Quick, How Might the Alien Spacecraft Work?

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get communicated in some more minimal way. I didn’t see all the steps (though that would have been interesting). But the results reminded me quite a lot of the process of software design I’ve done so many times—cut out any complexity one can, and make everything as clear and minimal as possible.

Can You Write a Whiteboard?

My contributions to “Arrival” were mostly concentrated around the time the movie was shooting early in the summer of 2015. And for almost a year all I heard was that the movie was “in post-production”. But then suddenly in May of this year I get an e-mail: could I urgently write a bunch of relevant physics on a whiteboard for the movie?

There was a scene with Amy Adams in front of a whiteboard, and somehow what was written on the whiteboard when the scene was shot was basic high-school-level physics—not the kind of top-of-the-line physics one would expect from people like the Jeremy Renner character in the movie.
Somewhat amusingly, I don’t think I’ve ever written much on a whiteboard before. I’ve used computers for essentially all my work and presentations for more than 30 years, and before that the prevailing technologies were blackboards and overhead projector transparencies. Still, I duly got a whiteboard set up in my office, and got to work writing (in my now-very-rarely-used handwriting) some things I imagined a good physicist might think of if they were trying to understand an interstellar spacecraft that had just showed up.

Here’s what I came up with. The big spaces on the whiteboard were there to make it easier to composite in Amy Adams (and particularly her hair) moving around in front of the whiteboard. (In the end, the whiteboard got rewritten yet again for the final movie, so what’s here isn’t in detail what’s in the movie.)

"Arrival" whiteboard

In writing the whiteboard, I imagined it as a place where the Jeremy Renner character or his colleagues would record notable ideas about the spacecraft, and formulas related to them. And after a little while, I ended up with quite a tale of physics fact and speculation.

And Now It’s a Movie…

The movie came together really well, the early responses look great… and it’s fun to see things like this (yes, that’s Christopher’s code):

"Arrival" tweet

It’s been interesting and stimulating to be involved with “Arrival”. It’s let me understand a little more about just what’s involved in creating all those movies I see—and what it takes to merge science with compelling fiction. It’s also led me to ask some science questions beyond any I’ve asked before—but that relate to all sorts of things I’m interested in.

But through all of this, I can’t help wondering: “What if it was real, and aliens did arrive on Earth?”. I’d like to think that being involved with “Arrival” has made me a little more prepared for that. And certainly if their spaceships do happen to look like giant black rattlebacks, we’ll even already have some nice Wolfram Language code for that…

[Editor’s note: This post is excerpted from the full blog here.]

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Stephen Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica, the author of A New Kind of Science, the creator of Wolfram|Alpha, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. Follow @stephen_wolfram

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