the Sci-Fi Universe and Everything
One man's contribution to the world(s) of film and television science fiction
As the November release of The Theory of Everything draws nearer, and we wait to be dazzled by Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the world’s most famous living scientist, it’s worth remembering that we don’t have to look far to see Hawking’s ideas and influence writ large on the popular culture (and not just because he’s a member of the Vice Presidential Action Rangers). His ideas are the cornerstone of much of the genre fiction of the last few decades and have informed everything from the missions of the Enterprise and the Planet Express Ship to the romances of Gwyneth Paltrow.
Hawking’s achievements, his challenging biography, and his relationship with his first wife have all been the subject of numerous documentaries and even a Peter Moffat biopic, Hawking, where he was played by one of the Internet’s boyfriends, Benedict Cumberbatch. Hawking is, himself, no stranger to the camera. He’s appeared in numerous documentaries, as well as several episodes of The Simpsons, Futurama and The Big Bang Theory. He even got to play poker with Einstein, Newton and Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation (and, as consequence, became the only guest star to ever appear as himself).
But what are these ideas of his that have so shaped science fiction over the last 50 years? Well, if you have to ask…
1. The Big Bang
When Hawking was coming up through the physics departments at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1950s and ’60s, the accepted scientific view was that universe always was and always would be, without beginning or end—so-called steady state cosmology. After hunting around for a graduate thesis topic, Hawking eventually decided to build on his colleague Roger Penrose’s research into dying stars and the singularities they form, showing that if you ran Penrose’s formula backwards—projecting what would happen if you started with a singularity rather than ending with one—that you could create the whole universe. If the bang was big enough, that is.
The idea of a big bang wasn’t original to Hawking, but his thesis demonstrated how it might’ve worked. He was rewarded a decade later when Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson discovered Cosmic Background Radiation, the left-over heat of that first, ancient explosion that Hawking’s physics predicted.
Of all of Hawking’s ideas, the big bang is one that has, perhaps, the most far-reaching impact. It is the creation of creation, after all. And it’s a concept he’s refined over his career: arguing for the universe’s boundlessness, making an excellent case for the non-existence of time before the big bang, proposing the anthropic principle which shows that the universe is fine-tuned for the creation of life, and even blowing minds with the idea that the present selects its past—even its creation!—from all possible options since reality is, fundamentally, subjective.
All that said, the big bang isn’t a frequent subject in science-fiction films or television. Perhaps it’s just difficult to work with for the non-Neil-DeGrasse-Tyson set. The big bang lights up Cosmos but typically it’s only tangentially related to the plots of major films or TV shows. For instance…
Guardians of the Galaxy
The central McGuffin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in both Phase 1 and Phase 2 features and TV, has been the various incarnations of the Infinity Stones. According to James Gunn’s Guardians screenplay, the stones are the result of six pre-creation singularities (what was that about no time before time?) collapsed by the big bang into pocket-sized doomsday weapons. We’ve seen four so far—the Tesseract in Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor and The Avengers; Loki’s spear in The Avengers and the Captain America: The Winter Soldier post-credit scene; The Aether in Thor: The Dark World; and the Orb in Guardians of the Galaxy—and when all six are brought together they give their wielder the power of God.
Fringe, “The End of All Things”
The final seasons of Fringe brought us many things, and coherence wasn’t always one of them. But for an amazing show about time travel, parallel universes, and—above all—the love between fathers and sons, it was a rare reward when Peter Bishop finally got some answers from the hairless and omnipresent Observers in no other place than their fly box-seat at the Big Bang! That Peter didn’t seem especially impressed at witnessing the birth of creation? Well, it took him three seasons to pick up on Olivia’s signals…
Futurama, “The Late Philip J. Fry”
With the possible exception of Star Trek, there’s no other series on TV that uses real-world science concepts more often than Futurama. And in this season six episode, we actually get to see more than one. Fry, Professor Farnsworth and Bender zip through time and past a succession of big bangs, each fine-tuned enough to create identical copies of the cosmos—and everyone in it. Well, maybe they’re a few feet off. But the trio keep coming back around…
Did I say few scifi titles hinged on the big bang? Here’s the exception: This Stargate SG-1 spin-off saw an international crew struggling to discover the purpose of their Ancient starship home, Destiny. And when they did? Well, the writers shouldn’t have made us wait into the second season, after the series was canceled, to learn that the ship was designed to reconstruct the pattern writ into the cosmic background radiation leftover from the flash of the Big Bang. A pattern that would reveal the destiny of all things (presumably not 42).
