PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When director Ava DuVernay set out to adapt the sci-fi classic “A Wrinkle in Time” for the silver screen, she turned to Brown University physicist Stephon Alexander for help in melding fantasy with physics.
As science advisor for the film, Alexander’s job was to help DuVernay’s creative team “stay true to the physics and at the same time make sure these wonderful fantasy elements [from the book] are retained,” he said. “That was a big part of the joy and the challenge of working with Ava and the creative team in making that happen.”
Alexander is no stranger to the intersection of art and science. An accomplished jazz saxophonist, he wrote a widely lauded book called “The Jazz of Physics,” which explores the links between musical improvisation and theoretical physics. Alexander’s research in cosmology, particle physics and quantum gravity touches on the Einsteinian ideas that play a central role in the film.
As in Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, the film’s teenage hero, Meg Murry, and her companions travel the universe in search of Meg’s father. They reach distant stars and exotic planets using ripples — or wrinkles — in the fabric of space-time. The concept grows out of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
“The idea here is that energy and matter can actually bend or warp the space-time fabric,” Alexander said. “Depending on how the space-time fabric is warped, it’s possible to travel very far distances instantaneously.”
In the film, Meg’s father, physics professor Alex Murry, creates a machine that enables this kind of interstellar travel. Alexander needed to imagine, using real concepts in physics, how such a machine might work.
The idea that he and the creative team settled upon was one that exploits something of a loophole in Einstein’s axiom that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. “The real statement is that nothing within space and time can travel faster than the speed of light,” Alexander said. “But nothing restricts space itself from traveling faster than the speed of light.”
So in the film, Murry’s machine uses light energy to bend space-time into a bubble, the frontier of which is able to travel faster than light. By encapsulating himself in that bubble, the professor travels with along with it.
In keeping with some of the concepts in his own book, Alexander wanted the light energy used to create the bubble is generated through a phenomenon called sonoluminescence, in which sound waves in certain types of fluids create light energy.
“I’m guilty of trying to connect sound and music to interesting things in physics,” Alexander said. DuVernay and her creative team liked the idea too, and it stayed in the movie.
As with Alexander’s other work melding art and science, he said he found the experience deeply rewarding and believes his work on the film will inform the work he does in physics going forward.
“I learned a lot actually,” he said. “It forced me to stretch my imagination.”