Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Osama bin Laden watches President Barack Obama on TV.
After Osama bin Laden was killed by US special operations forces, the pro-torture CIA crowd pointed to the raid as evidence that human-rights-abusing questioning can produce essential intelligence. And this debate was revived when the film Zero Dark Thirty implied the same point. During these dust-ups, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said her committee's years-long investigation of the CIA interrogation program showed that the agency's use of harsh techniques did not lead it to bin Laden's hideaway in Pakistan. The torture report she released today—that is, the 535-page executive summary of the 6,600-page full report—states bluntly that CIA torturing had nothing to do with finding bin Laden. A footnote reports that the CIA, naturally, takes issues with this and says the committee report "incorrectly characterizes the intelligence we had." That footnote adds, "This is incorrect."
Here's the blow-by-blow. After the bin Laden raid, according to the report, CIA officials, in classified briefings to the committee, said that intelligence related to the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation techniques was used to locate the Al Qaeda chieftain, referred to as UBL in the report. The committee says this "was inaccurate and incongruent" with the CIA's own records. Here's the nut graph:
CIA records indicate that: (1) the CIA had extensive reporting on [bin Laden courier] Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti (variant Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti), the UBL facilitator whose identification and tracking led to the identification of UBL's compound and the operation that resulted in UBL's death, prior to and independent of information from CIA detainees; (2) the most accurate information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti obtained from a CIA detainee was provided by a CIA detainee who had not yet been subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques; and (3) CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques withheld and fabricated information about Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.
That's a slam dunk. The CIA had info on the bin Laden operative who led the United States to the Abbottabad compound—but this intelligence did not come from those terrorist suspects it tortured.
The report notes that days after the raid, CIA officials said that terrorist suspects held by the agency had provided the "tip off" regarding Kuwaiti, the bin Laden courier. The committee, though, found that the "initial intelligence" and the "most valuable" information on Kuwaiti was not related to the torture program. The CIA, according to the report, had collected "significant reporting" on Kuwaiti and his close links to bin Laden prior to receiving any information in 2003 from CIA-held detainees. As early as the start of 2002, a phone number associated with Kuwaiti was under "government intelligence collection." By monitoring this number, the report notes, US intelligence identified Kuwaiti as someone to watch.
In July 2002, the CIA slyly obtained an email address believed to be associated with Kuwaiti and within a month was tracking his email activity. That summer, the CIA received reports that originated with detainees held by other governments that Kuwaiti was associated with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected architect of the 9/11 attacks. Throughout 2002, the agency also had gathered "significant corroborative reporting" on Kuwaiti's age, physical appearance, and family. Other reports from foreign governments indicated Kuwaiti was a courier for bin Laden. So the CIA, according to the report, had been on to him for a while before it received any info from a detainee within its own custody.
But after the bin Laden raid, the report says, CIA officials briefed the committee and "indicated that CIA detainee information—and the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques—played a substantial role in developing intelligence that led to the UBL operation." This testimony, the report says, "contained significant inaccurate information." One example: The CIA told the committee that Kuwaiti had "totally dropped off our radar in about 2002-2003 time frame after several detainees in our custody had highlighted him as a key facilitator for bin Laden." [Committee's emphasis.] Nope, the committee says, no CIA detainee had provided information related to Kuwaiti in 2002. Moreover, it notes, "the majority of the accurate intelligence acquired on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti was collected outside of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program, either from detainees not in CIA custody, or from other intelligence sources and methods unrelated to detainees, to include human sources and foreign partners."
A CIA detainee named Hassan Ghul in early 2004 did tell the CIA that Kuwaiti was a "close assistant" who was likely handling "all of UBL's needs." He also reported that "UBL's security apparatus would be minimal, and the the group likely lived in a house with a family somewhere in Pakistan." Yet, according to the report, he told this to the CIA before being subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.
The report challenges a statement then-CIA chief Leon Panetta made to Congress days after the bin Laden raid: "The detainees in the post-9/11 period flagged for us that there were individuals that provided direct support to bin Laden…and one of those identified was a courier who had the nickname Abu-Ahmad al-Kuwaiti. That was back in 2002." Not so, the report insists. And it gets worse. At a post-raid briefing a senator—unnamed in the report—asked, "Was any of this information obtained through [enhanced] interrogation measures?" A CIA officer—unnamed in the report—replied, "Senator, these individuals were in our program and were subject to some form of enhanced interrogation." The committee dryly states that the information "is not fully congruent with CIA records." It adds that the CIA's own records show that those CIA detainees who were tortured provided "fabricated, inconsistent, and generally unreliable information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti throughout their detention."
