Monday, April 25, 2011

Jeff's Books to Open Your Mind: A Wrinkle in Time

When I first pulled A Wrinkle in Time off the Riverview Elementary School classroom  shelf, little did I know that I was about to stumble into the first book that would expand my mind, giving me a headache in a good way.  There are a fair amount of other books that can do this for the same age group, but this was the one I actually found at that age. One reason it was important is it provided a topic of conversation while a favorite cousin and I avoided all the sport related activities at family gatherings. Equally as important, however, was that it provided an introduction to a few themes that have stayed with me throughout my life.
One of the big themes is that it stresses a balance between science and faith.  Most narratives heavily side with one, casting the other as the enemy. This balance holds true for the first three books in the series, although the faith side takes over a little too strongly for my tastes in Madeleine L’Engle’s tales of the Murray family after them. (Horrible heretical heathen that I am.)

Instead of either science or faith being the bad guy, in this story the monsters to be feared are acceptance without thought and mindless conformity (and rightfully so).  The fact that the book, again, doesn’t link that pitfall to either science or faith, but rather shows it as a down side of both was a valuable lesson to pop into my forming brain.  The TV movie adaptation missed the point on this. Like many other films of books built on interesting ideas, it was very clear that the people who made it: read the book, remembered the book, but didn’t GET the book.  Showing the town as a bathed in red light village of fear was all wrong. The setting is described as very pleasant and happy looking.  The abject horror then stems only from the fact that every house and every person is controlled to be EXACTLY THE SAME.  It’s showing that forced conformity to even a pleasant standard is a prison. This is a really important topic that, once again, was missed completely in the translation.

The other thing this book introduced me to is the concept of higher dimensions.  It ended up interesting me to the point that I sought out Flatland (which, probably by no coincidence, is a great deal more about independent thought than geometry when you get into it.)  This introduction eventually led to several school projects, an AP Calculus final paper, and a long series of outside reading that can leave me wandering around puzzled for days at a time (which is kind of hard to distinguish from my normal behavior, honestly.)

However, there's one thing about the science in a Wrinkle in Time that always bugged me, not because it’s wrong, but because it’s almost right.  I’m going to apologize ahead of time for running into a long rant that will likely be completely opaque or bleedin’ obvious depending on your location on the nerd spectrum.

Tesseract is a real term; it is the name of a hypercube or four dimensional cube.  The explanation in the book is dead on, except for the part about time being the fourth dimension.

If you square a one dimensional line (length), you get a two dimensional square,

If you square a two dimensional square (length and width), you get a three dimensional cube....

And if you square a three dimensional cube (length width and height) you get a four dimensional hypercube or tesseract (length width height, and another direction that is ninety degrees off the other three, but we can’t point to it because we're only three dimensional. This would be one of them headaches in a good way I mentioned.)

A tesseract would look like this:
Or rather the three dimensional “shadow” of the four dimensional object would…

Actually this is a two dimensional drawing of the three dimensional "shadow" of a four dimensional object.

More accurately: It is a series of on and off light generators creating the illusion of a two dimensional drawing of the three dimensional "shadow" of a four dimensional object…IN A HOLE IN THE BOTTOM OF THE SEAAAAAAA!

In a real (and I use the term very loosely) Tesseract, every angle in that figure is a perfect right angle, and all eight of the six sided "cubes" (including the inside and outside ones) are the same size, and perfect cubes. (Pause for drama…or maybe Excedrin.)

This is how traveling over the long distances in short times works in the book. The "wrinkles" are in that fourth dimensional direction that we can’t point to.  Mrs. Who's ant example is perfect.
The bug has to travel on the one dimensional line, but she wrinkles it into the second dimension to shorten the trip.  Similarly, if you wrinkle the third dimension into that fourth one, it cuts the travel distance. (But be sure to bring your four dimensional ironing board to deal with all those wrinkles.)

There are some theories that black holes have enough gravity to actually wrinkle space this way. It’s also one possible explanation as to why the universe appears to be expanding away from wherever the observer’s really expanding in the fourth dimension, and we can only see three.