2. Black Holes
Aside from the Big Bang—a proof that Hawking derived from singularity research—black holes are the topic for which Hawking is most famous. He helped define the laws of black hole mechanics and thermodynamics and has been active is studying—and gambling upon—the black hole information paradox. Black hole emissions are even named for him: Hawking Radiation, a side-effect of the destruction of one-half an entangled pair of atoms that can eventually lead to the evaporation of the entire black hole.
Black hole science is what made Hawking a household name and propelled his career as a science popularizer. And black holes—once conflated with wormholes—have long been a trope in science fiction either as a doorway to another word or as the ultimate destructive force in the universe. The addition of Hawking concepts to this passion for black holes has only enriched science fiction, creating more complex and rich depictions of the phenomenon which some of our favorite characters have to contend with.
Battlestar Galactica , “Daybreak”
Galactica’s grim space opera was punctuated with a few snapshots of real space science—the time dilation suffered by the subluminal escapees of Earth, the supernova at the algae planet, blowing your ex-wife out an airlock—but none served a set piece so well as the black hole in “Daybreak.” The climactic battle between humans and their arch-rivals takes place in the accretion disk of the black hole, fouling their sensors and, ironically, sealing the cylon’s fate with a deus ex machinanuclear weapon and the delightful inevitability of—well—anything orbiting so close to an event horizon. They should’ve just stayed on Caprica.
The Black Hole
Disney’s foray into adult science fiction is notable for many things—the studio’s first computer-controlled camera effects, wildly inaccurate physics, and probably the only attempted (non-metaphorical) lobotomy of a Disney female lead. But it’s also the only black hole film on this list that addresses the information paradox of a black hole. Namely, Hawking’s notion that anything that falls into a black hole must be passed into a baby universe (the very crux of the famous Thorne-Hawking-Preskill bet). Hawking has since backed off this idea (and conceded the bet), and the scientific consensus has turned against the once-popular notion of a black hole’s corresponding white hole, the concept upon which this movie’s climax depends. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still fun to watch goofy robots fight lobotomized drones.
Doctor Who , “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”
Never mind that the Time Lords basically invented black holes, or that the TARDIS is powered by one. This Series 2 two-parter starts with a planet stably orbiting a black hole—a situation even the Doctor has a hard time wrapping his head around. But when the planet turns out to be the prison of the pre-creation beast that inspired the Devil and countless other evils, suddenly the danger associated with flying a hair’s breadth off an event horizon seems a pretty solid failsafe. Sure the episode uses a “gravity funnel” to get around all the bizarre spacial and temporal effects such proximity to a black hole would unleash on the protagonists, but that’s no more unbelievable than a coral-grown time- and space-machine that looks like a ’60s-era British call box.
The TARDIS may have a black hole, but the Event Horizon has a f*cking BLACK HOLE. This isn’t just a singularity powering a ship, this is a singularity allowing a ship to fold space and in the process see into the dark bowels of your soul as the ship literally flies through Hell. Event Horizon may not show what falling into a black hole would actually be like. You’ll need to turn back to Cosmos for that cherry. No, Event Horizon shows what falling into a black hole feels like.
Love or hate the rebooted Star Trek, it has black holes in spades. We see an attempt to use black holes to contain a super nova (nuking a hurricane, anyone?), to consume a founding world of the Federation, and to seriously mess up the bad guys. One drop of that red matter goes a long way. (Maybe that’s why there were so many lens flares.) By the way, what did the Federation ever do with that black hole Kirk and company whipped up by Saturn? Anyone? Anyone?
3. Worm Holes
Wormholes are a great staple of contemporary science fiction—especially when you consider that they’re a completely unproven phenomenon. And while scientists have never observed a wormhole (or an Einstein-Rosen bridge—the Bifröst, for Nordic short) they are explicit solutions called for in general relativity.
Hypothetically, wormholes can do a lot of the leg-work in science fiction: Faster-than-light travel, time travel, and even inter-universe and parallel-universe travel (as we’ll discuss below). They do this by connecting any two points in space-time (or even multiple space-times), regardless of distance, allowing for instantaneous travel between the two endpoints.