The CIA subsequently provided the Senate intelligence committee with a six-page chart on detainee reporting on Kuwaiti, noting that 12 CIA detainees had linked Kuwaiti to bin Laden and that nine of them were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques and two of those—KSM and Abu Zubaydah—were waterboarded. Another CIA document maintained that of 16 CIA detainees that had provided information on Kuwaiti, 13 did so after being subjected to torture. These documents, the committee says, were inaccurate and omitted important facts, and across several pages in the report, the committee points out a host of errors within those records.
The report essentially accuses the CIA of trying to snow the committee and the public, noting that its postraid claims were out of sync with its preraid records:
While CIA documents and testimony highlighted reporting that the CIA claimed was obtained from CIA detainees—and in some cases from CIA detainees subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques—the CIA internally noted that reporting from CIA detainees—specifically CIA detainees subjected to the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques—was insufficient, fabricated, and/or unreliable.
A footnote in the report points out that several weeks prior to the bin Laden raid, the CIA's office of public affairs was told about the pending bin Laden operation and that it began to prepare material for release following the mission. According to a CIA document, a key task for the CIA spinners was to promote "the critical nature of detainee reporting in identifying Bin Ladin's courier." It seems the agency, which was tarred by the torture controversy (and those missing WMDs in Iraq), saw the raid as an opportunity to shift the narrative about its detainee and interrogation program. And CIA boosters outside the agency, including Langley alums, did the same. The report notes that former CIA director Michael Hayden went on a talk radio show two days after the raid and said, "What we got, the original lead information—and frankly it was incomplete identity information on the [bin Laden] couriers—began with information from CIA detainees at the black sites. And let me just leave it at that."
Feinstein, who has long been supportive of the intelligence establishment, was not willing to leave it at that. The executive summary diplomatically casts Hayden as a fabricator. Moreover, it makes a strong case that during the bin Laden-torture debate and related controversies, the CIA misled its overseers on Capitol Hill and the public. It's no wonder that so many champions of the agency tried to keep this summary from becoming public. They'd rather Americans watch a Hollywood movie (which the CIA consulted on) about the bin Laden mission than read this report.
Many years ago, during the 1980s, I witnessed a killing: a New York City cop shooting an unarmed homeless man near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was later called as a grand jury witness in the case. The grand jury did not indict the officer.
It was a summer evening. I was heading to play softball in Central Park. At the corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, I got off my bicycle to walk toward the Great Lawn. The west side of Fifth was crowded with New Yorkers enjoying the beautiful night. People were streaming in and out of the park. Sidewalk vendors were doing brisk business. The vibe was good. And in the midst of the hubbub, I spotted a fellow wearing dirty and tattered clothing. His hair was filthy, his face worn. It was hard to determine his age. He reminded me of Aqualung. (See this Jethro Tull album cover.) He was carrying a large and heavy rock with both of his hands, pushing his way through the throng, and muttering unintelligible words. I wondered, what's his story? But I didn't give it much more thought.
Most of the people on the corner were not paying attention to him. Those in his direct path, as he lumbered north, did quickly step out of his way. But no one seemed much alarmed by the guy. In New York City, unfortunately, you often saw broken people—and shrugged them off as just another crazy.
I was about to head down the footpath toward the baseball fields, when I saw a commotion to my right. Several police officers—four or so, I recall—were approaching the man with the rock. And their guns were drawn. As they neared the fellow, he dropped the rock, he then began to run in the same direction he had been walking. The cops were not grouped together; they were spread out—in a circle that was drawing tighter. The man, displaying a fair degree of agility, leaped into the street and tried to cut between two of the officers to get away.
Shots were fired. Two or three. Maybe four. And he went down.
The cops surrounded the man. He didn't move. This was no longer a person. This was a body.
I moved closer to the scene. Passersby had stopped to watch. It was still difficult to assess his age. His clothes were a grimy gray. I saw his dirty hands. Both were empty.
