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When watching the part where they go down to Miller, I was bothered by the fact that the waves didn't break despite the fact that the water level is ostensibly only knee-deep (roughly, a wave starts to break when the depth of the water is less than the height of the wave). But then, a friend came up with the idea that the waves are not really waves. Given that the gravitational influence of Gargantua on Miller is, well, gargantuan (I'm not apologizing for that joke) the "waves" are actually mountains of water created by Gargantua's gravity. As such, the "waves" don't really move towards the crew; rather, they are stationary (relative to Gargantua), and it is the rotation of Miller that brings the crew towards the "waves". The reason the ocean is so shallow is because a substantial proportion of Miller's water is used up to make up the "waves".

Is this really a plausible idea? What bothers me about this is that, if it is really the planet that is rotating under the "waves", the crew should have experienced a night-day (or day-night) transition between one "wave" and the next.

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    I imagine the crew would have experienced adverse effects if it affected the water like that. – PointlessSpike Feb 2 '15 at 11:02
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    As for the night/day aspect, I don't remember there being any explanation as to how the planet was lit up in the first place. I'm talking a sun or whatever ... if planet Miller is rotating around a sun, which would obviously put it in the "goldie locks zone" (otherwise, why would they be checking the planet in the first place), wouldn't Gargantua be affecting (or have affected) the sun as well? This movie was deep on the people interaction, but left some things to be desired in the science portion of the script. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Feb 2 '15 at 11:29
  • I haven't seen the movie, and don't have the data on the planet Miller on hand. But be aware that, on earth, a wave that is "stationary" with regards to the sun would move along the equator at ~1666 km/h (40,000 km equatorial circumference / 24 hours rotation period) -- well over the speed of sound. The YT clip I saw didn't make it seem so. For your hypothesis to work, Miller would have to be much smaller (would be contradicting the near-1g conditions observed), or rotating much slower. – DevSolar Feb 2 '15 at 12:24
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    Not necessarily. You could have near-1g conditions on a small planet, so long as the bulk of the planet is dense enough. – Koldito Feb 2 '15 at 12:27
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    @Koldito: Correct, I grant you as much. However, SciFi handwaving aside, Earth (having an iron-nickel core) is already pretty dense as far as planets are concerned. Also, you'd pretty rapidly get to the point were that huge a tidal wave on that small a planet would result in the water going into orbit. ;-) – DevSolar Feb 2 '15 at 12:58
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In chapter 17 of Kip Thorne's explanation in The Science of Interstellar, he makes clear that Miller's planet is supposed to be tidally locked to Gargantua (the black hole), meaning its rotation period is the same as its orbital period so that one side of it is always facing Gargantua, while the other side is always facing away (specifically, Thorne writes in that chapter that 'In my science interpretation, the planet must always keep the same face pointing toward Gargantua'). Tidal locking is a well-understood idea in astrophysics, explained in terms of the gravitational tidal forces from the main body continually exerting a torque on tidal bulges in the orbiting body which decrease its rotation rate until it becomes locked; this is used to explain why the moon always presents the same face to the Earth, for example.

To explain the waves, Thorne says that although Miller's planet is almost perfectly tidally locked, it does rock back and forth slightly like a pendulum, with the tidal forces from Gargantua always acting as a restoring force to pull it back towards the orientation where the planet's tidal bulge is facing directly towards Gargantua. And given this rocking, he gives two possible explanations for the giant waves:

What could possibly produce the two gigantic water waves, 1.2 kilometers high, that bear down on the Ranger as it rests on Miller's planet (Figure 17.5)? I searched for a while, did various calculations with the laws of physics, and found two possible answers for my science interpretation of the movie. Both answers require that the planet be not quite locked to Gargantua. Instead it must rock back and forth relative to Gargantua by a small amount [snip Thorne's explanation of how Gargantua's tidal gravity would provide the restoring force to explain this rocking] ... The result is a simple rocking of the planet, back and forth, if the tilts are small enough that the planet's mantle isn't pulverized. When I computed the period of this rocking, how long it takes to swing from left to right and back again, I got a joyous answer. About an hour. The same as the observed time between giant waves, a time chosen by Chris without knowing my science interpretation.

The first explanation for the giant waves, in my science interpretation, is a sloshing of the planet's oceans as the planet rocks under the influence of Gargantua's tidal gravity.

A similar sloshing, called "tidal bores," happens on Earth, on nearly flat rivers that empty into the sea. When the ocean tide rises, a wall of water can go rushing up the river; usually a tiny wall, but occasionally respectably big. ... But the moon's tidal gravity that drives this tidal bore is tiny—really tiny—compared to Gargantua's huge tidal gravity!

