Although science-fiction shows and their thematic cousins, fantasy shows, are arguably the most dominant genre on television today, it’s rare to see one of these series actually care about the, well, “science” holding together their imaginary worlds. It’s not like Stranger Things seriously questions how Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) just-so-happens to find a tear between the Upside Down and Hawkins, Indiana, that allows her to waltz back into our world for season 2. And, Game Of Thrones can simply scream, “Magic!” when you ask how women can birth shadow assassins. The science isn’t the point here — the jaw-dropping visuals and wild action sequences are.
Netflix’s German sci-fi drama Dark, however, isn’t like the others. The international series seems obsessed with the science of its cave, nuclear power plant, and the “black hole” everyone keeps talking about. That makes sense, since creator Jantje Friese has admitted those are the aspects of the streaming show that really captured him and co-creator Baran bo Odar. They even read Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein to prepare.
None of this seems more obvious than in the finale, “Alpha And Omega,” when older Jonas Kahnwald (Andreas Pietschmann) sets off the machine he believes will end Winden, Germany’s time travel problems for good. Phrases like “Higgs field” are thrown around with ease, along with the names of elements like cesium. Somehow, all of this will halt the time-bending effects of the cave. But, younger Jonas (Louis Hofmann) is simply tossed 66 years into the future, and Winden’s electricity starts starts going on the fritz in 1953, 1986, and 2019, the years affected by the cave. In 2019, a massive black hole starts growing.
While watching all of this sci-fi madness unfold, I wondered if any of it was realistic, considering all the research Dark’s creators slaved over. So, I turned to my real-life friend Henry J. Meyer, an academically published physicist with a Masters degree in the subject, who’s currently working on his PhD in electrical engineering. While talking to Meyer, who binged Dark in about three days flat, one thing became clear: “[The team] definitely made an effort to make it seem really accurate,” as he said, but the science of Dark should at best lead to the death of everyone in Winden, and at worst the destruction of the entire planet.
So, why should Winden’s little time travel dilema cause a mass extinction? The fact, according to the German-to-English subtitles, Jonas’ machine will create a black hole. “If that were a black hole, the entire Earth would be crushed and destroyed,” Meyer said recently in a bar on Manhattan's Upper West Side. “If you’ve seen Interstellar, not only would it have destroyed the entire Earth, [everyone in Winden] would be experiencing time dilation.”
Time dilation essentially occurs when something is close to another object so massive, in this case a hypothetical black hole, the bigger entity distorts time to the point where even “the time difference in your foot and the top of your head would be so different,” as Meyer explained.
But, thankfully, black holes aren’t exactly what everyone in Dark is actually talking about, or what is likely created in the final moments of the season 1 finale. “What they described as a black hole is a wormhole,” he explained. While the Winden wormhole is big enough for a teen Jonas or a young Helge Doppler (Tom Philipp) to move through in “Alpha And Omega,” current science isn’t so sure that’s possible.
“People theorize the presence of wormholes, which are way too small for a human to pass through,” Meyer said, snapping his fingers to punctuate his words. Can a worm fit? “No. The idea is, they’re smaller than atoms, smaller than the parts that make up atoms. It’s just random holes that pop up, and it can connect time, space. Like you could open up a wormhole and you would be in a different galaxy, 300 years in the future.”
We should probably be thankful real-life wormholes aren’t popping up all over the place, since they sound, as with most things Dark science, deadly. Apparently, a person-sized wormhole, like the ones in the Netflix drama, would require a massive amount of energy. And in this instance, “massive” means more energy than the sun, since that star isn’t ripping open any German teenager-sized wormholes into the sky. “Theoretically it’s maybe possible you could open one big enough for people to move through, but there's no guarantee it would even be stable or it’s even possible to have that much energy,” Meyer said. “It would probably kill everything.”
Yet, nothing quite so catastrophic occurs in Dark, and Jonas is catapulted to what we can all guess is a dystopian 2052, 33 years from his own 2019 and 66 years from 1986, the year he first travels to in “Alpha.” Interestingly, that future-finding form of time travel is theoretically possible, as Meyer explained, “Time is considered to be more of a dimension that’s constantly flowing forward. It’s shown that you could basically time travel, but only forward.” Yet, technically, that means Jonas' initial trip back to the '80s shouldn’t have happened. “It’s still not even really shown you can go back in time,” the PhD candidate said. “That might be completely impossible in general.”
But, since Older Jonas did set off that cesium-powered machine — which, Meyer pointed out “is [actually] just a pretty standard radioactive material” — in 1986, all three time periods start to experience bizarre electrical activity. In the Dark world that could hypothetically be possible, since the premise claims “that one single hotspot in that cave is basically all three times at once.” So, if something happens during one of those times, it happens in all three.
By the end of Dark, it's officially four times, as Jonas is squarely in the future from where his older self hails. Surmising the final seconds of “Alpha,” Meyer said, “What I thought at the end was that Older Jonas created an entirely new wormhole. You had the initial one caused by the nuclear plant, he might have destroyed that one, but then made another one, creating a loop.” A loop that technically shouldn't be possible due to the best-known theories on time travel, but a loop nonetheless.
All in all, Dark's science is obviously more thoughtful than whatever's going on in Hawkins, but a documentary the German thriller is not.
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