The Physics of the Movie “Interstellar”

A summary of the physics of the new movie Interstellar on LinkedIn:  Interstellar link

Never say never. Though it sure seems that interstellar travel is extremely unlikely. For Alcubierre warp drive, one needs stupendous amounts of “negative energy”. Although it exists according to Quantum Mechanics — it is found in quantum vacuum energy — no one knows how to access it, let alone in great quantities. Nonetheless, warp drive is under study at NASA. See .

As to wormholes, although allowed by the mathematics of general relativity, no one knows if they really exist. Plus quantum issues say its throat would be almost instantly pinched off by EM and vacuum energy. Thorne proposes using negative energy to keep the throat open, but this again requires tremendous amounts of negative energy. And quantum mechanics says this “exotic matter” must be extremely narrow and lasts only for the briefest of times.

Highly improbable to say the least. But wonderful to imagine.

(I will be giving talks on all this at the San Francisco Star Trek convention on Dec. 13 and 14. If you are in the area, come join the fun.)













Lessons on Life and Success from Albert Einstein

“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by how he has attained liberation from the self.” – Albert Einstein 

Recently I had the pleasure of studying the life of Albert Einstein for my popular science book, Einstein Relatively Simple. I was struck by the great physicist’s ability to think independently, persist through failure, and remain humble despite extraordinary accomplishments. Below are ten life lessons (LL) I gleaned from my research:

1. Think for Yourself

Einstein was skeptical of prevailing thinking. He followed the logic of his own ideas no matter how strange their implications. He even dared to challenge the physics of the great Isaac Newton.

Over a century of observations and tests have since confirmed Einstein’s predictions over Newton’s. Einstein’s ideas have forever changed the way we look at the universe.

LL: Don’t dismiss your ideas just because of what everyone else thinks. You may be on to something.

2. Evaluate for Individual Merit not Just Pedigree

Einstein was a high-school drop-out. In college, he graduated fifth of six students in the math/physics program. His physics professor gave him a bad reference for disrespect in class.

Upon graduation in 1900, Einstein couldn’t find a university or high school teaching position anywhere in Europe. Would you hire a person with such a record?

LL: Judging on grades, degrees, and references can be misleading. There may be another Einstein out there.

3. Persistence Trumps Talent

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with the problem longer.” – Albert Einstein

It wasn’t easy, even for Einstein. It took him ten years (starting at age 16!) to come up with his special theory of relativity. It took him another ten years to produce his masterpiece on gravity — general relativity.

LL: Persistence and strength of will is even more important than prodigious talent.

4. Take Time Out to Think

At college and in later years, Einstein would often go sailing in a small boat to think. The solitude away from the hubbub of the city cleared his mind.

LL: Get away. Go for a walk. Let your mind wander and see what pops up. This is even more important in the hyper-information age in which we live. (Shut off your smart phone!)

5. Seek Help When You Need It

Grossman, you’ve got to help me or I shall go crazy.” – Albert Einstein

In 1912, Einstein found his new theory of gravity required expertise in an esoteric form of mathematics called differential geometry. He was in over his head and he knew it. He enlisted the help of his college friend, Marcel Grossman — who had become a professor of mathematics specializing in geometry.

LL: Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Even Einstein needed it.

6. It Isn’t All About the Money

“Plain living is good for everybody, physically and mentally.” – Albert Einstein

Einstein was one of those rare individuals who lived simply despite great renown. When he came to the United States in the 1930’s, he could have parlayed his fame into immense wealth. But he chose to live in Princeton in an unpretentious home and continued to dress modestly.

LL: As studies show, once you have enough to live comfortably, more money does not necessarily make for more happiness.

7. Treat Everyone the Same

Einstein was famous for engaging the garbage man with the same warmth and respect as a president. He played his beloved violin with the Queen of Belgium and a department store owner with equal enjoyment.

LL: We are all human beings. Treat everyone you meet as an equal.

8. Admit Your Mistakes

In 1927, Belgian physicist Georges Lemaitre proposed to Einstein that the universe is expanding. “Your calculations are correct,” Einstein told him, “but your grasp of physics is abominable.”

Two years later, astronomer Edwin Hubble published his landmark observations on the expansion of the universe. In 1931, a humbled Einstein traveled to the top of Mount Wilson and personally thanked Hubble for “delivering him from folly.”

LL: Admit your mistakes promptly and publicly. It gains the respect of others and makes you a better person.

9. Attend to Family

I am very starved for love . . .I almost believe wicked science is guilty . . . – Mileva Maric, Einstein’s first wife, in a letter to a friend.

