“My child, do not despair. Do you think we would have brought you here if there were no hope? We are asking you to do a difficult thing, but we are confident that you can do it. Your father needs help, he needs courage, and for his children he may be able to do what he cannot do for himself.” – Mrs Whatsit
In Madeline L’Engle’s timeless children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, plucky protagonist Meg Murry sets out upon a quest to find her father. She is accompanied by her brother Charles Wallace and friend Calvin O’Keefe. The children learn from Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which (the novel’s re-imagining of the fates of Greek mythology) that Mr. Murry is stuck on another planet. He got there using a “tesseract”: a device he developed to travel across space and time using a fifth dimension.
Luckily for all who missed the book as a child, you can watch the dimension-crossing, space-time travelling action March 9 with the Disney release of A Wrinkle in Time directed by Ava DuVernay. The film stars Storm Reid as Meg and powerhouses Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon as the Mrs. It is guaranteed to be full of beautiful intergalactic travel, travel that is enabled by the tesseract.
In anticipation of this stunning adaptation of one of my favorite children’s books, I was curious about what quantum physics and string theory have to say about how many dimensions there are in our universe, and whether we will ever have the ability to “tesser” between them. In A Wrinkle in Time, the tesseract works by using a fifth dimension so that “you can travel through space without having to go the long way around.” According to the book, “to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points”.
But does a fifth dimension actually exist? And would accessing a fifth dimension really allow travel outside of the four standard dimensions that we recognize?
We are all familiar with the three dimensions of physical space: length, width, and depth. Scientists usually consider the fourth dimension to be time; a particle can have some length, width, and depth at a particular point in time.
But for some physicists, four dimensions aren’t enough. For example, physicists studying something called “string theory” have proposed that extra dimensions must exist. String theory is a theory developed to explain fundamental phenomena such as black holes and gravity. These observable phenomena cannot be fully explained with classical mechanics, or the physical rules that govern relatively large objects that exist in 4-dimensional space time. String theory proposes that single particles of matter are not actually one-dimensional particles, but rather are made up of a two-dimensional “string.” These strings vibrate at a characteristic frequency of energy that define the particles. Different particles such as electrons or protons have different energies of vibration that differentiate them, much in the way that vibration frequencies differentiate notes of guitar strings.
Beyond explaining basic particles, string theory suggests that there may be more dimensions than we can recognize governing physical phenomena in the universe. These extra dimensions are required to mathematically apply string theory to explain planetary physics and have been very useful for physicists. However, unfortunately for Meg, a fifth dimension is still theoretical: it has not yet been observed.
While a fifth dimension has not been observed, it is nevertheless intriguing that physics does not have a unified model to explain common physical phenomena. This leaves room to speculate on new dimensions and ways to interpret the world. Science fiction and fantasy authors have been playing with space and time travel for centuries, at least! If you want to learn more about the physics of other time-and-space travel devices, two Canadian physicists wrote an article titled Traversable Achronal Retrograde Domains In Spacetime (acronym TARDIS – from Dr. Who), describing the possibility of space-time being warped by massive things in the galaxy to create a time loop (their non-physicist explanation can be found here).
Maybe space-time can be wrinkled by a tesseract or distorted to allow a TARDIS to travel, but in the real world, this kind of travel is still a long way off. However, there is no denying that these dramatic leaps through time and space make for a great story that is at least a tiny bit founded in physical principles. L’Engle’s speculation about fifth dimensions leads to spectacular adventures for Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin as they travel to strange new planets. Whether you believe in the feasibility of tesseracts or not, A Wrinkle In Time is a wonderful novel that I recommend to children and adults alike, and I will be first in line when the movie comes out!
By Kelsie Anson