Naked Singularities and the Art of Science Writing: A Love Letter to Kip Thorne

You don’t need to read another review of Interstellar, so thank god this isn’t one!

Okay, so, as the guy from True Detective escaped the dust bowl, went into outer space with Fantine, two redshirts, and some not-killer robots, skipped through a wormhole, had a fistfight with Somewhat Moist Jason Bourne, the whole time excitable fourteen-year-old-Max was in the back of my head shouting:

10 I AM WATCHING A MOVIE EXECUTIVE-PRODUCED BY KIP THORNE

20 WHAT IS THIS WEIRD WONDERFUL FUTURE I INHABIT

30 GOTO 10

Some context: young Max, one unexpectedly un-rainy day in Seattle, visited Botany Bay Books with his parents and his sister. His book supply being more than exhausted by the last several weeks’ car camping trip with same, he scuttled into the science fiction section in search of Awesome, the key components of Awesome at this age being a back cover blurb prominently featuring spaceships and aliens, and a front cover composed of at least 30% chrome. He found a thick, very floppy paperback with onionskin pages and the title: The Reality Dysfunction—Part 1: Emergence, by Peter F. Hamilton, which seemed to fit the bill.

Fast forward a year or so later to Max reading The Naked God, conclusion of the Nightsdawn Trilogy that started with The Reality Dysfunction, which remains a wonderfully crazy space opera about All of the Things: elder races, like three different layers of alien artifacts and conspiracies, space marines, journeys into the heart of darkness, ghosts, interstellar warfare, cyber-criminals, Satan, etc. I haven’t re-read this series in a while, but these are the books where one principal antagonist is Magic Zombie Space Tyrant Al Capone and it makes sense. (Somewhat.)

Among all these eyekicks, though, the eye-kickiest for me was a naked singularity that features prominently in the final book: basically a singularity protruding beyond an event horizon, into the knowable universe.

I thought the idea was amazingly cool, but probably cooked up from the same science fictional furnace in which the ansible was wrought: a neat idea to fill a story hole, without much science behind it.

It seemed like a weirdly specific neat idea without much science behind it, though, so I looked further. (I didn’t have to look much further—if I’m remembering correctly there was a note in the back of The Naked God providing a few references for the naked singularity concept.) I was in love with the thought there was more to black holes than the astro textbooks I’d tracked down in elementary school suggested. Even Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace didn’t talk about naked singularities!

So, that summer, at The Tennessee Governor’s School for the Sciences aka Nerd Camp, full of nerd fever and too much SURGE SODA (I hadn’t yet discovered coffee and the soda fountains in the UTK dining hall dispensed SURGE SODA for free, and let me tell you, if you don’t want to sleep for a month, and I didn’t, 32 oz of SURGE SODA breakfast lunch and dinner will keep your brain fizzing) and too little sleep and an embarrassing failure to send anonymous emails to the entire class, I told our astronomy professor that I wanted to study naked singularities for my research project.

He, in what hindsight reveals to be a truly impressive display of forbearance and kindness to a kid who didn’t know anything about topology or real analysis, suggested that the subject required a great deal of advanced math and the theory I could understand without that math was too sketchy to support a summer’s research project. However, he expected the broader subject of black hole formation and evaporation would prove a fertile ground for study; I could write about that.

Which was how I discovered Kip Thorne: paging through his book Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy during bus trips and after everyone in the program went to sleep so there were no more pranks to pull. (Excessive pranking, it turns out, is a byproduct of unsupervised adolescence combined with SURGE SODA.) I didn’t have the math, but I had the concepts—and more to the point, Thorne brought me, a relatively uneducated reader, step by step through a hundred years of theoretical astronomy and cosmology. I learned about spinning black holes, and Hawking radiation, and quasars, and the whole bestiary of spatial phenomena as it stood back then—including naked singularities. More to the point, I learned about the history of these things: how theory supplanted theory and idea gave birth to idea, how science inched forward throughout the Cold War, mathematics propagating at the speed of espionage.

Thorne was such a wonderful guide to this bestiary that I was surprised when he entered the scene as a character—when Kip Thorne, author, became Kip Thorne, astrophysicist, complete with crazy discoveries about wormholes and rings of exotic matter and closed timelike curves. (And, yes, naked singularities.) These were parts of this man’s life—he was doing work at the highest levels of the field, and here he was explaining that work to me, a high school student, in perfectly comprehensible and witty English.

The paper I wrote in those blurred weeks is, thankfully, lost to history, because SURGE SODA, sleep deprivation, and adolescent enthusiasm do not actually contribute to one’s ability to describe complex cosmological phenomena in Courier 12 double space. Would that were the case! It did, however, leave me with an enduring awe of Kip Thorne.

See, science is hard. And so is writing! Writing about hard science, well, so that an interested reader understands rather than letting the words flow past, is one of the most difficult tasks of all. And here was a man who was not merely a practitioner of the field, but one of its vanguards—a man who’d made bets with Stephen Hawking—who nonetheless took time out of his life and work to write a book guiding newcomers through his world. All so that I, a kid in middle Tennessee without much math, could understand just a hair more of the immense and wonderfully weird universe we inhabit.

As I grew up and learned more about the ins and outs of scientific research and academia, I realized to my horror that there was a non-zero chance Kip Thorne got flack from his colleagues for writing a popular science book—that the generosity of time and intellect Black Holes and Time Warps represented was offered without expectation it would further Thorne’s academic career. Which, of course, made me all the more grateful. That book was a gift. It was one of a handful of texts that reinforced a burgeoning realization that the world was so much bigger, deeper, and more complicated than what I saw with my own eyes—that in spite of my senses’ insistence that everything around me was basically my size and shape and speed, the world was charged with weirdness I could comprehend with work—with difficulty—with math rather than assumptions, with care rather than brash blindness, with respect and imagination and intent.

So, when I saw previews for Interstellar, I thought, well, fine, I’ll see it. Christopher Nolan, sure, and I like space movies, and astronauts.

And then I learned Kip Thorne was part of the project.

Others elsewhere have addressed the movie’s native qualities. I liked it a great deal, though I did think Anne Hathaway’s part was a bit underwritten (she’s the Lady! Scientist! so she has to, of course, have love problems what like women have amirite, which was eyeroll-inducing) though her acting was great. And Matthew McConaughey, of course, acts well, though I think after the last couple years I shouldn’t be surprised at that, or at his ability to keep his shirt on in a movie. The three-hour runtime passed quickly, the Space was Spacious, and the love stuff at the end makes total sense because of course fifth-dimensional ascended posthumans who don’t comprehend monodirectional time would have a rough go of figuring out how to communicate with past!humans, so they’d use humans who have profound connections to other humans, so… but that’s all beside the point.

Beside the point, even, is my admiration for the sheer depth of Christopher Nolan’s sadism in placing the Water Planet scene with the Enormous Tidal Wave at the hour-and-forty-five minute mark, just after I’d metabolized my movie theater beer, and did not need any reminders of the film’s three-hour runtime.

The point is: Interstellar got Kip Thorne’s name in the news. It has my thanks.


Max Gladstone writes books about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees. Last First Snow, his next novel, is about zoning politics, human sacrifice, and parenthood. You can follow him on Twitter.

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