As his fame grew, Einstein now in Berlin spent more and more time away from home — giving lectures, interacting with colleagues, and working on his physics. Mileva Maric’s resentment grew accordingly. After several attempts at reconciliation, Mileva left Berlin with their two boys in tow and moved back to Zurich. Seeing his sons off at the station, Albert “bawled like a little boy.”

LL: Absence does not necessarily make the heart grow fonder. Spend time with your family or you may lose them.

10. It Doesn’t Count Till You Finish

Finally the general theory of relativity is closed as a logical structure.” – Albert Einstein on November 25, 1915.

Einstein had come up with the principle concepts of general relativity by 1912. It took him three more years of intense effort to produce the mathematics. Only then could other physicists test his predictions quantitatively and see how well his theory agreed with reality.

LL: A great idea is only a start. Put into action and complete it for others to see. Then you have accomplished something.


Postscript: I write this article with a famous picture hanging above my desk of Einstein sticking out his tongue. It’s another life lesson — don’t take yourself too seriously.

For more information on the life of Einstein and how he came to develop relativity, please check out my book Einstein Relatively Simple.


Sources for this article:

Egdall, Ira Mark. Einstein Relatively Simple: Our Universe Revealed in Everyday Language (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2014)

Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008-pbk)

Einstein Relatively Simple

It’s been quite a ride. And it still feels like a dream. But finally my popular science book, Einstein Relatively Simple: Our Universe Revealed in Everyday Language, is available in the U.S.

If you (or anyone you know) are interested in Einstein or the wonders of the universe, please check it out. I wrote it especially for those who always wanted to understand Einstein’s ideas but perhaps never thought it possible. So you don’t need a PhD in physics to understand it.

For a description of what the book is about, some early reviews, and where you can get it, please click on:

Anti-science and Prediction

By Ira Mark Egdall

A certain politician was on The Daily Show the other day. He complained to John Steward that people say derogatory things about his religious group, like they are anti-science. Steward let the comment go. What I would have liked to have heard Steward say in response was:

“When you argue against climate science, evolution science, and big bang science, and offer no verified predictions to counter these theories, what do you expect?”

Don’t get me wrong. I myself am not arguing for or against any religious viewpoint. I’m just saying you can’t take on established science without confirmed predictions in support of your argument.

I’m not saying you gotta believe everything you read about science. On the contrary, healthy skepticism is a key to scientific progress. But at the heart of new science is a “prediction” — a new and specific prediction which can be tested. If and when other scientists independently validate your prediction via careful observation and measurement, then your new theory must be accepted as having merit.

Charles Darwin famously predicted the discovery of a “missing link” between humans and apes. Fossils which contain both human and ape-like characteristics have since been found. Today, compelling evidence in support of evolution’s predictions has been found everywhere across our planet, including in the DNA which makes up all living things.

The Cosmic Microwave Background is just one example of the many predictions made by the big bang theory verified by observation. Climate scientists’ predictions of long-term global temperature rise, arctic melting, sea rise, and more frequent extreme weather events have now been observed world-wide.

This is why these theories are overwhelmingly accepted by science experts in their respective fields. They represent our best current scientific understanding of the phenomena they describe.

So if you want to argue against established science, please feel free to do so. But please make a new prediction. One which can be scientifically tested. Otherwise, don’t call your ideas verified science.

Ira Mark Egdall is the author of the eBook, Unsung Heroes of Modern Physics.
– Link to book on Amazon:
– Link on Smashwords:

My website:
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Unsung Heroes

by Ira Mark Egdall

I find I am drawn to stories about those who science history had forgotten – unsung heroes who never got proper credit for their accomplishments. Who discovered the expansion of the universe? Who was the first to find evidence for dark matter? Who was the first person in space? Who came up with quantum field theory?

I was surprised to find they were not who I had thought. So I wrote a short compilation of essays on five such individuals – men and women who, despite extraordinary achievements, remain unknown to the general public and to many scientists.

My ebook, Unsung Heroes of Modern Physics, was a joy to write, and I hope it helps set the record straight. Please check it out.

Link to book on Smashwords:

Link on Amazon:

My Quantum Challenge

By Ira Mark Egdall

Decoded Science asked me to write an article on a new modeling breakthrough in quantum mechanics. It involves sampling and feedback of Feynman diagrams. I read the press release out of UMass Amherst. Oh boy, this is a tough one. Lots of obscure terms like Green’s function, strongly-correlated fermions, and mapping bosonic systems into polymers in four dimensions.

Oy! How do I “decode” this stuff so a non-expert can understand it when I have difficulty understanding it myself.