Soon police cars and an ambulance arrived. The paramedics did not move fast. They covered the body with a sheet. Several police officers were standing around a female officer. She was in anguish. They were consoling her. It was obvious: She had fired the shots that killed the man.
Her race? She was white. His skin color? I thought it was dark, but it was tough to tell if it was dirt or pigment.
Cops were buzzing about the scene. Flashing lights illuminated this ritzy stretch of Fifth Avenue. On-lookers gawked. And I noticed something that struck me as odd: The police officers were not talking to any of the witnesses. They were talking to each other and the paramedics. I approached one cop and said that I had seen it all. He wasn't impressed and looked at me as if to say, "So what?" I had thought the police would want to round up eyewitnesses to the shooting.
"Shouldn't I talk to someone?" I asked this officer. He nodded his head toward another policeman. I went up to that cop. "Excuse me, officer," I began. "I saw what happened." Again, I received a look of disinterest. "Shouldn't I...." He cut me off: "Talk to him." He was looking at another officer who was barking instructions to other cops.
I tried once more. I approached this officer who seemed to be in charge. "Officer, I saw...." He shut me up with a wave of his hand, signaling I should wait. And wait I did, as he directed other cops to do this or do that. The paramedics were preparing to cart off the body. After a few minutes, I went up to this officer again and told him I had witnessed the whole episode.
"Okay," he said.
He said nothing else. He didn't ask me for my name. He didn't ask if I would provide a statement. I was surprised by his lack of interest.
"Shouldn't I tell someone what I saw," I said.
"If you want to," he said, not in an encouraging tone.
"Okay, who do I talk to?" I ask.
"If you want to make a statement," he said, as if I was inconveniencing him and the entire police force, "you can go down to the station and do it there." Now I got it: He didn't want my statement, even though he had no idea what I would say. He was not interested in taking my name and contact information. It was my job apparently to make it to the police station on my own, and the station was a mile or so south.
This ticked me off. He was essentially trying to shoo me away. As the paramedics were loading the body on to the ambulance and as the cop who had shot the man was surrounded by her colleagues, I got on my bike and started to ride down Fifth.
At the station, I approached the front desk and told the officer staffing it that I had witnessed the shooting and had been told to come to the station to provide a statement. This fellow looked surprised to see me. He asked me to wait on a bench. I waited. Five minutes, fifteen minutes. I went back to the desk. Yes, yes, I was told, someone will be with you shortly. Another five minutes, another fifteen minutes. Obviously, no one would have minded if I gave up and left.
Sitting next to me in this waiting area was a woman—middle-aged and white (if that matters)—who was also a witness. We probably weren't supposed to compare our accounts, but we did. (No one had told us not to.) She mentioned that she thought she had seen the victim holding something in his hand, perhaps a knife, when he started to run. Her vantage point had not been as good as mine, and I told her that I had seen the man drop the big rock and immediately begin to run. There had been no time for him to pull out a knife. Moreover, I had been in a position to see his hands—before and after he was killed—and I saw no knife. We looked at each other and didn't know what else to say.
Finally, a detective—I think he was a detective, he didn't say—came over and gave me a form on a clipboard and asked me to write a statement of what I had seen. I did. I stuck to the facts: nutty-looking homeless man carrying a small boulder, approached by cops, drops rock and runs, cops get closer, he darts between two of the officers, cop fires on him.
It was clear to me that the officer did not have to shoot the man. He was not threatening the officers. He was trying to run from them. But I didn't write down this conclusion. I presented the facts; I believed their implication were undeniable.
When I finished, I handed my statement to one of the officers. I was told, "You'll be contacted, if that's necessary." None of my interactions with the police led me to believe that a thorough investigation was in the works.
As I left the station, I saw the female officer who had fired the fatal shots. She was with several colleagues. She was upset and appeared to be crying. The other cops were being supportive. I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. My interpretation was that she had screwed up; she had overreacted or panicked and fired her shots too soon. My hunch was that she knew that.
The next day—this was long before the internet era—I checked the newspapers and saw no stories on the shooting. Some time later—I think it was a couple of months—I received a call. A grand jury was examining the shooting, and my presence was requested.
