In A Wrinkle in Time, out March 13, Meg Murry (Storm Reid) doesn't need a DeLorian to travel through space and time. Meg has access to a mode of transportation that's far quicker and less reliant on fuel, which is convenient, because she has to travel way across the universe to save her father, Dr. Alex Murray (Chris Pine). Meg's trio of space fairy godmothers — Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Which (Oprah) — introduce Meg to the concept of "tesseracts" when preparing her for her journey to the planet Camazotz.
So, what is a tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time, and how does it make interstellar space travel such a cinch? Before delving into tesseracts, we have to understand how Madeline L'Engle sets up dimensions in A Wrinkle in Time. In the book, Meg's brother Charles Wallace explains that the first dimension is a line. The second dimension is a square. The third dimension is a cube. The fourth dimension is time. And that brings us to the fifth dimension — tesseract.
As Mrs. Whatsit explains in the movie's trailer, “The fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.” A tesseract is an interstellar shortcut, more or less.
All this talk of plane geometry is hard to visualize, so L’Engle’s 1962 novel comes complete with a diagram. Mrs. Whatsit uses the image of an ant traveling along the edge of her skirt to demonstrate how the distance Point A and Point B can be lessened by a tesseract — or a “wrinkle in time.”
What remains unclear is how, exactly, a person tessers (or the act of traveling via tesseract). Tessering comes naturally to Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which, since they are supernatural celestial beings. Likely, they lend their powers to shepherd Meg, her brother, and her friend Calvin across the universe. But humans can tesser, to — Dr. Murry, a physicist, knew about tesseracting and was working on a way for humans to tesser. His research led to him getting trapped on Camazotz.
For all the imaginativeness of A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle didn’t invent the idea of a tesseract. The word “tesseract” was invented by the mathematician Charles Howard Hinton in 1888, when he was trying to create a visual explanation for the existence of the fourth dimension — time. Essentially, a tesseract is a four dimensional cube.
Here’s where L’Engle’s tesseract deviates from Hinton’s, and from straight geometry. In A Wrinkle in Time, the fourth dimension is time, and the fifth dimension is a tesseract — a portal through space and time. In geometry, a tesseract is a shape.
Just because L'Engle's book features its own spin on math and science doesn't mean the science isn't complicated. Apparently, the nitty gritty details of L’Engle’s tesseract are complex enough for the Mathematics Department of Brown University to create an entire mathematical explanation, complete with diagrams.
The concept of tesseracts have appeared in pop culture before. Each time, tesseracts represent a way to travel through the boundless universe. In the Marvel Universe, the tesseract is a glowing blue cube that is capable of transporting anything from one point in the universe to another. The incredibly powerful tool is stored in Odin’s vault. And how could you forget the highly complicated tesseract that appeared at the end of Interstellar? In the movie, a tesseract is a way for futuristic life forms, who are able to perceive the universe in five dimensions, to communicate with the human race. Matthew McConaughey's character, Cooper, sees a tesseracted form of the library in his house — every moment in time that library ever existed. He can interact with all those moments using the tesseract.
In all these works, tesseracts open up the possibilities of space and time to us three-dimensional mortals. Now that Meg has the power to tesser, do we think she'll run away to a far-off planet each time she gets a pang of adolescent blues? I guess we'll have to wait for the sequel to find out. L'Engle wrote three more books in the series — and all of them explore concepts far weirder than tesseracts.