Current thinking supports the common existence of wormholes on the itty-bitty Planck scale that blink in and out of existence too quickly to navigate or even detect. But Hawking and others (including his regular gambling buddy, Kip Thorne) argue that manipulating negative energy could stabilize a wormhole and make it traversable in both directions on a human scale. But since big stable wormholes don’t occur naturally (so far as anyone knows), it may be a while until we know for sure. And if the competing hypothesis that wormholes are just quantum-entangled black holes is correct, then those first wormhole travelers might be in for a surprise.
Carl Sagan’s foray into science fiction is its own special kind of nerdgasm: a hard-science depiction of a first contact complete with SETI, the Very large Array, NASA funding fiascos, Hitler, reasonable religious-scientific debate (what?!), religious terrorism, billionaire space tourists, and, of course, wormholes. Jodi Foster ultimately drops through a wormhole to travel across the universe and back to a senate committee hearing. And, perhaps most realistically, nothing much changes in the world after first contact. She should’ve stayed on the alien beach.
Farscape’s wormholes are a lot more than just a way of getting around—or even more than just a macguffin to get protagonist John Crichton to the other side of the universe. Characters in Farscape are always looking for wormholes, going through wormholes, having wormhole wisdom implanted in (or extracted from) their brains, are obsessed with wormhole technology, or are even trying to weaponize wormholes into a doomsday device.
Christopher Nolan’s latest title promises to combine all the things we love about sci-fi: A dystopian future, awesome spacecraft, alien planets and Michael Cane talking about wormholes. It will be a few months before we see how well the movie performs—and if Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut is as delightfully nihilistic as his character in True Detective—but the central premise, that a stable wormhole connects our solar system to another with a potentially habitable planet, is an exciting fresh entry into the genre.
Seriously, what title did you first think about when we said “wormhole.” The film, all three series, and the reported reboot in the works all hinge on the mechanics of their eponymous, ancient alien wormhole machines. And while the shows also dealt with black holes, time travel, parallel universes, and more, even when they were on their starships, the teams from Stargate Command always came back to their wormholes. And MacGyver jokes.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
While all the Star Trek titles flirted with wormholes from time to time, DS-9 lived with one. The grand stable wormhole to the Gamma quadrant allowed the show to explore wormholes in a unique way, focusing, alternatively on the exploratory, commercial, and strategic military implications of such a portal. And it’s the first title to depict a wormhole as a three-dimensional phenomenon, not simply a flat hole in the universe as it is so often shown.
Thor and Thor: The Dark World
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor’s Asgardian home in space is connected to various worlds—including ours—via the rainbow bridge, Bifröst. This transport manifests on Earth as an Einstein-Rosen bridge, or wormhole, that leaves delightful Nordic knot patterns in its wake. At least until the Dark Elves show up and the god of thunder and British aviators, alike, just start hopping between worlds willy-nilly. And all of this I believe because Natalie Portman tells me.
Did you think this was movie was just about time travel? Well, sorta. The book clearly isn’t—it’s about a much more flexible technology that accesses parallel universes via quantum teleportation—’cause time travel is impossible, d’uh! As for the movie, it abandons Michael Crichton’s inventive premise for the simpler, “we accidentally found a wormhole to medieval France after accidentally finding one on the other side of the room—whoops.” But the movie does prove that the present has no monopoly on two-hours of boring.
4. The End of the Universe
The universe Hawking describes is a boundless one. There is no outer limit for the universe to reach. Nor is there any indication that the universe will slow and contract, dying in a big crunch (a so-called Gnab Gib, the perfect backdrop for breakfast at Milliways). Indeed, such a boundless universe can end only one way, in a frigid silence of nigh-unimaginable stillness. The heat death of the universe. When all the black holes have evaporated, and the only activity in the cosmos comes from photon and lepton dilutions.
Hawking didn’t dream up this scenario. That honor goes to Lord Kelvin in 1852. Hawking just gave us the time scale. And it’s a long way off, to be sure. Like 10 followed by a hundred zeros in years kinda long way off. And that’s just until the black holes evaporate. Then entropy has its work to do for another 10 to the 10th to the 56th power years.