I went to the courthouse at the appointed hour and waited to be called into the grand jury room. My time in the drab conference room with the grand jury was brief. The jury was, as they say, a diverse group. But most of the jurors looked bored. A few seemed drowsy. The prosecutor asked me to identify myself and certify I had filed the statement. He asked me to describe where I had been and whether I had seen the full episode. But he never asked me to provide a complete account. The key portion of the interview went something like this:
Prosecutor: You saw him start to run?
Me: I did.
Prosecutor: Did you see anything in his hand?
Prosecutor: Did you see him holding a knife?
Me: No. But I....
Prosecutor: Thank you.
I had wanted to say that I had seen him drop the heavy rock and bolt and that it was unlikely he had been able to grab and brandish a knife while sprinting. And I thought the grand jurors should know that he had not charged at any of the officers; he had been trying to dash through an opening between two of the cops in order to flee. And if they were interested in my opinion regarding the necessity of firing on him, I would have shared that, too.
But the prosecutor cut me off. He didn't ask about about any of this. And not one of the jurors asked a question or said anything.
I left the room discouraged. This was not a search for the truth. It appeared to be a process designed to confirm an account that would protect the officer who had killed the man. The prosecutor was in command and establishing a narrative. (A knife!) The jurors appeared to be only scenery. (Insert your own ham sandwich reference here.) Long before the present debate spurred by the non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, it seemed clear to me that the system contained a natural bias in favor of police officers. That certainly makes sense. Police officers have damn tough and dangerous jobs, and they are going to look out for their comrades-in-blue who slip up. And prosecutors work closely with cops to rack up convictions, and they don't want to alienate their law enforcement partners. No one in that grand jury room was there to serve the interests of the dead guy.
On the way out of the courthouse, I realized I did not know the name of the victim.
I subsequently called a reporter who worked on the metro desk of the New York Times to tell him about my experience, hoping the paper would dig into the case. But I never saw a Times story on it. (At the time, I was working for a magazine that covered arms-control issues and in no position to write about the event. And back then, there was no equivalent to tweeting, blogging, or Facebooking.)
Several weeks, or a month or two, after my grand jury appearance, I called the person who had contacted me about testifying. Whatever happened? I asked. Oh, the man said, the case is over. I took that to mean the officer was not charged. Before I hung up, another question occurred to me. I don't know why I thought about this, but I asked, "Whatever happened to the body of the man who was shot?" He was never identified and buried somewhere, he replied. And I wondered, never identified? How hard did they try?
that it now may be impossible to prevent the temperature of the planet's atmosphere from rising by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding—events that could harm the world's population and economy.
But with an effort under way in Lima to protect the difference, as the newspaper put it, "between a newly unpleasant world and an uninhabitable one," one fellow in Washington is readying himself to prevent any progress toward a climate accord: Sen. James Inhofe. The 80-year-old Republican from Oklahoma is one of the most notorious deniers of human-induced climate change. He has contended that God controls the Earth's climate, not Homo sapiens, and he has quoted the Bible to make this point: "As long as the Earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night." And Inhofe, thanks to the recent elections, is in line to chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee when the Republicans assume control of the Senate next month. He has vowed to do all he can to block regulations aimed at cutting emissions.
With diplomats in Lima wrestling with the challenges of climate negotiations and Inhofe counting the days until his likely ascension to one of the most powerful environment-related positions on the planet, I'm reminded of a bizarre encounter I had with the senator at a previous climate summit.
In December 2009, the United Nations hosted a global gathering in Copenhagen to hammer out what some participants hoped would be a binding accord that would compel a reduction in emissions around the world. Thousands of diplomats, policy advocates, and scientists flocked to the Danish city for the session, and thousands of reporters were there to chronicle the talks. Inhofe came too. To troll. Or, as he put it, to be "a one-man truth squad." He slithered in and out of the cavernous media filing center, ever at the ready to speak to reporters looking for the other side quotes denigrating the proceedings, claiming that climate change was no more than a hoax, and celebrating the summit's failure to produce a binding and comprehensive treaty.
Inhofe was usually mobbed by reporters—especially non-American journalists who found it newsworthy that a US senator would say such things. Judging from the smile on his mug, Inhofe enjoyed skunking up the party. After watching this for a few days, I could not resist the urge to engage.
As he strolled through the media center one afternoon, accompanied by several camera crews recording his pronouncements, I approached and politely asked if I could put a question to him. Sure, he said, in his folksy, avuncular manner.
