Modern Physics in the Movie “A Wrinkle in Time”

Modern Physics in the Movie “A Wrinkle in Time”

I want to give some simple introduction to the physics ideas in the movie “A Wrinkle in Time”. This won’t give away the plot lines in the movie at all, because what went on was really magical, as shown in the previews.

Among the physics was Einstein’s equations for curved space time, quantum entanglement with the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, and an Unknown energy in the world.

Working backward, the ordinary matter of the world that we live in and that makes up the periodic table is only 5% of the total energy of the Universe. That is counting their mass as energy by using Einstein”s E = mc^2. Dark matter contributes 27% of the energy of the universe. We know it is matter since it clusters like matter attracted by gravity. We call it dark because it is neutral and doesn’t emit or absorb electromagnetic radiation, that is it can’t be seen though light. It doesn’t mean it is “dark’ in the sense of being evil. As 5 times regular matter, it is responsible for making galaxies form, which is necessary for star formation and planetary systems, and our existence.

The remainder of the energy in the universe, or 68%, is not matter, but in energy. As pure energy, it makes a pressure that causes the universe to accelerate its expansion. Like dark matter, it does not interact with radiation, so it is called “dark energy”. What it really is, is not known. As in most Disney movies, there are very scary enemies. This one is mentioned once as “evil energy”. It is not actual physics, so don’t confuse it with something physical. Physicists and Astronomers do not name things “evil”.

On the blackboard of Dr. Alex Murry, played by Chris Pine, were Einsteins’ equations for gravitation in curved space-time. This is commonly used in science fiction to make gravitational wormholes to connect different black holes to travel across the universe. This calls up a present paradox of black hole radiation discovered by Steven Hawking. Black holes have a tiny temperature which is reciprocal to the mass of the black hole. They then give off black body radiation as any hot body would.  The paradox is if anything like an atom falls into a black hole, which is a quantum mechanical coherent system, when it comes back out, it is totally incoherent black body radiation. The electrons in stable atom energy states like the ground state, are in coherent orbits. A solution to this problem championed by string theorist Leonard Susskind of Stanford University ( who explained it to me on a napkin during a ski break at a Tahoe physics conference), is that since time slows to freezing to an outside observer of something approaching the event horizon surrounding the black hole, the strings or particles that they represent never actually enter the black hole, but spread out on the surface.  Actually, wormholes might be more complicated than simply connected black holes.

The movie, however, does not use actual wormholes, but just old fashioned science fiction teleportation, to some magical land, which looks like the Pali cliffs on the East side of Oahu, plus other scenery. Later, there is a cave with walls that look like the much photographed Antelope Canyon just outside of Page, Arizona. While there is no known case of teleportation in human history, apparently it is just because nobody ever wanted to do it, or had Oprah as a fairy godmother. Why Chris had to go farther than the size of the known universe is not known. Most outer-space science fiction is based on some sort of instant or faster-than-light travel to other planetary realms. The isolation of earth by many or thousands of light years to the nearest civilization makes such exoplanet stories impossible in a short movie. Yet the isolation may be why we could evolve on our own. Chris Pine is believable as the space traveler, since he also played Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek film, and has experience warping around the universe.

The Tessaract is a four dimensional cube, or a hypercube.  Thus it provides paths between three dimensional regions of space.  Tessaring, as used in the movie, is doing these travels.    I guess because Relativity joins space and time, you could call it “A Wrinkle in Time”.  Or, on alternate years, you could just fly and vacation in Hawaii, or drive to Page, as I do.

Finally, they mentioned quantum entanglement. I think in a preview I saw the standard case of the spin wave function of a spinless particle decaying to two spin half electrons, labeled 1 and 2, which fly off in opposite directions. The quantum wave function is an addition of products for detecting the electrons in spin up or spin down states, such that you always have one up and one down to give zero total angular momentum, which the initial spin 0 particle has:

((spin1 up going left)x(spin2 down going right) — (spin1 down going left)x(spin2 up going right))

The entanglement is that if particle 2 is detected with spin down, arbitrarily far to the right of the decay, then since that is in the first part of the wave function, particle 1 will have spin up when it is detected far to the left of the decay. Or, vice-versa, as given by the second part of the wave function. This violates our physical law of causality, since the detection to the left can be simultaneous with that on the right, faster than any speed-of-light signal could have physically connected the two detection experiments. You might solve this by saying that the combination was decided upon emission, but more complex experiments show that this is not so, and the wave function is really the combined one given above. This example was invented by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, and called the EPR Paradox. It hasn’t been explained away, and has been verified to be a true part of quantum mechanics.

Einstein and friends invented this to show that quantum mechanics was incomplete and contradictory. It goes along with Einstein’s belief that “God doesn’t throw dice”, which is his non-acceptance of the probability nature of quantum mechanics. Nevertheless, Einstein did not get his Nobel Prize in 1922 from Special Relativity or General Relativity, but for the quantum mechanical Photoelectric Effect. As in the movie, not everyone was convinced about Relativity.

For universe length transmissions, charged electrons or positrons will not suffice, since they will will just circle in large scale magnetic fields.  Entangled photons would be better.  However entangled they are, they still only travel out at the speed of light, and would take billions of years to cross a major part of the universe.  But the far parts of the universe are receding because of the Big Bang, and furthermore accelerating faster away because of the dark energy.  When the photons are received, they would be highly redshifted or lowered in energy, making them harder to detect.  Their left or right circular polarization of the photons indicates their spin direction as being along the line of sight, or opposite to it.  This allows for the EPR effect in photons as spin 1 particles, if coming from a spinless or spin 0 source.

The quantum entanglement was used to argue that everything in the Universe is connected, even far distant things.  This became a basis for the philosophy of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had graduated with a degree in Physics from Allahabad University in India.  He also founded Transcendental Meditation, and was a guru to the Beatles and the Beach Boys.  The Maharishi founded the Natural Law Party and ran physicist John Hagelin for President of the US, whom I heard speak while I was a student at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.  He says that he has created the unified field theory, which also is the unified theory of consciousness.  Hagelin is now the US leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement.

But let’s be realistic.  There is no evidence of any kind of brain transmissions, much less to the other side of the universe.  The experiment, popular when I was an undergraduate, of one person seeing a card and the other guessing it above randomness, was well lampooned at the beginning of the first Ghostbusters film by Psychology Professor Bill Murray, where he was cheating in order to get dates with the female volunteers.  If this effect was real, there would be a lot of wealthy gamblers.

If the effect was real, to broadcast to the other side of the universe would require a tremendous amount of power, which would easily fry our brains, not to mention the city around us.

The movie then left out the quantum mechanical basic of the uncertainty principle.  Even if you knew where your far away target was, for a narrow and limited energy transmission, you would have to direct a beam with high accuracy in direction.  That means that it’s momentum would be very minimal in the direction transverse to the beam direction.  But to have a tiny transverse momentum, the uncertainty of the emission point would be so large, it would be much larger than your head size, and could not come from you.  That is why telescopes and radio telescopes have to enormous in size to see even some details in vast galaxies or nova remnant gas clouds.  If I want to communicate thoughts to someone, I prefer to just call them on my cell phone, or to message them.

There is one person on earth though, who has the power to totally disrupt our political and economic system with a simple tweet, sent out to 42 million people at once.  We have shown above that the uncertainty principle does establish that a small brain size will lead to highly inaccurate transmissions.

Being a University of California booster, I must note that Chris Pine was born in Los Angeles and received his Bachelor’s degree in English at UC Berkeley, and was in a theater group there.

Well, I hope all of this Physics hasn’t ruined the movie for you. The children actors were very impressive.

About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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