How a Mathematician Created the Interstellar Travel in Arrival in One Night

Mathematician Stephen Wolfram’s company Wolfram Research was behind all of the math on CBS’ NUMB3RS (we’re talking everything from line readings to formulae), but he personally hadn’t gotten a chance to consult on what he calls the “science texture” of a Hollywood project… until Arrival. Back in 2015, before Paramount Pictures had really started the publicity push for their adaptation of Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life,” Wolfram and his young son got to visit the set in Montreal, where both of their brilliant minds were put to work.

A number of articles about constructing the heptapods’ bizarrely beautiful written language for the big screen have mentioned the code that the production team had to create in real life in order to show linguist Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) thought process as she learns a uniquely alien language. It turns out that Wolfram’s son Christopher, a programmer, helped contribute some of the code in Wolfram Language, with certain shots making it to the final cut. But it was his father who was tasked with coming up with a plausible explanation for the heptapods’ interstellar travel… in the space of about one night.

In a lengthy and fascinating blog post, Wolfram explains how he consulted on two very different communication sequences: how humans talk to aliens without the shared foundation of language or history; and how humans explain physics to one another. The way that screenwriter Eric Heisserer adapted Chiang’s story, it’s just as vital for Louise and physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to be able to ask the heptapods “what is your purpose” as it is for them to turn around to their own team and explain how the heptapods got to Earth and what they could possibly want from us backward humans.

Here’s where things got tricky: After consulting in summer 2015, Wolfram didn’t hear much about the project for a year, just that it was “in post-production.” Then, in mid-2016, he suddenly got another request: Could he, in the space of about a night, write up the physics of the heptapods’ space travel on a white board for a scene? And—this is the detail that sticks out to me—could he distill it down to “basic high-school-level physics — not the kind of top-of-the-line physics one would expect from people like the Jeremy Renner character in the movie.”

Arrival whiteboard interstellar travel Stephen Wolfram Research

The result is the image you see above, with the mathematics carefully spaced around where Adams’ head would go for the scene, accompanied by (in Wolfram’s post) 23 footnotes for each of the pieces. Of course, this being Hollywood, the board got rewritten for the final version anyway. But Wolfram’s entry is worth reading, as he muses on scientific accuracy and what mannerisms Renner—who he’s seen in quite a number of action movies, he realized—might have picked up from him after shadowing him on-set. Like he says, communication goes both ways.

via Boing Boing


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