Black holes, gravity and film – Depicting gravitational lensing in Interstellar

Listening to the Science Magazine podcast I found out that the black hole depiction (or its effects rather) as shown in the latest film by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar, used the expertise of physicists to create the visualisations. Furthermore, the researchers used the work for the film to write an academic paper!

There are a number of things that are not as sound in the film, for instance the contrast of the efforts to free the ship from the embrace of the Earth’s gravitational field, and the whizzing out from a tidal-wave-ridden planet by simply floating away… But, that is not why I wrote this post…. it was to highlight the black hole depiction… so back to the subject. In order to better depict the black hole, the film used the expertise of theoretical astro-physicist Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor of theoretical Physics at Caltech.

Thorne Diagram

In order to produce the effect of the black hole Thorne, worked together with Double Negative in implementing the equations that would render the visual effect. However, no rendering software was able to do the rendering as they are based on the fact that outside black holes, light rays travel in a straight line. In order to show the gravitational lensing around the black hole a new renderer had to be created. The result were images that took over 100 hours to be  created. The images obtained provided Thorne with unexpected results as they showed that the light that is emitted from the accretion disk around the  black hole would have its light distorted by gravity in such a wat that a halo would apere above and below but also in front of it too. So we just have to wait for the papers to be out and read more about this. In the meantime if you are interested in finding our more about research into black holes take a look at this page.



This country likes what science gives it, but doesn’t like the questions science raises – Frankenweenie

Earlier this week I had the great opportunity of attending the Opening Gala of the London Film Festival at the IMAX in London. The film that had the honour of opening the 2012 edition was “Frankenweenie“, an excellent stop-motion animation by Tim Burton. As expected the themes in the film had that strange gloomy optimistic horror geeky feeling. The story is that of a teenager whose love for his dog transcends death.

Certainly the story is one of friendship combined with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The teenager, Victor Frankenstein is a solitary but creative kind of guy who is interested in stop-motion films (self-referential? perhaps…) and is interested in science. When his dog Sparky dies in an accident, Victor gets the idea of bringing Sparky back to life after seeing a demonstration in class involving a frog and electricity (you know the one…).

rp_frankenweenie-mr-rzykruski1.jpgI thought the film was very good but what really made it for me, apart from the multiple reference to classic horror films, was the presence of the vampiresque science teacher, Mr Rzykruski. He certainly is a striking teacher and although severe-looking, a great inspiration for the kids interested in the science fair. After the experiments to bring back the dead go wrong, the parents decide to hold a meeting to expel the teacher. In his defence, the heavily accented teacher tells the parents that they react like that because they are ignorant and stupid, but that their children can still be instructed.

In a great sequence afterwards, Mr Rzykruski remarks that “Science is neither good nor bad, but it can be used for both”. We are indeed in a time where scientific advancements make a lot of people uneasy and the film reminds us, via Mr Rzykruski that those pursuing the scientific endeavour to be patient and respectful. One line that is still with me is the one delievered as Victor approaches Mr Rzykruski to say good-bye: “This country likes what science gives it, but doesn’t like the questions science raises”. A very timely remark.

Structured Documents in LaTeX

The LaTeX logo, typeset with LaTeX

Continuing with the brief introduction to LaTeX that I posted recently, in this video I discuss the use of LaTeX to produce a document that has a structure similar to that of a book for example. The idea is to build a master file that controls the flow of the document and separates each “Chapter” in separate files. This provides the author with a lot of flexibility in terms of organising content and makes large documents far more manageable than when using a single LaTeX file.

Enjoy and any feedback, comments or suggestions are more than welcome.

Using LaTeX to write mathematics

I have been meaning to do something like this for a long time and finally got the courage to do it. A lot of times I get completely horrified by the way in which some documents that contain mathematical notations are mangled (quite literally) by using MS Word. It helps sometimes that some people have access to MathType but still…

LaTeXSo, in this video I intend to provide some help to those that are interested in using LaTeX to include mathematics and  produce their documents. LaTeX is freely available for various platforms. You can obtain MikTeX for  Windows here, and MacTeX for Mac here. There are a great variety of editors to choose from; in this video I recommend TeXmaker, which I believe provides quite a lot of help to those of us that still are attached to the pointing and clicking of MS Word.