Look around us, I said, spreading my arms wide. There are thousands of intelligent and well-meaning people in this gigantic conference center: scientists, heads of state, government officials, policy experts. They believe that climate change is a serious and pressing threat and that something must be done soon. Do you believe that they have all been fooled?
Yes, he said, grinning.
That these people who have traveled from all points of the globe to be here are victims of a well-orchestrated hoax?
Yes, he said, still smiling.
That's some hoax, I countered. But who has engineered such a scam?
Hollywood liberals and extreme environmentalists, Inhofe replied.
Really? I asked. Why would they conspire to scare all these smart people into believing a catastrophe was under way, when all was well?
Inhofe didn't skip a beat: To advance their radical environmental agenda.
I pressed on: Who in Hollywood is doing this?
The whole liberal crowd, Inhofe said.
Barbra Streisand, he responded.
I nearly laughed. All these people had assembled in Copenhagen because of Barbra Streisand. A singer and actor had perpetuated the grandest con of the past 100 years?
That's right, Inhofe said, with a straight face. And others, he added.
By this point, he was losing patience and glancing about for another reporter who wanted to record his important observations. And I was running out of follow-up queries. After all, was I really going to ask, "And Ed Begley Jr. too?" So our conversation ended, and I headed back to reality.
But I was struck by this thought: Did this senator truly believe Barbra Streisand was the devious force behind a completely phony global campaign to address climate change? He seemed to.
In his 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, Inhofe does mention Streisand—but only once, lumping her together with Leonardo DiCaprio and John Travolta as celebs whose environmental "alarmism" had to be debunked. But his book did not shy away from clearly identifying the charlatans and hoaxers who have hornswoggled the planet: "environmental activist extremists," Al Gore, MoveOn.org, George Soros, Michael Moore, and, yes, "the Hollywood elites."
Perhaps when Inhofe seizes the reins of the Senate environment committee, he can further expose this conspiracy—and for the first witness…Barbra Streisand. It's time for her to come clean.
UPDATE: After this story was published, Streisand issued the following statement: "This would be hilarious if it weren't so frightening. I thank Senator Inhofe for singling me out as a voice against the perils of climate change! But I'm just a small part of millions of voices, who are informed and alarmed, including 97% of all climate scientists! God help us! This man is going to head the Committee on the Environment in the United States Senate. It’s like giving a fox the keys to the chicken coop."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.
There's little the Washington-centric political-media universe loves more than the story of a fallen star. The defenestration of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has reporters and pundits in a schadenfreude-driven tizzy. Was he fired? Was he in over his head? OMG, look at how the White House is dumping on him, as he departs! Who's passing nasty notes in class about him?
The presumably forced resignation of Hagel is indeed big news. The Obama administration is confronting a host of new national security challenges: ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola. So the guy (or gal) in charge of the Pentagon has to be nimble and able to handle this expanding and shifting to-do list. And Hagel, ever since his underwhelming performance at his confirmation hearing, has not been (at least in public) a confidence-inspiring Cabinet member. So perhaps President Barack Obama can do better—though the elbowing Hagel is receiving on the way out seems poor manners.
Yet here's a useful exercise. Compare the red-hot media reaction to Hagel's bye-bye to the response to the New York Times' eye-popping report that Obama signed a secret order to expand the US military mission in Afghanistan next year. The story about one man—yes, one of the cool kids in DC—is at least an order of magnitude higher on the MediaReax-ometer. Any tidbit from an anonymous source about de-Hagelization gets immediate attention from tweeting journos. But the story about this significant policy shift has prompted mostly a yawn.
In case you missed it—the story was posted online on Friday but appeared in Saturday's dead-trees edition—the Times revealed that Obama, who last May said the United States would have no combat missions in Afghanistan in 2015 (and only train Afghan forces and hunt Al Qaeda "remnants"), had secretly authorized American forces
to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.
In the new sci-fi epic Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway don astronaut suits, leave an Earth that has been so poisoned it can no longer produce food to support the human race, and zip through a wormhole in search of new planets where homo sapiens might be able start over—while Jessica Chastain works on a mathematical formula that will allow our species to defy gravity. The big-budget blockbuster is a familiar gotta-save-humanity cinematic romp, chock-full of dramatic chills and special effects thrills. But Interstellar, directed by Batman movie-maker Chris Nolan, also attempts to attain a certain gravitas by taking seriously the science invoked within the film. After all, Kip Thorne, one of the world's leading theoretical physicists and experts on relativity, was an executive producer and consultant for the movie. And Neil DeGrasse Tyson has praised the flick for featuring scientific principles "as no other feature film has shown." But one of our planet's top astrobiologists has a somewhat different view.
