Originally published in 1962, and now enjoying a renaissance as a Hollywood blockbuster directed by Ava DuVernay and starring Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, A Wrinkle in Time was responsible for helping inspire a love of science (and scientific potential) in children, not to mention paving the way for science fiction that featured women as the main protagonists. Here, Literati looks at the science behind the fiction and assesses its impact on children’s literature.
When physicist Patrick Johnson was young, A Wrinkle in Time made more of an impact on him than most books. His father gave him a worn copy – one he’d had signed by the author Madeleine L’Engle when he was in 7th grade – and it struck a chord with the younger Johnson that would last into adulthood.
L’Engle’s award-winning science fiction novel was published in 1962 and told the story of 13-year-old Meg Murry and her quest to find her scientist father who had mysteriously disappeared. With the help of her brother, Charles Wallace, school friend, Calvin O’Keefe, and three supernatural beings, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, Meg spirals through the universe via a ‘tesseract’, the name L’Engle gives to a phenomenon that can bend space and time.
Today, a tesseract is commonly known as a wormhole, essentially a portal from one area of space to another. That image of the tesseract, used to illustrate the potential of time travel using a fifth dimension, is what mesmerized Patrick Johnson, now a physicist at Georgetown University, when he was younger. And as Johnson’s interest in physics grew, he never forgot that image.
In A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle describes a small insect crawling along the hem of a skirt. It’s a long journey for such a tiny creature. But if the skirt is folded and the insect walks from one edge of the fold to the other, it’s a much shorter journey. “If I were making the documentary movie of my life, there would be dramatic music when I read that section,” Johnson says. “That image has stuck with me my entire life. And it’s very similar to the description we physicists use when talking about the bending of time.”
Johnson explains that if you took a sheet of paper and you wanted an ant to walk from one side to the other, you can fold it over, poke a pencil through to connect one side to the other, and when the ant walks through the hole he doesn’t realize he’s skipping all this extra distance. “He’ll arrive at his destination much quicker. A wormhole [in space] is like that. But here’s where it gets confusing: instead of a two-dimensional sheet of paper that you folded over,” Johnson says, “it’s three-dimensional space being folded over a 4th dimension.”
In the movie, Mrs. Whatsit, played by Reese Witherspoon, explains “… the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around.”
“… On their earth, as they call it, they never communicate with other planets. They revolve about all alone in space.” “Oh,” the thin beast said. “Aren’t they lonely?” – A Wrinkle in Time
Einstein proposed his theory of General Relativity in 1915, and 100 years later experimental evidence showed those theories were accurate. Einstein posited that huge bodies in space like black holes had so much mass that if two of these bodies came together it could create such a huge ripple that it would actually bend space and time and be detectable on Earth. A couple of years ago, scientists in Washington announced they had detected such a ripple that they thought was caused by two black holes colliding.
“If you’ve ever seen the movie Interstellar, a wormhole opens up next to the planet Saturn,” Johnson says. “If there really was a wormhole that close to Saturn, the gravitational anomaly would tear Saturn to pieces. It’s not something you want to open up in your backyard [as it does in A Wrinkle in Time]. But then again we’ve never found one or created one so we don’t really know.”
Johnson says if you could create a wormhole in your backyard it would be just like the ant walking into the tunnel to the other side of the sheet of paper. “These things are so foreign to us it hurts my brain to think about it. But this is what the theory indicates it would look like.”
In her acceptance speech after receiving The Margaret Edwards Award for literature in 1998, L’Engle said that she’d heard the assumption that science and fantasy don’t mix. “Why not?” she said. “We live in a fantastic universe, and subatomic particles and quantum mechanics are even more fantastic than the macrocosm. Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth.”
“A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living ﬁre to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” – Madeleine L’Engle
Jonathan Alexander, Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, says A Wrinkle in Time influenced a wave of science fiction written about girls and women. “I think it’s a big deal,” he told Literati, “especially when you consider L’Engle wrote it in 1962. It’s not as though that was a time when women were encouraged to become scientists. There were certainly some, but scientific fields were still populated by men and she imagined not only a young woman, Meg, having a strong interest in science and math but also Meg’s mother was a scientist. It’s intriguing that L’Engle maybe had a precognitive sense that these fields were going to be opening up.”
Alexander says the ideas L’Engle tackled would not have seemed that far-fetched; she would have been aware of Einstein’s work several decades before. But, he says, the scientific potential of time travel in the book is less important than the use of journey as metaphor. L’Engle was talking about going on a journey of self-discovery, Alexander says. “And for some people, making that journey in order to embrace difference is like traveling to another planet. You might as well be going to a different world.”
Leonard Marcus, an expert in children’s literature agrees. “The character of Meg, who is awkward and kind of cantakerous, and not appreciated by her teachers, is an outsider in a variety of ways, and she also has a conflicted view of herself. [But she] rises to the occasion when her missing father needs someone to find him… I think on some level most children identify with outside characters. They’ve all felt wronged in some way. Fairness is one of the biggest issues for school-age children. And Meg is able to overcome a lot of those obstacles, but on the grandest scale imaginable.”