Science to Live By: A Wrinkle in Space-Time

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© J. Dirk Nies, Ph.D.

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. 

Thomas Alva Edison— American inventor, businessman, and the “Wizard of Menlo Park” (1847 – 1931).

As a sixth grader in 1963, I remember being scared, intrigued, enthralled and inspired by the science fantasy book, A Wrinkle in Time. Written by Madeleine L’Engle, her book was unusual for children’s literature in that the main protagonists of the story, the Murray children, grew up in a family in which both mom and dad were scientists. It was also exceptional for children’s literature in its way of handling the subjects of love, death, truth, mind control, social conformity, evil, free will, quantum physics and general relativity.

Alex, the father of the Murray family, inexplicably has gone missing while working on a secret government program investigating tesseract: a fifth dimensional phenomenon involving the wrinkling of time that permits “travel through space without having to go the long way around.” Can his gifted, precocious children, thirteen-year-old Meg and five-year-old Charles Wallace, with the aid of a neighbor boy, Calvin O’Keefe, and three otherworldly female creatures, find Alex and bring him (and themselves) back to earth alive?

Image courtesy NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/universe/20131106/pulsar20131106-full.jpg)
Image courtesy NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/universe/20131106/pulsar20131106-full.jpg)

Desiring to help support her family financially, Madeleine L’Engle had resigned herself to abandoning her largely unfruitful writing career on her 40th birthday in November 1958. Inspired during a trip out West, her irrepressible muse returned and she began writing again in 1959. By 1960, she put the finishing touches on A Wrinkle in Time.

As before, publishers roundly rejected her work. Discouragingly, she received more than two dozen refusals. Perseverance and pluck eventually were rewarded when she brought her book to the personal attention of John C. Farrar of the publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. A Wrinkle in Time was an unexpectedly resounding success, winning the Newbery Medal in 1963 for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

The National Education Association has named A Wrinkle in Time one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” and a poll by School Library Journal categorized it as one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time. A Wrinkle in Time has been in print continuously since its first publication; and it has been adapted for television, as a play, and as an opera. Madeleine L’Engle went on to write four more books about the adventures of the Murray family that now comprise the Time Quintet.

This winter, on Thursday February 11 (which happens to be Thomas Edison’s birthday), a team of scientists reported they had detected a faint ripple in the fabric of space-time generated when two black holes, one 36 times as massive as the sun, the other 29 times as massive, spiraled into each and merged into one. During the final throes of this cataclysmic process, they created a local, massive warping of space-time, releasing a tsunami of energy 50 times greater than the output of all the stars in the universe combined! These gravitational waves traveled through space for a billion years before washing up (greatly attenuated) upon the shore of earth. As they did so, they were perceived by ultrasensitive, 4-kilometer-long, L-shaped antennas; first at the research station located in Livingston, Louisiana, and seven milliseconds later, at a similar station in Hanford, Washington. The gravitational wave antennas housed at these facilities are so exquisitely sensitive that they can recognize changes in their length as small as one ten-thousandth the width of a proton!

The New York Times wrote this finding was “a great triumph for three physicists — Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ronald Drever, formerly of Caltech and now retired in Scotland — who bet their careers on the dream of measuring the most ineffable of Einstein’s notions” arising from his Theory of General Relativity 100 years ago. The discovery was “also sweet vindication for the National Science Foundation, which spent about $1.1 billion over more than 40 years to build a new hotline to nature, facing down criticism that sources of gravitational waves were not plentiful or loud enough to justify the cost.”

As a scientist and a writer, I am fascinated by juxtaposing these two stories.

A characteristic of a robust scientific theory is its ability to provide new, groundbreaking insights into the nature of reality. Insights that are testable and verifiable. This is true of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Einstein was so far ahead of his time that a century had to elapse before his theory of gravitational waves could be directly measured by scientists. Imagine waiting 100 years before what you had suggested could be properly tested and possibly verified. Imagine working on a problem for 40 years before a single, positive result was achieved, as today’s scientists did. Viable experimental designs had to be devised. Technology had to be developed. Equipment needed to be built. Painstaking observations had to be made. Thorough analysis of the data had to be performed, double-checked, and checked again. This achievement, this new way of exploring the origins and workings of the universe, took decades to accomplish.

In addition to competency and perseverance, this remarkable scientific journey from theory to experimental verification required hope grounded in faith. As Thomas Edison observed “Faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts, not fiction–faith in fiction is a damnable false hope.”

An effective writer is able to weave a story that is engaging, believable (even when fanciful), thought-provoking and emotionally inspiring. This Madeleine L’Engle achieved in A Wrinkle in Time. What I admire equally is her dogged resolve. When faced with rejection time and again, she held firm to what she knew in her heart and mind. She believed that well-crafted science fantasy can guide us into truths deeper and more fundamental to our lives that those revealed by scientific facts. Children’s literature is better for it.

A question comes to my mind—a query inspired by the title of L’Engle’s book.

Scientists reported that when the gravitational wave swept through their devices, altering briefly the dimensions of space, the length of one arm of the antenna changed relative to the length of its other arm. This they ascertained when laser beams traveling back and forth across the span of the antennas fleetingly became out of phase with each other.

Instead of measuring an infinitesimal perturbation in distance, what if the antennas actually measured a miniscule wrinkle in time? What if the laser beams became out of phase because the flow of time was altered differently in one arm of the antenna versus the other perpendicular arm as the wave went by?

How would you design an experiment to distinguish between a wrinkle in space and a wrinkle in time?

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