Science in Storytelling: Interstellar and ’39

Both Queen and Christopher Nolan have used the theory of relativity as a foundation for storytelling in surprisingly similar ways. Their ventures show how science can be used to tell human stories.

By Sadie MacDonald

I don’t think that everyone is aware of the song “39” by Queen. This underrated gem sounds like a folksy shanty with its lyrics about ships and seas, but it’s not what it seems.

“39” was penned by Brian May, who put his astrophysics studies on hold to pursue his career as lead guitarist of Queen (as one does). With that fact in mind, the song becomes very different from what its genre initially implies it to be.

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Dr. Brian May eventually did finish his Ph.D in astrophysics thirty years after starting it! Photo: HuffPost

The song’s “ship” is a spaceship, and the “milky seas” refers to the Milky Way. The “world so newly born” is another planet that offers hope for an “old and grey” Earth. Some lyrics in the song are strange: the chorus mentions “the land that our grandchildren knew” and the narrator observes in the final verse that “so many years have gone though I’m older but a year.” He addresses someone mournfully, saying “your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me.”

May once explained “39” in an interview:

It’s a science fiction story. It’s the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He’s aged a year and they’ve aged 100 years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story.

Essentially, “39” is about the human effects of the theory of relativity. I had too much of an arts education to explain relativity properly, but what’s important to this discussion is that time is relative; it will not pass at the same rate for all observers, and can be distorted. Some causes for extreme time dilation include black holes, which can distort the fabric of space-time itself, and light-speed travel (the closer something gets to the speed of light, the slower time will pass for it). For the traveller in “39,” only a year has gone by, but much more time has passed back on Earth, and the person who wrote him “letters in the sand” is no longer alive when he returns.

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, this might sound a little familiar.

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Matthew McConaughey as Joseph Cooper in Interstellar. Photo: FilmGrab

To sum up (and spoil) Interstellar: the film is set in a future where the Earth is a dying dust bowl and its population is at risk of extinction. NASA sends explorers into space to find a planet to serve as a new home. Protagonist Cooper is one reluctant explorer, leaving his children in hopes of giving them a future. Near the midpoint of the film, Cooper arrives on a planet where time is so dilated that while a few hours pass for him, 23 Earth years go by, as he discovers when he returns to the ship to find recorded messages left by his aging children. By the end of the film, his daughter Murphy is an old woman, and Cooper reunites with her on her deathbed.

When I saw Interstellar’s trailers, I wondered if it was connected to “39”, and after watching the film, I felt certain of it. As far as I’m aware, though, Nolan never confirmed if “39” inspired Interstellar. There are several key similarities. Both feature explorers leaving a failing Earth in a spaceship in search of a new world. Their quest is ultimately successful, but at huge personal – and temporal – cost to the explorers and their loved ones. Time acts as a destructive force that irrevocably disrupts the natural lifespans of those involved, but it is also a precious resource for the protagonist, who gets to see his daughter in her old age.

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Cooper saying goodbye to his daughter Murphy as he leaves for his mission. Photo: FilmGrab

These stories show that science fiction can be intimately human. Both “39” and Interstellar use physics to tell stories of love, loss, and hope. Cooper realizes that his and Murphy’s love for each other is “the key” to transmitting the data that will save humanity, and the narrator of “39” promises his partner he will return to Earth. Interstellar ends optimistically, but the narrator of “39” laments that “all your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand / for my life still ahead, pity me.” Scientific discoveries and saving Earth’s population is not enough to make up for what was lost on a personal scale, but love endures nonetheless.

Science fiction, though often maligned, offers unique opportunities to explore human relationships and emotions in technologically fantastic settings. These elements have been tied to the genre since its beginnings in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and have endured up through Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Contact. We could use more marriages between science and storytelling. As Dr. Brian May himself says, “I think we all realize ourselves best by opening up both sides of our intellect… artistic and scientific.”

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