Needless to say, this scenario doesn’t lend itself to too many depictions. And not just because it’s such a cheery topic. Oh, wait, no. That’s exactly why.
Doctor Who , “Utopia”
In this Series 3 episode—the first of a three-episode arc that brings back the Doctor’s big bad, the Master—the Doctor ends up at the end of the universe trying to save the last of humanity from the nothing that the future has in store for them. The dark skies over this last nameless planet are pitch black, the stars all long since extinguished. Much is made of the hopelessness of the scenario. At least until the TARDIS is stolen and they need to worry about cannibalism. Apparently, even at the heat death of the universe, there are always more pressing concerns.
Futurama, “The Late Philip J. Fry”
… did I mention that Fry, Professor Farnsworth, and Bender keep zipping through time and past a succession of big bangs? Well, they keep whizzing by the end of the Earth and the long slow heat death of the universe, too. Indeed, they crack a six-pack and sit back to watch the end of all things. And it’s only after the death of the very last proton that the next big bangs bring the universe back into existence. And clumsy as they are, the trio keep coming back around…
5. Parallel Universes
Also known as the many-worlds interpretation, the most common concept of parallel universes implies that all possible alternative histories and futures are real, each representing an actual world (or universe) just as real as our own. The result is the hypothetical existence of a nigh-on infinite number of universes which are all variations and flavors of our own (and which may contain variations and flavors of each of us).
Many non-scientists know this concept through the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat—that unfortunate house cat who’s both alive and dead, unobserved, in a box. But the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) is actually a much larger solution to the problem of wave-function collapse and non-deterministic events—such as random radioactive decay—in the larger framework of quantum physics’ determinism. Ow.
Hawking and his peers have been at the forefront of quantum physics and ideas such as the MWI since the 1950s and ’60s. Scientific debate has focused on whether or not these many worlds are real or unreal, with Hawking championing the self-evident truth of MWI while strongly supporting the unreal camp.
In contrast, Hawking advocates a multiverse interpretation of parallel universes, in which a nigh-on infinite number of universes exists alongside ours that are not confined to variations of our reality but which might even possess completely different physical laws and constants. Indeed, such universes are suggested by Hawking’s own research into black holes and their related information paradox (suggesting that material and energy consumed by a black hole might be deposited into another universe).
Fringe’s entire run hinged on two critical premises: That there was a nearly identical parallel universe (where 9/11 went down differently, Razr phones came out years earlier, and where protagonist Peter Bishop took longer to die of his childhood illness) and that Observers from the future were coming back to both universes to fix the rift between them. Oh, and then conquer the crap out of our universe (something that could be undone by—wait for it—changing the past and creating a parallel universe).
Let’s ignore for a second that The Mist has absolutely the most gut-wrenching ending you’re like to see in a Stephen King adaptation (and that says a lot if you’ve seen Tommyknockers). Here we see nightmarish creatures from another dimension (and their foggy air) let loose on a small Maine town by an Army experiment gone wrong. And while the parallel-ness of the dimension in question is little addressed (except for the Cthulhu-ness of the creatures, which casts The Mist’s parallel universe in the same vein as Lovecraft, Hellboy, and some of King’s other works), our survivors have the struggle against something they don’t understand and can’t outlast.
Where to start with The One. It’s kind of a Sliders meets Time Cop meets Highlander concept where evil Jet Li travels from parallel universe to parallel universe hunting down his identical selves, growing more powerful with every other Jet Li he kills. (Don’t say “quickening!”) And when it’s down to just two—one good and one evil Li, of course—the two super-powered men tear up L.A. before the evil Li is cast into a Hades universe to fight atop a ziggurat.
This five-season Fox/SciFi series used wormholes to travel, at random, across parallel universes (in the vein of other randomized episodic scifi, Quantum Leap and Voyagers). Always trying to slide home (get it?), Jerry O’Connell’s Quinn leads his group of travelers from parallel Earth to parallel Earth in what can charitably be called an exercise in WTF. Their eventual arch-enemies, the Kromags, even built an empire by slide-conquering hundreds of these parallel worlds.
What isn’t to love about parallel versions of Gwyneth Paltrow (keep your answers to yourself, Chris Martin). Sliding Doors cleverly answers the question about what can spring from a random deviation in one woman’s life and spins that change out across two parallel realities, shown in juxtaposition. No Donnie Darko pocket universes here. Nor wormholes or evil goatees (though alternate-Gwyneth does go brunette). This is a straight-up, non-genre, parallel universe tale. With Pepper Potts.