I took David Grinspoon, who holds the chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress, to the Washington, DC, premiere of Interstellar—a posh event held at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and attended by pundits, scientists, and aerospace firm officials and lobbyists. Afterward, he and I recorded an episode of the Inquiring Mindspodcast focused on the science and themes of this grand film.
Grinspoon, a 2006 winner of the Carl Sagan Medal, advises NASA on planetary exploration and is involved with the Venus Express spacecraft and the Curiosity Rover on Mars. He is a widely-recognized expert on the possibility of life beyond Earth. He runs a funky website and is working on a book about the anthropocene—the somewhat controversial notion that the Earth is in a geologic epoch being shaped by human activity. And a few years ago, he attended a meeting of scientists called together by the makers of Interstellar—back when Steven Spielberg was slated to direct the film—to kick around the scientific ideas presented in the movie. That is, Grinspoon was the perfect date for this movie.
So, I asked him, what was it like to be present at creation? Grinspoon recalled:
There was a meeting of the minds that a bunch of us were invited to…on the Caltech campus. It was really fun. They had some astronomers, astrobiologists, psychologists…They presented the very basic premise of the film and asked us to brainstorm on some of the themes, and they recorded the whole thing. Spielberg showed up, and he brought his dad…It was a very wide-ranging discussion…What I remember of the treatment that we saw at that time…it had some of the same themes of getting to other planets and using black holes. But that was kind of it. It didn't have the plot yet...If memory serves me, the original story actually had [theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen] Hawking as a character in the film, who was going to be sent into orbit. Experiencing weightlessness is something that helped him with his disability…I don't know how much of this I'm conflating now. It's been a few years. But I think there was even a love interest.
Stephen Hawking playing Stephen Hawking in love in outer space? "Exactly," Grinspoon said. "Those themes of love and space are still in the final movie"—even though Hawking isn't.
But back to the science: Do wormholes, which defy conventional physics and our down-to-earth notion of time, exist? Can they be stellar shortcuts used to get from one end of the universe to the other in a flash? And can they be created by sentient beings, as the movie suggests? Well, maybe, Grinspoon said, but there's at least one big problem with using a wormhole for transportation:
It's sort of pushing the edge of what is scientifically possible. It helps solve a problem. There is a big problem, if you're going to have any kind of a fictional plot involving travel to other stars. If you do it with normal physics, it's going to take hundreds of years. Who has the time for a movie that long? That's the whole thing with Star Trek. We had warp drive.
"You'd end up ripping apart everything that went into the wormhole," says Grinspoon. "It's not like NASA is actually working on this."
Wormhole is sort of the modern version of warp drive. And, yeah, there are actually solutions to Einstein's general relativity that produce these structures that have been called wormholes, where the geometry of space-time connects different places that in normal space are very distant in the universe. In theory, you can do that. The problem is, if you actually look at how that might work, it doesn't really work. You'd end up ripping apart everything that went into the wormhole. It's not like NASA is actually working on this. It's a way to have your plot device fit the science.
In the movie, a scientist explains how a wormhole could make distant space exploration possible by placing a point at the top of a piece of paper and drawing a line to a point at the bottom. The bottom point, we are told, is very, very, very far from the top. Think galaxies apart. He then folds the paper in half so the points line up and punches a hole in the paper through both points. That hole is a wormhole. Is this, I asked Grinspoon, a scientifically accurate reflection of how space-time can bend?
I loved that scene. That's exactly how a physicist would explain a wormhole…That is exactly how Kip Thorne would describe a wormhole, and he is the guy who came up with wormholes…That scene was great from a scientific point of view. That's exactly how a physicist would explain it.
So the movie does take the science seriously? Well, Grinspoon says, not always:
Yes and no. Here I'm balancing my inner snob and my delight that people are interested in a movie on themes that I love. But there is a critique I can't help but apply to this. The science is spotty. It's interesting they had Kip Thorne involved. They paid a lot of attention to relativity and space-time. And yet there's this whole other theme about what happens to the planet, what happens to the Earth, and these other planets. They go and find planets and there are conditions on them [not consistent with science]. The planetary parts of the film, I thought, were really weak. That's my bailiwick.
