Interstellar technology throws light on spinning black holes

The computer code invented to create Interstallar's visual effects proves useful for research simulations.

The team responsible for the Oscar-nominated visual effects at the center of Christopher Nolan's epic, 'Interstellar,' have turned science fiction into science fact by providing new insights into the powerful effects of black holes.

A moderately realistic accretion disk, created by Double Negative artists and

gravitationally lensed by a black hole.

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 itself 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 around a hole.

This weird distortion of the glowing disk was caused by gravitational lensing--a process by which light beams from different parts of the disk, or from distant stars, are bent and distorted by the black hole, before they arrive at the movie's simulated camera.

This lensing happens because the black hole creates an extremely strong gravitational field, literally bending the fabric of spacetime around itself...

... "Once our code, called DNGR for Double Negative Gravitational Renderer, was mature and creating the images you see in the movie Interstellar, we realised we had a tool that could easily be adapted for scientific research."

In their paper, the team report how they used DNGR to carry out a number of research simulations exploring the influence of caustics--peculiar, creased surfaces in space--on the images of distant star fields as seen by a camera near a fast spinning black hole.

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Have they released any of the star field simulations Ruth?

Kip Thorn had a famous wager with Stephen Hawking over the likelihood of a black hole in the centre of the Galaxy. I remember them debating the merits of Cygnus X 1 as a probable single mass black hole. I don't think I ever found out who won the bet.

This is interesting, and I know it has relevance to something. It is a beautiful shape. What does it mean? 

"exploring the influence of caustics--peculiar, creased surfaces in space--on the images of distant star fields as seen by a camera near a fast spinning black hole."

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