My second explanation is tsunamis. As Miller's planet rocks, Gargantua's tidal forces may not pulverize its crust, but they do deform the crust first this way and then that, once an hour, and those deformations could easily produce gigantic earthquakes (or "millerquakes," I suppose we should call them). And those millerquakes could generate tsunamis on the planet's oceans, far larger than any tsunami ever seen on Earth

And in this interview he mentions that the wave is meant to be a soliton (short explanation of what that means here), a type of isolated wave that maintains a stable shape as it travels, often without turbulence or "breaking":

I don’t use this word in the book, but the waves appear to be solitons, solitary waves. They don’t break, and they are probably coming in from a region where the water is somewhat deeper. One possible explanation for them is that they are similar to tidal bores that can run up the long, gentle channels of rivers with the rising of a tide.

Here are some videos showing real-life solitons:

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson also offers an explanation for the giant wave that occurred to him in this interview:

Initially, I thought, “OK, they have to throw in a wave… that looks gratuitous.” My second thought was, “Well, if it’s a tsunami, the wave actually needs water to be the wave, and they would see the water rush from around their ankles to feed this wave as it came by.” That’s how you know to run. In this, I would later figure out that both of those concerns were unfounded. The planet is deep in the gravitational well of a black hole, and the black hole would surely have very high tidal forces. Also, a “tidal wave” is misnamed—it’s actually a “bulge” of water fixed in space. The bulge is always oriented in the same configuration in space, so you on the solid planet rotate in and out of that bulge. You interpret it as a wave coming towards you and away from you, but what actually happens is you’re rotating from a high tide part of the water to a low tide part of the water. The fact that the waves came every hour or so meant that the planet rotates once ever two of those—because you have two high tides for every rotation. If I were to say that there was something unrealistic about that, it was how spiky the wave was. A tidal bulge would be smoother than that, and they would just rise up, float over the top, and rise back down the way a duck floats up and down as a wave goes under it. This is where they’re taking dramatic liberties to turn the wave into something more menacing, and I don’t have a problem with that.

Tyson's answer might be the same as Kip Thorne's first possible explanation in the earlier quote, but I'm not sure--presumably tidal bores on Earth don't remain at a fixed orientation relative to the Sun while the Earth rotates under them, since that would require them to travel at over 1000 kilometers/hour at most latitudes, but then the Earth isn't nearly tidally locked to the Sun so it's possible that what Tyson describes would be a type of tidal bore as well.

Tidal locking also explains why there's no day/night cycle on the planet. The illumination is supposed to be coming from the accretion disk surrounding Gargantua (the glowing ring seen around it which is distorted in a strange way due to gravitational lensing, see my answer here for details on its appearance), and if Miller's planet is tidally locked to Gargantua then one side would always be facing the accretion disk in permanent daylight, and one side would always be facing away in permanent night. (It should technically be the side facing away from Gargantua that was facing towards the accretion disk--Thorne writes that 'since Miller's planet is the closest anything can live stably, without falling into Gargantua, the entire accretion disk should be outside the orbit of Miller's planet'--but he also notes elsewhere that they made artistic compromises with some of the visuals in the movie, one of which was depicting Miller's planet as much further from Gargantua than it really should be in order to avoid letting the audience see Gargantua in extreme closeup until the climax when Cooper falls into it.) For references on the accretion disk being the source of illumination, in chapter 9 Thorne says that Gargantua is supposed to have a relatively "anemic" accretion disk compared to known real-life quasars that have been observed (which are thought to be supermassive black holes like Gargantua), due to its not having swallowed any new large bodies in millions of years, so that it would emit light in the visible spectrum (temperature being related to peak light frequency by Wien's displacement law):

Instead of being a hundred million degrees like a typical quasar's disk, Gargantua's disk is only a few thousand degrees, like the Sun's surface, so it emits lots of light but little to no X-rays or gamma rays.

Then in chapter 19 on Mann's planet, he says:

Mann's planet can't be accompanied by a sun on its inward and outward journeys because, when near Gargantua, huge tidal forces would pry the planet and its sun apart, sending them onward in markedly different orbits. Therefore, like Miller's planet, it must be heated and lit by Gargantua's anemic accretion disk.

