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The physicist who melded the science and fiction of A Wrinkle in Time

The physicist who melded the science and fiction of A Wrinkle in Time


Meet Stephon Alexander, the film’s science adviser

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Image: Disney

The new Disney film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 book A Wrinkle in Time follows awkward teen Meg Murry (Storm Reid) as she hopscotches through the universe in search of her father, NASA scientist Dr. Alex Murry. Dr. Murry (Chris Pine), who disappeared years earlier. Meg tracks him down with a combination of science and the supernatural — one that Brown University physicist Stephon Alexander helped shape.

Director Ava DuVernay found Alexander through the National Academy of Science’s Science and Entertainment Exchange, a network that pairs people in the entertainment industry with scientists. Alexander, a theoretical cosmologist, is also a saxophonist who has written about the connections between the Universe and music in his book, The Jazz of Physics. This background helped inform the connective tissue that joins the science of the film version of A Wrinkle in Time to its science fiction and fantasy.

In the very first scene, Dr. Murry and young Meg watch sand bounce on a vibrating metal plate in Dr. Murry’s garage lab. When the plate vibrates at just the right frequency, the sand jerks into squiggles and waves known as Chladni patterns. “What you’re actually seeing is a visual manifestation of a sound pattern,” Alexander tells The Verge. “From disorder, you have these beautiful patterns, and these patterns carry the right frequencies and the right harmony.”

Photo of Stephon Alexander
Stephon Alexander.
Photo: Brown University

Dr. Murry discovers that certain frequencies also allow him to tear the fabric of space-time and travel to faraway worlds. The fictional phenomenon is called “tessering,” from the word “tesseract.” In the real world, a tesseract is a four-dimensional cube. In the movie version of A Wrinkle in Time, a tesseract is an interdimensional portal that allows people to tap into the vibrational frequency of love to travel billions of light-years instantaneously.

“Maybe a lot of people would criticize and say, ‘Oh that’s not real science,’ or, ‘That’s kind of weird to think about love allowing us to tesser,’” says Alexander. But the point, he says, is to encourage young people to dream big. And he hopes the trail of scientific breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the film leads young people to start investigating these concepts for themselves. “You’re never too young to start thinking about really advanced ideas.”

The Verge spoke with Alexander about the verb “to tesser,” the Universe as an orchestra, and the vibrational frequency of love.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

When you were being interviewed for the scientific consultant gig, how did you pitch melding physics and fiction in the film?

I’m a theoretical cosmologist, so I work on the physics of the early Universe. And the physics that we conjure up to explain these weird things going on with the early Universe has a lot of fantasy elements in it already. So I told them that there’s well-established physics and there’s physics that we’re working on that we have good reason to believe — but it’s weird stuff; it’s strange stuff — and that we would be able to call on some of that physics in the movie.

There are some people who wanted to lean more toward the magical and fantasy side of the book, and there were some who were calling more for, “We should really ground this in some hardcore physics.” And I think the case that I made was that we can have both. We could do both.

The movie calls on frequencies in a way the book doesn’t. Dr. Alex Murry’s revelation about how to “tesser” comes when he hears his colleague and wife, Dr. Kate Murry, singing to their newly adopted son. The gizmos and gadgets in his garage lab start going haywire, and he says, “Love! That’s the frequency!” Tell me how this idea became such an integral part of the movie?

What we do know is that, in our Universe, everything seems to be made up of fields, like electromagnetic fields. And these fields can vibrate. Think about a field as something like a guitar string. When you pluck a guitar string, it makes different sounds, and those different sounds correspond to different vibrational patterns. And [there’s also] frequency: how fast this vibration is happening, versus how slow it’s vibrating.

One thing we learned in 20th century physics is that we can think about our Universe like an orchestra, and all these vibrations create different harmonies. These harmonies manifest themselves as different forms of matter and energy in our Universe: stars and galaxies are all coming from vibrations. So clearly, if you want to accomplish something in the Universe, you might want to find the right frequency.

How do you tesser? And what is based in science, and what is more fantasy or science fiction?

I would say 70 percent was grounded in physics, and 30 percent was grounded in fantasy. It is a well-established fact that space can warp, and the fact that the Earth is going around the Sun is an example of space warping. We have found black holes at the center of many galaxies. That’s an example of warp space. We discovered gravitational waves recently, a Nobel Prize was given for that. That’s an example of space creating ripples, just like waves on the beach. So we’re using this idea of extreme warping of space so that you could travel very far distances.

The idea is that if we can find the right frequency so that you can create a rip in the fabric of space and time, you can warp space and time. This is the sci-fi element of it. Dr. Murry basically invents a device that’s able to transform sound energy into light energy, and that light energy basically hits the right frequency. That triggers this machine to create what we call an instability to eventually warp space around Dr. Murry and creates a portal for him to actually tesser to these other planets.

So we’re really combining some of modern physics’ ideas of Einstein’s theory with the physics of sound and how sound can turn into light. That’s called sonoluminescence. You’re kind of using the ingredients of love and physics in one shot to make this magic happen.

Does anyone actually use the verb “tesser”?

It’s unique to A Wrinkle in Time.

Has science determined the frequency of love?

I would say we’re not there yet, but I think that some people are interested in those kinds of questions. The beautiful thing about sci-fi is that it’s a space that enables us to fantasize that way, and to say, “What if science did do that? What if science found the frequency of love?” Then you’d maybe be able to accomplish these tremendous feats. So that was one marriage between, say, the fantasy elements and the sci-fi.

What do you hope that young viewers will take away from the film’s treatment of science?

When physicists were coming up with quantum physics, this guy Schrödinger went on a vacation, and he came back with this idea that an electron can be a wave. If you think about that idea, it would seem like sci-fi. It would seem absurd some 100 years ago. But it came from his desire to understand how nature works at the most fundamental level. That is the reason why we have cellphones and computers. All of that technology comes from that weird idea that an electron, or matter, could be waves and could be in two places at once. It sounds like sci-fi back then.

So the idea of combining ideas of love and being one with the Universe and warping space and time and sound and vibration and frequency — all these ideas that seem to be kooky, and sci-fi is really an invitation for young people to be courageous and dream big. Having a big imagination is, to me, the most important thing about being a scientist, to be courageous in the face of people telling you your ideas are crazy.