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Interstellar sci-fi WORMS its way into spinning black hole science FACT

Einstein? Pah! Computer code maps light beams

By Kelly Fiveash, 14 Feb 2015

Vid Boffins who worked alongside Hollywood film-makers on the Oscar-nominated sci-fi flick Interstellar reckon they've come up with new discoveries that reveal the "powerful effects" of black holes – all thanks to the computer code that was used for the movie.

As The Register reported back in October, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne helped English-American film director Christopher Nolan create scientifically accurate special effects for a black hole.

We were told at the time that a number of technical papers – including one that detailed what the team learned about gravitational lensing – would be released by scientists who had worked on the star-studded project.

On Friday, a paper published in the Institute of Physics' Classical and Quantum Gravity journal revealed more details about the "innovative computer code" used to create the film's worm hole and black hole images.

The Institute of Physics (IoP) said:

Using their code, the Interstellar team, comprising London-based visual effects company Double Negative and Caltech theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, found that when a camera is close up to a rapidly spinning black hole, peculiar surfaces in space, known as caustics, create more than a dozen images of individual stars and of the thin, bright plane of the galaxy in which the black hole lives. They found that the images are concentrated along one edge of the black hole’s shadow.

These multiple images are caused by the black hole dragging space into a whirling motion and stretching the caustics around themselves many times. It is the first time that the effects of caustics have been computed for a camera near a black hole, and the resulting images give some idea of what a person would see if they were orbiting a hole.

The computer code, dubbed Double Negative Gravitational Renderer (DNGR), used by the team was apparently key to making the discoveries possible. It "mapped the paths of millions of light beams and their evolving cross sections as they passed through the black hole's warped spacetime," said the IoP.

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They were able to show the effects of gravitational lensing – a simulated camera method that reveals a black hole bending and distorting light beams from different parts of a glowing accretion disk, or from distant stars.

"To get rid of the flickering and produce realistically smooth pictures for the film, we changed our code in a manner that has never been done before," said Double Negative's chief boffin Oliver James.

"Instead of tracing the paths of individual light rays using Einstein’s equations – one per pixel – we traced the distorted paths and shapes of light beams."

Thorne said that the new image-making method employed by the Interstellar team would be "of great value to astrophysicists". ®

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