"The planetary parts of the film, I thought, were really weak," says Grinspoon. "There are aspects to the planets they get to which…don't make sense from basic physics.
For instance, they describe this ecological disaster on Earth. I like the fact they are talking about that and raising consciousness. It's clear that it's climate change and we screwed up the Earth…That's a good theme. But the specific things they say about it—they say there's this blight [attacking all crops] that's building up the nitrogen [in the atmosphere] and that's going to draw down the oxygen. Anybody who knows about planetary atmosphere is going to sit there at that point and go, "That's a bunch of BS." It's not that that ruins the movie for most people. But why couldn't they have run that by somebody? It wouldn't change the plot…There are aspects to the planets they get to which also don't make sense from basic physics. There's a planet with ice clouds…That's BS…Something like that would fall. Because of gravity! Is that so crucial to the plot? There's a planet around a black hole…Some physicists might quibble whether that's even possible or stable. But one obvious problem is, when they landed there it was daylight. But there's no sun and a black hole doesn't put out light. So where is the light coming from?
Is this being too picky? The filmmakers do try hard to show there is science underlying the seemingly impossible journey made. Yet at the end, several knotty plot dilemmas are resolved when—the most mild spoiler alert!—a character enters a black hole and is somehow able to communicate with others back on Earth and in the past. So, I put it to Grinspoon, is this science or…magic?
It's on the fine line between science and magic…If you were at a cocktail party with a few physicists who had a few drinks, which I've been to, this is the kind of thing that comes up. And somebody said, "Name a subject that's really on the edge between science and magic," somebody will say, "Time travel through black holes." You can find some equation when it sort of, maybe works. But, then, of course, if you have time travel, it introduces all these horrible paradoxes. What if you went back and told your mother not to marry your father?…In the movie I found it suspiciously close to magic. That was one thing that bothered me. It was kind of like they needed to tie up the plot: and, then there's a black hole, and magical things happen, so everything is fine.
The ending was tough to figure. Can you really have a five-dimensional system manifested in a three-dimensional manner that allows someone to go back in time to the precise place he or she needs to be to save humanity? I confessed to Grinspoon that I was confused.
I kind of liked that aspect. I sort of like the fact that you are confused by that. Reality on that level is confusing. One of the weird things about modern physics is that we do find there are apparently these other dimensions that we don't directly experience that explain some aspects of the overall geometry and reality of our universe. When you encounter the real physics of that stuff, you do get this feeling you are having now of going, "Well, that's confusing, how could that be?" I'm not sure about the specific realism of how that was depicted. But I do like the idea that there's a movie that is going to get people thinking, "Really? There could be other dimensions?" That is evoking something that people have when they encounter modern physics.
At first glance, Interstellar does seem to have a green message, warning that climate change could make the world uninhabitable for humans (and, presumably, other species). Yet there's an odd twist. The tag line for the film is, "The end of the Earth will not be the end of us." And the lead scientist, played by Michael Caine (no longer Alfred the Butler), says at one point: "We are not meant to save the world. We are meant to leave it." In other words, if humans do trash the planet, don't worry, some super-smart folks will help us make a nice get-away somewhere else in this swell and expanding universe. Given that Grinspoon researches life and planetary development, I wondered what he thought of this cut-and-run theme.
That tagline…is problematical. The reality is the opposite. It's quite possible that the end of us will not be the end of the Earth. Even if we really screw things up and things go badly for us and our civilization, the Earth is pretty resilient. The current species here will have a mass extinction, but life will not extinguish and the Earth will recover and go on…We're more fragile than life. And then there's the moral implication: It doesn't really matter, there are other planets out there, the heck with this one. I found that bothersome. Of course, in the very long run, if we are successful in getting through our current little problems of being a technological civilization, and we last for thousands, even millions and billions of years, ultimately the Earth and the sun will run their course. So if we become one of those super-wise beings that are implied in this film that make wormholes, at some point we will have to deal with the problem of moving.
That's in the long run. The very long run.
To hear my full interview with David Grinspoon, listen to Inquiring Minds below:
Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes orRSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.