[Warning: This article may contain spoilers.]
Lots of nostalgic adults are rejoicing this weekend. Why? Because A Wrinkle in Time, a new movie based on the beloved 1962 novel by Madeleine L’Engle, is out in theaters. Directed by Ava DuVernay, this playful yet sincere story about children flying through the cosmos is also a parable of the importance of curiosity, humanity, and inclusion.
“This book shows that it’s truly meaningful to engage with the deep mysteries of the world as opposed to just the day-to-day ups and downs,” said Derek Kimball, a professor of physics at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, California. He’s going to take his two daughters to see the movie. “Anything that encourages that is very exciting.”
The book—and presumably the movie, judging by the movie still above—is laced with science, but is it accurate? One thing’s for sure: Madeleine L’Engle certainly did her homework.
“Madeleine L’Engle definitely stayed current with science,” says Natasha Pavlova, a post-doctoral fellow at the Memorial Sloan-Ketting Cancer Center in New York City. Pavlova was interviewed for a CUNY TV episode about science in A Wrinkle in Time and L’Engle’s other works. Despite the fantastical elements, many concepts inA Wrinkle in Time relate to scientific ideas that were in development during the 1950s and ’60s, when L’Engle was writing the book.
Take, for example, the tesseract.
The word is like a wrinkle, states the book’s eccentric Mrs. Whatsit, one of three supernatural beings who transport protagonist Meg Murray, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their classmate, Calvin O’Keefe, throughout the universe in search of Meg’s and Charles Wallace’s father (who has mysteriously gone missing).
In the book, to tesser means to go from one region of spacetime to a different one—to wrinkle the fabric of the cosmos so that it’s easier to get from point A to point B.
In the real world, a tesseract has meaning in geometry, where it is the four-dimensional analog of a cube. In other words, a tesseract is to a cube what a cube is to your average, everyday square. But L’Engle co-opts the “tesseract” by adding another dimension, a fifth that succeeds the fourth dimension of time. She then creates a verb—tesser—which is the act of moving from one three-dimensional world to another.
Now, in our world, tesseracts don’t exist outside of geometry. But they do have a corollary in theoretical physics called a wormhole: a passage that connects two distant points in spacetime.
“The wormhole is a solution of Einstein’s equations of general relativity, which is possible,” Kimball said. “But the problem is that no one has understood a way in which that would form in nature.” A stable, traversable wormhole would require an advanced civilization to keep it intact.
Of course, another way you could warp spacetime would be to travel at or very near the speed of light—you’d return to Earth having not aged much, but everyone around you would be much, much older.
But if tessering were possible, would it be that straightforward?
“Even if we could tesser, we would have to do some things up front to stabilize our orbit around the destination planet [upon arriving],” said Tracy Drain, a flight systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—since realistically, humans would have to tesser using some kind of spaceship.
Wormholes and time travel aren’t the only scientific inspiration L’Engle seems to have drawn from. She may also have taken a cue from the then-burgeoning field of dark matter research.
In the 1930s, Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky concluded that an additional, unseen mass was needed to hold galaxies together, lest they fly apart due to the sheer speed of their rotation. In the 1950s and ’60s (when L’Engle was writing), scientists—including the pioneering female astronomer Vera Rubin—analyzed galaxies’ rotational rates and confirmed that something invisible to the human eye (besides gravity) must be keeping these sparkling pinwheels intact.
As an explanation, scientists proposed the existence of dark matter—hitherto undetectable “stuff” that experts believe makes up about a quarter of the matter in our universe. No one knows if L’Engle truly drew on dark matter when writing, but the theories may have prompted L’Engle to invent the “Black Thing,” a dark and foreboding shadow-like figure that Meg and her buddies encounter on the planet Uriel. “The Black Thing” permeates the universe; planets that succumb to it, according to A Wrinkle in Time, are called dark planets.
Like the “Black Thing,” “dark matter is a huge mystery—one of the biggest in modern physics,” Kimball said. “The only way we can see its effects is through its gravitational pull on galaxies and stars.” Scientists have made some strides in trying to figure out what it is, including one in the past few weeks, but we still don’t have any verified theories.
Biology plays a role in L’Engle’s story, too. Charles Wallace, Meg’s little brother, calls himself a “sport,” which, according to Pavlova, is an biological organism that has characteristics resulting from a chromosomal alternation or mutation.
The five-year-old Charles Wallace is a “sport” because of his uncanny intelligence and mature vocabulary, but his character isn’t necessarily a “sport” in the other sense of the term. “Much of this book deals with individuality. You want to fit in, but also develop your unique identity. So it’s hard to be a sport,” Pavlova said.
Nor is it easy to be Meg, played in the movie by a young actress of color named Storm Reid. A curious pre-teen, Meg is smart and adventurous but also emotionally mercurial and temperamentally unstable. Still, readers consider her a sci-fi heroine because she learns to find strength in her faults.
“It was clear in her [Meg’s] own mind that Meg was never perfect,” Drain said.
That’s what I love about the story, too. No one tells Meg that she has to be perfect. In fact, quite the opposite—Mrs. Whatsit encourages imperfection. She says to Meg, “Meg, I give you your faults.”
It’s an important message for young people, especially girls and students of color who might not picture themselves as scientists—experimenting, innovating, or making the mistakes that science requires. Vulnerabilities, according to L’Engle, are a sign of strength. And being brave enough to approach the world with gusto and inquisitiveness is a source of that strength.
Drain agrees. “It’s about curiosity and exploration—and you don’t have to bend and break the laws of physics to do it.”