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    The movie seems to disagree on this point. There's no evidence of tidal locking from what we see on the screen. – Valorum Feb 3 '15 at 0:17
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    @Richard - Why do you say the movie disagrees, as opposed to just not giving any onscreen evidence one way or another about whether the planet was tidally locked? What do you think a person should see on a tidally locked planet, that isn't shown in the movie? If you only land on a planet for a brief time, not enough to observe whether the illumination source changes position in the sky, you shouldn't see anything noticeably different in either case. – Hypnosifl Feb 3 '15 at 0:22
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    The planet (as depicted in the movie) doesn't appear to have the large polar bulge from the book. It's also lit from our aspect. Admittedly, neither of these negate the possibility that we're just seeing it from an odd angle. – Valorum Feb 3 '15 at 0:30
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    @Richard - In that image we seem to be viewing it almost entirely from the dark side, so that would be compatible with an almost head-on view of the tidal bulges, one of which should be at the center of the dark side. The image contradicts Thorne's idea that the planet is between Gargantua and the accretion disk, but Thorne does note in ch. 17 that although realistically there should be a giant disk on one side and a giant black hole on the other, "To see such fantastic sights so early in the movie would make the movie's climax, when Cooper falls into Gargantua, visually anticlimactic. – Hypnosifl Feb 3 '15 at 1:02
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    (Thorne quote continued) So Chris consciously saved such sights for the end of the movie; and invoking artistic license, near Miller's planet he depicted Gargantua and its disk together, 'just' twenty times bigger than the Moon looks from Earth." – Hypnosifl Feb 3 '15 at 1:03
23

Your friend is almost certainly correct. According to "The Science of Interstellar" written by the movie's Science Advisor Kip Thorne, the waves are likely not waves at all, they are in fact mountains of water drawn toward the horizon of the black hole by tidal forces.

The planet itself bulges toward Gargantua and the waves peak at the surface as the planet rotates.

But being so close to Gargantua, in my interpretation of the movie, Miller’s planet is subjected to enormous tidal gravity, so enormous that Gargantua’s tidal forces almost tear the planet apartAlmost, but not quite. Instead, they simply deform the planet. Deform it greatly. It bulges strongly toward and away from Gargantua.

...

He offers two convincing possibilities for the giant waves seen in the films; Tidal Bore or Tsunami

What could possibly produce the two gigantic water waves, 1.2 kilometers high, that bear down on the Ranger as it rests on Miller’s planet

The first explanation for the giant waves, in my science interpretation, is a sloshing of the planet’s oceans as the planet rocks under the influence of Gargantua’s tidal gravity. A similar sloshing, called “tidal bores,” happens on Earth, on nearly flat rivers that empty into the sea. When the ocean tide rises, a wall of water can go rushing up the river; usually a tiny wall, but very occasionally respectably big.

Though impressive, this tidal bore is very small compared to the 1.2-kilometer-high waves on Miller’s planet. But the Moon’s tidal gravity that drives this tidal bore is tiny—really tiny—compared to Gargantua’s huge tidal gravity!

My second explanation is tsunamis. As Miller’s planet rocks, Gargantua’s tidal forces may not pulverize its crust, but they do deform the crust first this way and then that, once an hour, and those deformations could easily produce gigantic earthquakes (or “millerquakes,” I suppose we should call them). And those millerquakes could generate tsunamis on the planet’s oceans, far larger than any tsunami ever seen on Earth,

As to why there's no day/night cycle, that's simply hand-waved away. There is clearly sufficient stellar material in the vicinity of the planet for it to be lit constantly.

Alternatively, since the planet is moving 64,000 times slower, the day/night cycle may be occurring thousands of times per minute, sufficient that the human eye cannot detect it.

-1

What Dr Tyson says is simply absolutely inconsistent with what is actually shown in the movie. He wrongly assumes the waves are tidal bulges similar to the tidal bulges on Earth, and that Miller´s Planet rotates once every 1,5 hours. That is, however, impossible.

  1. If Miller´s Planet rotated at such a speed, then, under the assumption it is slightly larger than Earth (1,3 g are mentioned, so let´s assume an equatorial circumference of 45000 km), then the tidal bulges would "move" at a speed of thousands of km/h at most latitudes - this is simply not what we see in the movie (at least not in most scenes, I´d have to watch it again to check the scene where they first spot the wave.) But the next point may be more valid:

  2. As Dr Tyson points out, there are always 2 tidal bulges - one created by gravitational pull, the other one on the opposite side of the planet, created by the centrifugal force. It is thus impossible for an observer on the planet to observe the 2 tidal bulges at the same time. But in the movie, we see one wave vanishing on the horizon (Cooper even comments on that), while the next wave is already approaching!

Kip Thorne´s explanation that the planet is in fact tidally locked and does not rotate around its axis (just moves back and forth a bit) seems to make sense. And Dr Tyson, regardless of the awe the fangirl who interviewed him was in (and no, I am not going to type that joke containing the word bulges that has just appeared in my head...), was more entertainig than correct, I´m afraid...

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