Science Behind the Fiction: Wrinkling through space

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Mar 13, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time, the first novel in the Time Quintet by Madeleine L'Engle, was published in 1962. L'Engle was awarded the Newbery Medal, among other awards for the work, which has, despite initial misgivings by publishers, remained popular and in print since that time.

Upon initial inspection, A Wrinkle in Time seems curious fare for a children's novel, weaving together discussions of quantum physics with magic and a darkness sweeping the universe. Wrinkle, however, is, at its heart, a sci-fi/fantasy adventure starring children in universe-saving roles. Adults, magical and mundane, take a back seat, supporting the three central characters as they combat said looming darkness.

Discussions of faster-than-light travel and tesseracts are presented in such a way as to be taken in as fantasy elements by children too young to appreciate the real-world scientific speculations, while simultaneously planting a seed of interest to be explored later.

Wrinkle does what all good children's entertainment does in succeeding to engage young readers in an enchanting and exciting tale while laying down threads and ideas worthy of readers of any age. The story has been adapted into a number of formats, including a stage play and a 2003 television film. Considering the enduring popularity of the book and the negative reception to its previous film adaptation — when asked if the 2003 film met her expectations, the author stated, "Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is," — A Wrinkle in Time was ripe for another moment at bat. Disney has done just that in 2018, with big screen treatment directed by Ava DuVernay and starring Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, and Levi Miller as our young heroes, and Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling as the three Mrs.

For the uninitiated, and we will endeavor to remain spoiler free, A Wrinkle in Time follows Meg Murry, the oldest child of a pair of scientists, her younger brother (and child savant) Charles Wallace Murry, and their new friend Calvin. The trio is pulled into an interstellar mission by the mysterious and wondrous Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which to discover the truth about the disappearance of Meg and Charles Wallace's father and save existence.

The key to Dr. Murry's disappearance, and to the children's attempts at locating him, lie in his research into a fifth-dimensional object called a tesseract, a means of folding space-time and allowing travel over vast distances in relatively short periods of time.

Solving the problem of space's incredible distances has been the subject of speculation in science fiction since at least 1928 when E.E. Smith published The Skylark of Space in Amazing Stories. In the intervening years, there have been as many propositions for solving interstellar space travel in fiction as there are stars in the sky, at least that's how it feels. Interstellar travel in sci-fi ranges from well-known properties like Star Wars with its hyperdrive or Star Trek and its warp drive to lesser-known systems like BattleTech's Kearny-Fuchida Drives or absurd but wonderful solutions like Douglas Adams' Infinite Improbability Drive in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

There has been no shortage of solutions dreamt up by writers over most of the past century. But the problem isn't only the vast terrain of storytellers. There have been some honest attempts at cracking this universal barrier by some of the best minds in science and the answer received, sadly, seems to be a resounding "no."

Where are we now?

According to Einstein's theories of relativity, the closer an object with mass approaches the speed of light, the more energy is required to continue accelerating. This principle makes accelerating to anything near light speed effectively impossible without an infinite source of energy. If we remove all other considerations, like the craft or object rattling apart at fantastic speed, we still have the problem of obtaining and utilizing sufficient energy.

According to an infographic provided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the current record for fastest man-made object in space is the Juno probe. At its fastest, Juno reached speeds of 164,700 miles per hour (265,000 kilometers per hour). Expressed another way, Juno was traveling at 45.75 miles (73.627488 kilometers) per second.

Compare Juno's record to light speed's impressive 186,000 miles per second and, well… we've got a long way to go. Our percent to light speed achievement is so laughably small there are three zeroes in the decimal expression before we even get on the board. Our best efforts netted us a craft that, for a time, traveled at a little more than two one-hundredths of a percent of C.

We are, however, about to push the boundary a little. Later this year the Solar Probe Plus is planned to orbit the sun and is expected to reach speeds of 450,000 miles (724,204 kilometers) per hour, almost tripling our current top speed. It should be noted that some of that speed was and will be achieved through the gravitational forces imparted on the craft by orbited bodies, not through human mechanical engineering force alone.

Where are we going?

NASA and other spaceflight agencies are placing their eggs in a few experimental baskets in an attempt to reduce travel times on long space missions. Perhaps the most promising area of research at the moment is into ion engines.

Rather than using standard chemical rockets, ion engines use charged particles through a narrow funnel to create thrust. NASA suggests these rockets could reach thrust speeds of 90,000 miles per hour. When compared with the speeds of Juno or the Solar Probe Plus, that may not seem like much but could be improved via gravity assist when passing by solar system objects. The other major benefit of ion engines is the reduced fuel rate.

A test completed at the Glenn Research Center ran NASA's Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) for 48,000 hours, using only 860 kilograms of propellant. A traditional rocket would have used nearly 12 times as much fuel in the same duration. In space travel, weight reduction is the name of the game, and minimizing fuel means mission planners can either reduce the total weight of a craft or send larger payloads, something that would be incredibly helpful for long-term missions.

Antimatter engines have been the subject of research for some years and would utilize the incredible energy created during the annihilation of matter and antimatter to propel a craft. There are, however, significant hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is the deadly gamma radiation produced during the reaction.

It's been suggested that an antimatter engine could be powered by positrons, which produce gamma waves at lower, less dangerous energy levels, and doesn't leave a radioactive shell once the fuel is spent. If a working engine could be developed, it would cut the transit time from Earth to Mars from half a year to just 45 days. Positron Dynamics, a company helmed by Dr. Ryan Weed (who holds a Ph.D. in Positron Physics), claims to be developing an engine powered by positrons capable of making the trip from Sol to Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor four light years away, in just 40 years. To do so would require speeds significantly faster than those of which we're currently capable, upward of 10 percent of C. It's an incredible claim, one that, for now, is still in the realm of fiction.

What's mathematically possible?

Math, the bane of children everywhere, is the language of the universe. Einstein laid down the rules of relativity in the early 20th century and those numbers have held, with few exceptions, for more than 100 years. It's those numbers that say faster-than-light travel isn't possible and, despite our wildest dreams, we can't seem to get around them.

There are, however, some interesting possibilities hidden in the numbers that might, with future discoveries and developments, allow us to wiggle around the limitations of the light-speed constant.

In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre suggested that it might be possible to create a warp bubble and place a craft inside it. By compressing the space in front of the craft and stretching the space behind it, an object could be propelled at would-be, to an outside observer, faster than light speed. This tactic would avoid breaking Einstein's rules by isolating a bubble of space-time within which the speed of light is unchanged. Should negative mass be discovered or created and such a device constructed, it might behave in a way similar to the tesseract as described in A Wrinkle in Time. Unfortunately, as yet, we have been unsuccessful in determining just how to create such a bubble.

One suggested solution to our space-travel problem involves the use of hypothetical negative matter. While negative matter has not been empirically observed, it isn't ruled out by the mathematical models of our universe, and the numbers tell an interesting story. According to the models, if an object of negative matter came into contact with an object of equal positive matter, it would result in "an unlimited amount of unidirectional acceleration of the combination without the requirement for an energy source or reaction mass," according to a paper published in the Journal of Propulsion and Power.

In short, one object pushes while the other one pulls and the two go whizzing off into space without violating any of Newton's or Einstein's physical laws. Alas, this is all theoretical, with no empirical basis.

But don't lose heart, fellow travelers, the future stretches out before us and new discoveries are made every day. Even if we never break the bonds of our own solar system, there's plenty to see and do, right here at home. And you can always warp through space and time by cracking a good book. Happy travels.