(Note: This post contains moderate spoilers for “A Wrinkle in Time.”)
Both the novel “A Wrinkle in Time” and the Disney movie based on it are all about traveling vast distances to explore the universe. There aren’t any sleek, futuristic spaceships or rockets in the movie to cross the span between planets, though. Instead, characters rely on a weird, real world theoretical physics-influenced concept with a very familiar name.
The story kicks off with protagonist Meg (Storm Reed) struggling with the disappearance of her NASA scientist father (Chris Pine), who just up and vanished one day. Things change when Meg, her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller), are visited by three interdimensional beings who show up to enlist the kids’ help. Turns out, Meg’s father, Dr. Murry, figured out how to travel across the universe interdimensionally — and now he’s trapped on a planet that’s an embodiment of pure evil, called Camazotz.
The three beings — Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) — reveal to Meg and friends that the universe contains “tesseracts,” which allow them to cover tens of light years of distance instantly via a process called “Tessering.” Tessering also happens to be the way Dr. Murry traveled so far away from Earth. So what is a tesseract, and what is tessering?
In “A Wrinkle In Time,” it’s not quite the same thing as in other contexts, but a lot of the elements are the same.
In the novel, Mrs. Whatsit explains that if we understand space to be three-dimensional, and time represents a fourth dimension, then the tesseract is a fifth-dimensional bridge between two points in time and space. She uses the image of an ant walking on a flat string. The ant can get from one end of the string to the other by walking its length — but if you fold the string and bring the ends together, the ant can reach the end much more quickly and easily.
A tesseract is the literal “wrinkle in time” from the title, which is also a wrinkle in space. While “A Wrinkle in Time” keeps its tessering fairly simple, the idea is that you use your mind to fold the fabric of space together to bridge two faraway points. In other words, tessering creates a so-called Einstein-Rosen Bridge, also known as a “wormhole,” a concept predicted by Albert Einstein as part of his theory of general relativity.
The word “tesseract” refers to something else in other circumstances. It specifically describes a shape: a visual representation of a cube existing in the three spacial dimensions and the fourth dimension of time. It’s weird to describe, but a tesseract sort of looks like a cube within a cube, made up of many cubes.
Probably the most likely place people have recently heard the term “tesseract” is from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In those films, a blue cube that first popped up in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” later revealed to be an infinity stone, is called a tesseract. It was first used to power the super-strong weapons of the Nazi group HYDRA. And later, the tesseract was used by bad guy Loki in “The Avengers” to open — wait for it — a wormhole that let an army of aliens through to attack New York.
The end of the movie “Interstellar,” in which Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper finds himself traveling through a wormhole, also involves a tesseract. After getting zapped through the wormhole, Cooper is able to see and interact with multiple times at once: He finds himself inside a tesseract, a fifth-dimensional space, looking out into the other four dimensions.
All that to say that the term tesseract might refer to different specific things, but they all describe the idea of interacting with other dimensions. In “A Wrinkle in Time,” the thing to know is that tessering is all about crossing vast distances — and that it’s not just magic, but a fantastical idea rooted in real world science.