So I ask Decoded Science to set up an interview with one of the principle researchers, Dr. Boris Svistunov. I call him. He’s really smart, patient with my many questions, and obviously excited about his work. I take notes and struggle to comprehend what he is telling me.

After several conversations, I find I have a much better understanding of the physics. I think.

I know from Feynman’s wonderful book, QED, the Strange Theory of Light and Matter, it is impossible to tell what a single particle will do. All physicists can do is tell the probability of a certain outcome.

And now I understand there are two ways to determine this probability.

Sum-of-All-Paths Method:

Say a photon is emitted at point A. What is the probability it is detected some time later at point B? The photon can simply go directly from A to B. Or it can take one of any number of less direct paths. Per the sum-of-all-paths method, all possible paths the photon could take contribute to the probability of detecting it at B.

Which path did the photon actually take? It seems it took them all. Why? Because when we sum all possible paths (more precisely we sum amplitudes for each path, then square), we get the probability of finding the photon at B.

Feynman Diagrams Method:

A Feynman diagram, however, depicts (visually and mathematically) virtual interaction events. Let’s look at examples from Feynman’s book:

Imagine an electron going from A to B. It could go from A to B with no interactions. (diagram 1). Here the straight line represents the sum of all the paths it could take.

Or the electron could emit and absorb a photon along the way (diagram 2). Or the electron could emit and absorb two photons along the way (diagram 3). Or one of the photons could transform into an electron and anti-electron (positron), annihilate, and produce a new photon along the way (diagram 4). Etc.

Each Feynman diagram depicts possible events which could happen as the electron goes from A to B. But what versions of interactions actually occur? Again, it is though all versions occur. Why? Because when we add all possible diagrams (all the amplitudes and square), we get the probability of detecting the electron at B.

This is so strange. But it works. It makes super-accurate predictions. So it must be telling us something about reality.

Why are the events in each Feynman diagram called “virtual”? Because, per Svistunov, “they cannot in themselves be verified by experiment. Only the sum of all Feynman diagrams is physically meaningful.”

How do you determine probabilities for quantum systems involving a large number of particles? For bosons (integer spin like photons), the sum of all paths method has proven effective in most cases. But for fermions (half-integer spin like electrons), we need the Umass team’s new breakthrough: sampling and feedback of Feynman diagrams. (Please see article for details.)

I learn something every day. Which is no doubt a measure of how little I know.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Link to article is here.

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The Devil is in the Details

By Ira Mark Egdall

I know from personal experience that for a scientist or engineer working on a complex state-of-the-art project, the greatest fear is making a simple mistake which proves disastrous. So when I learned the faster than light CERN experiment may be in error due to a faulty fiber optic connection, I blurted “oh, no!”

Apparently, CERN has identified two possible issues in their faster than light neutrino experiment: 1) the faulty optical fiber which would make the neutrino speeds less than reported, and 2) an oscillator used for GPS timing which would make the neutrino speeds greater than reported.

If true, it means great embarrassment to the CERN teams, and in particular the individuals responsible for the equipment. How could they overlook such simple things? There are just so many new and untried instruments, measurement devices, and methods in such an endeavor — the odds of missing something the first time through are quite high, no matter what the “quality control” approach.

In hindsight, the results should not have been released to the public until a full evaluation of the experiment, and a repeat test confirming findings. This, of course, is most difficult in our near instantaneous, globally-connected, hyper-information age. Not to make excuses, but I find my sympathies are with the folks at CERN.

We will have to wait for further analysis to find out the total impact of these issues. Most likely, final results will confirm Einstein was right — neutrinos do not travel faster than the speed of light. But for sure, the latest issues show we are all human. And the devil is in the details.


What do you think? I welcome all comments — pro and con.

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Quantum Entanglement

by Ira Mark Egdall

Nature is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
– J. B. S. Haldane

You want wild and crazy? Forget jumping out of an airplane or going out with that nose-pierced, body tattooed delinquent with the multi-colored hair your mother hates. Just look at reality.

I’m talking about the reality revealed by so-called quantum entanglement, where two particles — no matter how far apart — are intimately and instantly connected.

Take two entangled photons moving in different directions. Per conservation laws, if one is vertically polarized, the other must be horizontally polarized, and vice-versa. So when you measure the polarization of one photon, you instantly know the polarization of the other.

So what’s the big deal? Einstein and his colleagues Podolsky and Rosen (EPR) argued each photon had a certain polarization before you measured it. All the measurement did was reveal what that polarization was all along. And once you measured the first photon, you knew what the second photon’s polarization was.

But quantum theory says a photon’s polarization, like its other variable attributes, is in a kind of limbo. Its polarization is undetermined until it is measured. In other words, a particle’s attributes like polarization are not programmed in advance. They exist only after measurement.

