Quantum Lives, ‘Interstellar’ Thoughts

It has taken me a few days to get my bearings back after travelling with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to and from another galaxy. The ride was filled with blackholes, wormholes, gravitational pulls, and the Theory of Relativity. It was, needless to say, quite disorienting.

So I returned to Earth and to a life where quantum physics doesn’t apply (yet). But have I? As I got to musing more about Interstellar, I realized that the film offers us a glimpse of what our lives would be like when viewed from a black hole and quantum physics. 

Interstellar has two plot lines: one is the race to find a new suitable planet for human habitation, and the other is Cooper’s goal to see his daughter again. But these two narratives collapse into each other, just as two points, which are otherwise far apart, come closer to each other as time-space curves and folds upon itself. By getting inside that blackhole, Cooper found a way to see his daughter again and save the human race.

Storytellers have pulled off tricks like this since people started telling tales. We rely on destiny, chance encounters, deus ex machina, and other narrative strategies to string our (messy) stories together and tie them into a neat conclusion.  In Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, for instance, the protagonist embarked on his quest for treasure only that discover that it lay all along where he began.

Interstellar is somewhat more sophisticated than that; the scriptwriters, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, take a leaf out of the universe’s book and rely on quantum physics to reconcile two opposing story lines — finding a new home for humanity and seeing one’s daughter — once again.

But we aren’t just speaking of narrative tactics here. Interstellar shows us how our lives would appear from the vantage point of multiple dimensions. This we see in the last major section of film, when Cooper braves the black hole only to find himself in a dimension where he (and so do we) sees the past, the present, and the future all at the same time. We (Cooper and viewers) attain a quasi-divine perspective in which we realize that our past actually happened in the future, and that in the past our future had already happened.

Sadly, Interstellar is the only time when we can experience something like this. My future has already happened and my future self is in another dimension, standing behind this wall I face, metaphorically sending out signals in Morse code. He is screaming at me not to write this review, and saying that there are better uses of my time.

However, just as Murph and Cooper couldn’t have known that the ticking watch, broken toys, and the falling dust were his doing, we poor creatures have no way of knowing what our future (selves) is telling us. Outside quantum mechanics, we are parochial, narrow-minded creatures who can’t see beyond the present, who can’t see that the “ghost” is actually a human being, that “they” is actually a “we or I.”

Indulge me a little bit. Even if we could see our lives from multiple dimensions at the same time, would we obtain some greater awareness, a deeper sense of ourselves, an enlightenment of sorts? Cooper jumped into that black hole, knowing he would never see his daughter again. He only wanted to retrieve and send back the necessary data that would save the human race. And his bravery was rewarded with front-row seats to the past, present, and future of his life, and gave humanity a second chance.

This is admirable action hero stuff: not giving up, laying it all down there, daring the impossible. Told that jumping into a black hole is impossible, Cooper says, “That is why it is necessary.” But this courageous act, and the salvation that flows from it, is also paralleled by a supreme form of wishful thinking, even narcissism, which, like a black hole, warps our relationship to nature and the universe.

The universe is immense and indifferent to our existence. Black holes can tear us apart and mangle us to nothingness. We are but one tiny speck in the universe and matter little from a galactic point of view. But in Interstellar, its laws are suddenly and magically attuned to our needs. We personalise the impersonal, so that, to borrow a phrase from Coehlo’s The Alchemist, the universe conspires to get us what we want. For starters, the time-space anomaly just so happens to bridge a black hole in another galaxy and a room in a farm house in the middle of nowhere. Given the size of the universe, what are the odds of that?

But why the fuss, the seemingly unnecessary attack on what’s “only fantasy and fiction”? It is certainly so, but in a more pernicious sense than simple make-believe.   Why make this kindof fantasy in which we think the universe revolves around us, in which we curve everything, including the time-space continuum, upon ourselves? Our ego, the human self, not the laws of gravity, is the ultimate force of the universe.

We join Cooper and others as they venture into the unknown in search for nice planet to settle in. But all of us began the journey in Murph’s room and we finish it there; we return to the same house we had left, albeit one now greener and much better. We may now be in another planet, but in some ways, humanity’s greatest journey simply brought us back to where we started. Our furthest travel in history— into another galaxy — is also our deepest and most intimate. And we consummate this journey by jumping into a black hole, where we find only ourselves, which is another way of saying that we find nothing.

Interstellar has a scene in which a character says that we humans cannot relate to our species, only to our immediate fellows, including our kin. But given how we bend even time and space to suit our needs, our problem is that humanity is too full of itself, and that is one reason why our planet is dying to begin with. In the film, our search for another livable planet is premised on this reality, but we probably wouldn’t need to look to do so if we didn’t destroy our planet with our collective ego, greed, and hubris.

Interstellar speaks of Cooper and the others like the explorers and pioneers of old. In framing its story thus, the film draws a parallel with a historical phenomenon that was as much an epic tale of blood and bravery, and of civilisation and barbarism. How many people were killed in the name of progress and civilization?

Similarly, our wish in which time and space suit our needs, in which we personalize the impersonal, is a fantasy to colonize the universe, uncover its secrets, master its laws, and bring them under our control so that we can all live happily ever after. All the while ignoring that we lost happily ever after partly because we wanted to bring nature and the universe to heel. Who’s to say what happened on Earth can’t happen in our Saturnine colony? And why ask where we could live when we can inquire why, in the first place, we are destroying the Earth and how we can save it?

Nietzsche famously said that God is dead, and that we, humanity killed him only to act as a surrogate divinity. The crown of evolution and the pinnacle of creation, we (sometimes) forget in our secularist, scientific fervour that as much as we master its laws, we do not own the universe, which is bigger than and indifferent to us, who are mere its stewards.

From the perspective of the universe, we are simply specks of cosmic dust, rather like the dust that settles all over the place in the early stages of Interstellar. But the film refuses to acknowledge this symbol of frailty, vulnerability, death, and meaninglessness. This is perhaps why it borrows from Dylan Thomas’ poem and has some of its characters reciting about “not going gently into the good night” and “raging against the dying of the light.” The movie engages just as much in a heroic quest as in supreme narcissism. Having unlocked the secrets of quantum physics, we have now mastered the laws of the universe and affirmed the strength of the human spirit.

But if this is the fantasy we tell ourselves, then perhaps we really do need a quantum leap in our thinking about humanity and its place in the universe. If we are to save ourselves and the planet, we would have to recover the lost dimensions of existence and open up new, richer ones, just as Cooper and Murph did. What those are lie within or around us, but maybe we just do cannot see, know, or hear them yet. And that’s because we, like Cooper and Murph, at the early stages of the film, have not made our own quantum leap into a much better life here on Earth.


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