Let me know what you think! Any feedback is always welcome.

Der schweigende Stern

If you are a Sci-Fi fan you might have come across all sorts of different films: long and short, good and bad, new and old. Furthermore, you might have gone out of your way to catch that unseen gem or attend an all-nighter, ahem… Well, if oldies are the sort of thing you want to see, I recommend having a look at the latest season in the BFIKosmos: A Soviet Space Oddyssey.

science fiction klassiker der schweigende sternAs part of the season, I attended the screening of “Der schweidende Stern” aka Silent Star or “This first spaceship in Venus”. The film is a co-production of East Germany and Poland, made at the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) film studios and for its time it was indeed a big-budget one. The story is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem about an expedition to Venus where the international crew of the Cosmokrator spaceship encounter what is left of a civilisation that brought destruction upon themselves. So, why is an East German/Polish production part of this Soviet-themed season? Well, simple enough, in the film the Soviets are portrayed as being all-inclusive and offer their ship, the Comokrator, to an international team of scientists. The team include a Chinese linguist, an Indian mathematician, a Japanese medic, an African (country not specified) communications officer, an American astrophysicist, a Polish engineer and a German pilot… Great!

The team is sent to Venus because a strange (alien) cylindrical rock was unearthed in the Gobi Desert and after initial examinations it is found that the cylinder contains some communications sent by the inhabitants of Venus. While on route the team discovers that the message is actually a warning about an imminent attack on Earth… The film presents us a very interesting Venus and even a Venusian city, the atmosphere of the planet is dense and very reminiscent of… the 60s!

The Der schweigende Stern does not escape the opportunity of presenting some propaganda, for instance, the Americans are shown as not very cooperative and I really liked the whiskey-enhanced discussion they have while trying to convince their compatriot not to go in a Soviet mission. Also, the ghost of Hiroshima shows its face in more than one occasion and the references to the horrors of atomic war are ever present.

So, if you find that Harry Potter does not have the appeal for you on a rainy Sunday evening, try having a look at what is on offer at the BFI.


Helvetica (film)
Image via Wikipedia

Fonts are all around us and they have become a bit more familiar after software such as MS Word or Apple’s Pages put them at the fingertips of their users.In this manner, terms such as serif, kerning, pica, point and boldface have become part of (almost) every day language. Similarly, the names of different fonts are familiar to many of us. How many times have you used Times New Roman, Lucida, Arial or Calibri? Or for that matter, have you noticed how many signs, ads, books, films and stationary use Helvetica?

If so, you would not be at all surprised to hear that there is even a documentary dedicated to the ubiquitous Helvetica! That’s right, Gary Hustwit’s documentary is a film about typography, graphic design and visual culture and if you are a bit of a geek like me, then you would definitely enjoy it. I had the opportunity to watch the film at the ICA in London this weekend, and I was very pleased to have seen it.

Helvetica was designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman back in 1957 and its original name was “Neue Haas Grotesk” because of its relationship to the sans-serif German type Akzidenz Grotesk and because it was commissioned by the Haas Type Foundry in Switzerland. The change in name came about after the type began to be marketed internationally in 1961, and the rest is history.

The film came out in 2007 just in time for the 50th anniversary of Helvetica and shows a myriad of examples were the font is used and some of the reasons behind its proliferation. The film presents short interviews with some of the most renowned people in design: Massimo Vignelli, Hermann Zapf, Tobias Frere-Jones, Wim Crouwel, Jonathan Hoefler, Michael Bierut, etc. Their comments show the interesting relationship that we have, not only with Helvetica, but with other typefaces and with design in general. The font has its advocates and its detractors, but it is undeniable the impact that the font has had in the world over the past five decades.

So, if you are the kind of person that notices the wrong physics in films and complain about typecasting, i.e. notice when filmmakers used the right or wrong type for the period of the film, Helvetica is a film to watch.