Physicists have since conducted a number of tests to find out whether this is true. These Bell experiments show quantum theory is right. A particle’s variable attributes are not pre-programmed. They are random — determined in the act of observation itself.

So in the above experiment, the polarizations of both photons start out indeterminate, in quantum limbo. The act of measuring the first photon sets its polarization — and the polarization of the second photon. Instantly. Across space. No matter how far apart the two particles are. Something here can and does influence something way over there. In zero time. The universe is “non-local”.

This quantum reasoning also applies to a particle’s location. As Rosenblum and Kuttner wrote in their book, Quantum Enigma, a particle “was not there before you found it there. Your happening to find it there caused it to be there.”

Whoa. Our universe is wilder than we can imagine.

Caveat: Arguments against the completeness of quantum theory and the interpretation of Bell experiments remain topics of ongoing physics discussion and research. David Bohm’s so-called Causal Interpretation of quantum mechanics is the most famous non-local hidden variable theory (there are a number of others). Bohm’s theory reproduces the predictions of quantum mechanics without resorting to probabilities. In Bohm’s clever but convoluted construct, a particle’s attributes are pre-programmed, known before measurement. Based on an idea from Louis de Broglie, a hidden “guiding wave” traveling faster than light governs the motion of a particle. However, the theory remains non-local.

What do you think? I welcome all comments — pro and con.

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Global Warning IV

by Ira Mark Egdall

For those who want to learn more about global warming (pro and con), I suggest “Global Warming is not a Crisis” under Sciences, Earth Sciences, Climate Science on The link is:

Of course I have my own biases, but, after reading all the arguments, I am more and more convinced human-induced climate change is real and urgent. Here’s some of what convinced me:

Measurement Data Supports Warming – per Swansont #163 and 165:

“2005 and 2010 are tied for the warmest years on record. All eleven years in the 21st century so far (2001–2011) rank among the 13 warmest in the 132-year period of record. Only one year during the 20th century — 1998 — was warmer than 2011.

“In the last 25 years the temperature has gone up about 0.35º C while the CO2 concentration has gone from 350 to 390 ppm. The dependence is logarithmic, so this gives us a sensitivity of ~2º C for a doubling of CO2, ignoring any latency in the system. If you go back ~35 years, it’s about 0.5º C and we start at 330 ppm. Again, you get 2º C.

The predictions are that this sensitivity is between 1.5 and 4.5. (In other words, the predicted warming has occurred.)”

Warming is Not Due to Natural Factors – per Captain Panic #46:

“Nobody said it’s just 1 factor. But recently there was only 1 factor which changed a lot: humans. There is no increased meteor activity. Water is already in the models. Properly. Continents move really slow. The earth’s tilt hasn’t changed much either. The oceans are in the models already. All that extra CO2 comes from us. The only thing debated is whether it will really make the world heat up or not.”

Increase in Atmospheric Carbon Traced to Human Activities – per Swansont #47 and 60:

“Fossil-fuel carbon is devoid of C-14, and there are difference is the C-12/C-13 ratio for terrestrial vs. oceanic sources. You can do isotopic analysis to find the dominant source of the increase in atmospheric carbon. Can you guess the answer?

“It’s not just that C-12 increased. C-13 and C-14 did not increase in the proportion you would get if the sources were natural. The changes in the ratios is what you get from fossil fuel burning (by human activity).”

Past Climate Change Different – per Swansont #97

“The past spikes correlate with eccentricity variation in the earth’s orbit — the trigger there is the solar radiation hitting the planet, and in those cases, CO2 was also from a feedback effect. (CO2 did not cause the initial rise in temperature)

That kind of change doesn’t happen in a matter of decades, though, and the ice-age-cycle CO2 levels topped out at under 300 ppm.”

Current Global Climate is Changing Alarmingly Fast – per Essay #100 and #123 (from the National Academies Press):

“A change worth 30 million years, occurring within about a century, has not happened for over 50 million years (or longer) of Earth’s history. We were just lemurs in the trees, that long ago, and the modern C4 grasses had not even evolved yet. This is also before the polar ice caps existed.

“We are pushing our atmosphere back to conditions prevailing 30 million years ago, within just several more generations! Hello?! Does anyone see a problem with surviving those conditions, for the next several millennia?”

I think we need to take action now to reduce human-induced climate change. The evidence is too compelling to ignore. And the potential impact on human life (as well as on other life forms) is devastating.

What do you think? I welcome all comments — pro and con.

My website:
You can also follow me on Twitter@IMEgdall