Star Trek (the mirror universe episodes)
The mother of all parallel universes—Star Trek’s mirror universe showed us the evil, goatee’d and scantily clad versions of the Enterprise, original series, Next Generation and Deep Space Ninecrews in all their viciousness (and even the Voyager crew in the novels). Transporter accidents being frequent as they are, Kirk and team first encounter their wicked alternates—notably, evil Spock of the Terran Empire—in the famous 1967 episode, “Mirror, Mirror.”
6. Time Travel
Hawking’s take on time travel is a lot like Fermi’s take on extraterrestrial life—if it exists, where are they?
Hawking has argued that the absence of tourists from the future is all the evidence we need that time travel—at least into the past—is impossible (or, at least neither developed or used by people in the future). Hawking hypothesizes two exceptions to this rule: that time-travel might only be possible in parts of the universe where spacetime is appropriately warped or within such warps that we’re eventually able to create. Effectively, these rules mean that manipulations of time either flow one way (into the future, according the general relativity) or within finite units of time once a time machine has been built (and not to any point in time before). Thus he leaves the door open for the possibility of bi-directional time travel while explaining the lack of future tourists.
Oddly enough, Hawking has also argued that the existence of parallel universes means that any would-be time travelers don’t need to worry about the grandfather paradox—the risk of going back and time and preventing your own birth. The many-worlds interpretation means that history is always personally self-consistent. His ideas also allow for wormhole-based time travel that manipulates time dilation and black holes.
Futurama, “The Late Philip J. Fry”
… so Fry, Professor Farnsworth, and Bender are in this time machine … But—as Hawking reminds us—reverse time travel is likely either impossible or, almost certainly, a really bad idea. So their time machine can only carry them forward, past repeated heat deaths of the universe and a succession of big bangs. They should’ve just stopped at the Earth filled with busty time-travelers and saved us all the paradox.
The Philadelphia Experiment
This 1984 time-travel feature connects a secret World War II experiment on the USS Eldridge in the Philadelphia shipyards to a 1980s experiment in the Nevada desert. Two greatest-generation sailors are hurled from the past into their future and have to figure out how to disconnect the time-travel loop. Oh, and get the girl and save the Eldridge crew from the grisly horror of ’40s-era time travel.
A time-travel tale after Hawking’s own heart, Primer is the story of two engineers, their accidental time machine, and a whole lot of overlapping timelines. The premise is so simple, and the machine so straight forward, that Primer is able to do away with the typical deus ex machinain time-travel titles in favor of a consistent and mind-bending approach. The non-linear storytelling—which, at first blush, appears linear—makes Primer infinitely re-watchable and almost as infinitely hard to wrap your head around.
Where Primer gives us two men who accidentally build a time machine, Timecrimes gives us an accidental time-traveler. This Spanish import gives us three overlapping timelines of the same dirty old man as he unwittingly navigates the moral complications and unintended consequences—and compounded consequences—of living next door to a mad scientist. And a gorgeous young woman. Because, of course.
7. Imaginary Time
Ready to have your mind blown? If we imagine regular time as a horizontal line running between the past and the future, then imaginary time would run perpendicular to that line. Imaginary time is not imaginary in the sense that it is unreal or made-up—it just runs in a direction different from time as we experience. It makes time more complex and dimensional. And it’s necessary to describe those parts of our universe where known physical laws do not apply. Like the Big Bang, for instance. When rendered through the prism of imaginary time, the Big Bang’s just another point in the space.
As Hawking said, “Imaginary time predicts not only effects we have already observed but also effects we have not been able to measure yet nevertheless believe in for other reasons. So what is real and what is imaginary? Is the distinction just in our minds?”
According to Hawking, this is his one great idea that no one in science fiction has tapped, yet. So there are your marching orders. Blow our minds with some new scifi. Make Mr. Hawking proud.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Oliver gave us a great rambling interview with Hawking that you need to stop and watch right now, if you haven’t already (which you should have). The physicist’ famous quick wit is on display—albeit slowed by his speech synthesizer—and he seems genuinely dismayed when he acknowledges the short shrift imaginary time has gotten in genre work.