Interstellar and the science of finding the right problem

“It’s not possible”
“No, It’s necessary”

If you don’t know where these lines are from, I could tell you they’re from Interstelllar’s docking sequence. If you need recollection, here’s the link.

The docking scene is one of those that gives any Interstellar fan some serious goosebumps. And when I watched that scene again today, I realised something that I am now going to share with you.

We will start from the point where they’re trying to convince Matt Damon to not go off on his own. While this happens, Matt is docking his ship to the centrifuge, a concoction that helps mimic the gravitational pull of the earth by rotating its passengers in a circle and generating false gravity. This sort of helps them travel for a really long time.

The docking isn’t perfect and in the middle of the conversation, as he goes to open the door from his ship to the centrifuge, it explodes, throwing him off into space.

When the door to the centrifuge craft blasts, there is silence for a while followed by Cooper (the protagonist played by Matthew McConaughey) throttling his craft and there is an immediate response from TARS (an artificial intelligence bot that works as an extra member of the crew) which says, “Cooper, there is no point in wasting your fuel to catch..”

And Cooper cuts him short saying, “analyse the endurance’s spin”

Followed by, “What are you doing?” and a reply, “docking”

This is when most of you lost your shit. But, there is something interesting that happens next. First of all, let’s understand that TARS is a contextual robot. What this means is that he always carries forward context in a conversation which is a very human thing to do. It’s like a much smarter version of Siri. Just keep this in mind as we move forward.

Cooper gears up to do what he has to do, “get ready to match our spin with the retro thrusters”

There is this really brief, yet noticeable, pause after which TARS says, “It’s not possible”

And Cooper replies, “no, it’s necessary”

(sidenote: I might have confused TARS with CASE but you get the point)

And then whatever happens, happens.

But there is something more in that moment that gave us all goosebumps

“no it’s necessary”

It’s probably in a different context. Both the bots were super intelligent and had amazing abilities to take decisions and draw conclusions, which is a huge leap in technology that Nolan depicts in the movie.

They were smarter than anyone who ever boarded that ship and they knew exactly what Cooper was doing the moment he said, “analyse the endurance’s spin” This is where the confusion starts. It doesn’t really make sense for them to say, “it’s not possible” because it eventually did happen. Which then makes them look pretty dumb. But what if it wasn’t about docking?

There is one of the two possibilities. First being that Nolan fell for a cheap goosebump-inducing dialogue play and threw his characters out of the line, which is something I refuse to believe for reasons my fanboy heart refuses to reveal.

The second possibility is what came to me today. TARS wasn’t referring to the docking at all. In fact, it was pretty confident they could still dock. But when he first says, “there is no point trying to chase..” what he is really trying to say is that there is no point docking because in the process they would lose so much fuel that they won’t be left with enough to reach the other planet.

The second time when he says, “It’s not possible” He says that as a bot. He knows that Cooper is going to dock to the centrifuge and then move on towards the other planet and knows the fuel they have and hence the logical conclusion.

They couldn’t make it. “It’s not possible”

But what he also considers is a constraint. A constraint in his AI that everyone must be kept alive. A constraint that Cooper doesn’t have.

Which is why he (Cooper) willingly considers the possibility that he will sacrifice himself and save the human race which is what he really means when he says, “No, it’s necessary”

He reverse detaches his craft in order to provide the centrifuge with some extra momentum to move forward which could compensate for the fuel they lost in the process. 9th Std. Science. Newton’s Second Law of motion. Don’t look confused, it’s really not that difficult.

This is where Nolan draws the distinction between man and machine. This is where the idea of love and the idea that it transcends dimensions and lives on beyond all of us, comes from. It’s where Nolan says, “this is what it is to be human”

We often face, not so drastic in consequence, yet similar in construct, problems in life, where logic says we couldn’t make it. And while we face those, we often cloud our vision with constraints that shouldn’t really matter to us. We are so focused on finding a solution that we never realise that we haven’t found the right problem to even begin with.

If there is anything that Interstellar did teach me, it is that getting your problem right is way more important than anything else. If it’s family that matters to you, make decisions that lead you there. If it’s work that matters to you, look for those. And while you do that, make sure you don’t let anything come in your way, not even yourself.

Now I could’ve totally over-thought this and my theory could fall on its face, but it sure does leave me with some motivation. I hope you felt the same.