That's not as weird as it sounds (if you happen to live in my head, anyway). Picture standing on the surface of a balloon. (Stop bouncing up and down and pay attention, you.)  As the balloon inflates, all points on the surface expand away from each other, but if you’re constrained to the surface, (which is two dimensional, curved into the third) you can’t see the center of expansion inside the balloon.

See, the time part isn't really needed at all; they wrinkle through the fourth spatial dimension. But just in case I haven’t lost everyone yet, they do mention time wrinkles too.  That's why the whole adventure takes a short time to Mrs. Murray. Time (for most of us anyway) is strictly one dimensional (i.e. it’s linear, as far as we can detect) and flows one way.  Meaning if they wrinkle the line of time into a second time dimension, they can return everyone home following a long adventure immediately after they left.
There are probably many references to Einsteinian relativity theory that would be relevant to multidimensional time, but I should stop before I confuse even myself.

Sometimes I feel that going into theoretical physics would have been fun.  Since you really can’t prove this stuff, it’s like creative writing with some equations thrown in.

Thank you for sharing this “headache in a good way” moment with me.  I'm done being befuddling now. (By the way, this explanation is much better in person.  Not that it makes any more sense...but you get to see me waving my arms around like a loon, which is more entertaining.)
As I said before I danced out into nerdvana for a while, the first two sequels definitely also fall into the Open Your Mind category.  A Wind in the Door was my introduction to what another book in this series (that I’ll get to another day) calls the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Things. It also introduced me to mitochondria decades before George Lucas started corrupting them for his giant personal space myth. A Swiftly Tilting Planet was my introduction to time travel causing alternate universes (not counting ones with bearded Vulcans), which has become a much larger part of my day to day activities than you’d expect for a sane (on paper) individual.

These books had such a great impact on me, that in the fifth grade I wrote my first parody: a script for A Bend in Time.  It was truly amazing.  Not the script, that was about what you’d expect from a screenplay written by a geeky eleven year old with a hyperactive imagination and enough pop culture trivia cluttering his head to make a “Fifth Dimension...a singing group!” joke.  The truly amazing part was that my teacher thought it would be a good idea to put it on, and let me, and a bunch of friends from my class and even another class out of those classes WAY more times than I’d imagine was productive to “practice”.  Most practices consisted of the guys making fools of themselves to impress the “female lead” that we all had a crush on.  That wasn’t even the biggest problem with my vision (again using terms extremely loosely here).  The teacher kept calling it a play, but even at that age I was a special effects nerd and had written in “movie magic” parts.  These would have required the use of the then new (and expensive and fragile) technology of the school’s video camera for it to make the little bit of sense that it made in my head.  Needless to say, we never ended up doing a complete performance in any media, but since all those practices got us out of the conformity of the class room, I guess the book served its purpose.

There’s a final exceedingly important lesson in A Wrinkle in Time which I never noticed as a child. It’s an A. Perez line quoted by Mrs. Who right in the beginning of the book.  I’m not sure how I could have missed this -

"An old ass knows more than a young colt"

I guess I wasn’t as much of an old ass as I am now.


Kim Luer said...

Great ...

Now I have a headache - in a good way.

Jeff McGinley said...

Oh job is done! Thanx for coming.

Antonia Nedder said...

Loved it loved it loved it!!! Loved the reference to black holes, of which I am also quite fond. And it got me thinking that I really need to introduce Joseph to the book asap; time for the youngest Nedder to enjoy! And I need to read along with him as it has been too long. 'It was a dark and stormy night . . .'

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx much, compliments from the aforementioned "a favorite cousin" adds a great deal of integrity to the post. I almost started reading it to my daughter, but she had just got a set of Daniel Pinkwater books (which will get thier own entry in this series someday.) So it's gotten a little delayed. Thanx again!

Anabelle said...

Read A Wrinkle in Time to me after The Snarkout Boys. I like your post.