again he was trying to show you how to visualise higher dimensional and non-Euclidean spaces in two or three dimensions. 

It's a freaky feeling when you realise you have just visualised something in seven dimensions.

Five dimensional hypercube, courtesy of Virtual Flower

Our brains, however, are not really made for such stuff. For me, at least, the experience of reading Egan and Weeks is feeling these dimensions just on the edges of vision; you can almost see them, and your brain can almost comprehend them, before a sort of vertigo sets in and the glimpse is lost. It's really hard to hold onto the moments of clarity when your flesher body lets go of its verticality and physical extension to split itself across a manifold.

Of course no discussion of other-dimensional realities would be complete without a nod to Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions (Edwin Abbott, 1884) - topology PLUS social satire!

Oh and the final one: Madeleine l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time - remember the tesseract?

I'm giddy now with all this brainwork and must go and lie down for a while.

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