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New Hit Film ‘Gravity’ Speaks to Our Endless Fascination with Deep Space

Release Date:
10/9/2013 12:00 AM
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UNH Physics Professor Says Film Resonates

Nikodem Poplawski, features Nikodem Poplawski 

WEST HAVEN, CONN. --- Deep space is something Nikodem Poplawski spends a great deal of time thinking about. So he’s not at all surprised that the film “Gravity” has broken box office records.

Alfonso Cuarón’s film, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, has struck a nerve with critics and audiences alike, who have spoken with wonder about the 3-D world he’s created: the vastness of space, at once brilliant and lonely, peaceful and fear-inducing, and the courage and ingenuity it takes to navigate it.

As A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “Much as ‘Gravity’ revels in the giddy, scary thrill of weightlessness, it is, finally, about the longing to be pulled back down onto the crowded, watery sphere where life is tedious, complicated, sad and possible."

Poplawski said it is a subject that fascinates people of all ages. “I think it connects to people’s curiosity about the world, about space, about the origins of the universe,” he said. “We are just a little part of everything, and the film discusses this. Basically we don’t know the vastness of the universe, so it’s no wonder people want to know about space and also why people want to go into space.

“I think people thought that the universe was smaller, yet discoveries in the last century have found there are black holes everywhere, billions of black holes in our universe and each may produce a universe on the other side, like an infinite tree,” he said.

A new senior lecturer who joined the UNH physics department this fall, Poplawski studies the nature of gravity and spacetime, the origin and composition of the universe, the nature of fields and particles and quantum gravity. His research focuses on how gravity with spin and torsion (defined as the action of twisting) can solve fundamental problems in cosmology. He proposed that torsion causes the formation of a new universe through a “big bounce in every black hole and our universe is the interior of a black hole existing in another universe.”

Science News, the digest of Science magazine, called his theory the top discovery of 2010 and National Geographic named his ideas among the top 10 discoveries that same year. That led to Poplawski appearing on “Parallel Universes: Are They Real?” – an episode of the Discovery Channel show Curiosity hosted by Morgan Freeman.

Poplawski said films like “Gravity” are a perfect way to get people thinking and talking about science, physics and astronomy – and to get students pursuing it. It is, he said, quite a pop culture moment for science--with “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and  “Gravity” capturing the public interest.”

Nothing could please Poplawski more. This semester he is teaching mechanics and, with interest in the physics minor growing at UNH, he is excited about where the department is headed. “I came because it was such an excellent opportunity,” he said. With interest in the physics minor building among engineering, science and forensic science students, UNH will offer the course “Modern Physics” next semester.

When not teaching, Poplawski spends hours researching, fueled by two things: Earl Grey tea and his endless interest in physics. “Research is my favorite activity,” he said. “And the tea helps me immensely.”

Evenings often find him in his study with a pen and paper – piles and piles of it, graphed, lined and blank. “I memorize a lot of formulas with their derivations so I don’t need many books, and my notes are everywhere, all over the floor,” he said. 

The son of two painters and the brother of two more painters, Poplawski was the only scientist in the house. He muses, with a crinkle in his eye, that perhaps it was because he was born in Torun, Poland, the birthplace of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, that he became interested in science. “He was a revolutionary thinker, and I feel some of that same spirit,” he said.

Poplawski said he could envision himself one day perhaps going into space, but not anytime soon. “With “Gravity,” they have made a scientific thriller,” he said. “How do you get back to Earth? I would be scared myself to be lost in space. It’s dark, and there is a lack of water and air. You are disconnected from the shuttle and your connections with people. I like gravity. And my family and friends are here.”

The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920 on the campus of Yale University in cooperation with Northeastern University, UNH moved to its current West Haven campus in 1960. The University operates a satellite campus in Tuscany, Italy, and offers programs at several locations throughout Connecticut and in New Mexico and California. UNH provides its students with a unique combination of a solid liberal arts education and real-world, hands-on career and research opportunities. The University enrolls approximately 6,400 students, including nearly 1,800 graduate students and more than 4,600 undergraduates – the majority of whom reside in University housing. Through its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Tagliatela College of Engineering, and College of Lifelong & eLearning, UNH offers 75 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. UNH students have access to more than 50 study abroad programs worldwide and its student-athletes compete in 16 varsity sports in the NCAA Division II’s highly competitive Northeast-10 Conference.