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Fringe and the Physics of the Impossible

on Wed, 07/06/2011 - 00:00

The world in which the FOX drama Fringe takes place is one filled with scientific wonder. The elderly Dr. Walter Bishop spent the better part of the 1970s and 80s pushing the boundaries of modern physics and turning previously inconceivable notions into successful conclusions. From teleportation to mind control to genetic mutation to proving the existence of a parallel universe, nothing was too far on the “fringes” of present-day science for Dr. Bishop to tackle and thrive. He was in essence a combination of Albert Einstein and Victor Frankenstein, brilliant and unbound by convention while likewise oblivious to the potential consequences of his work.

Of course the world in which Fringe takes place is one of science fiction, not reality, but like all good science fiction, the roots of its science lie within reality nonetheless. H.G. Wells, for instance, wrote The First Men in the Moon close to seventy years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin literally became the first men to step foot there. The 1960s series Star Trek, meanwhile, has served as the catalyst for many scientific achievements since its initial broadcast on NBC, and even inspired an entire generation of physics and engineering professionals in regards to their career choice.

Acclaimed scientist Michio Kaku, meanwhile, became fascinated by scientific possibilities as a youth watching reruns of Flash Gordon. In 1968, he graduated summa cum laud from Harvard University and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkley, four years later. Kaku has since published over 170 academic articles on everything from superstring theory to supersymmetry, and is considered one of the most distinguished physicists of his time. Despite such professional achievements, however, Kaku still has a common man fascination with science fiction and has written a number of books exploring the possibilities found within the narratives of television shows like Star Trek. Although published the same year that Fringe premiered on FOX, Physics of the Impossible (Doubleday, 2008) still explores many of the scientific accomplishments of Dr. Walter Bishop and places them in a modern day context of limitless possibilities.

During the season one episode “Safe,” for instance, it is revealed that Bishop had built a teleportation device in the 1980s. “You nearly died when you were a boy,” Walter Bishop explains to his son Peter. “You started bruising and your kidneys failed. Doctors didn’t know what it was. The closest diagnosis was Hepia. It’s a rare form of bird flu, it hadn’t been around for decades. I became consumed with saving you, conquering the disease. In my research I discovered a doctor, Alfred Gross. Swiss, brilliant physician. He’s the only man who had ever successfully cured a case of Hepia. But there was a problem—he had died in 1936. And so I designed a device intended to reach back into time, to cross the time-space continuum and retrieve Alfred Gross. To bring him back with me to fix you, my dying son.”

Teleportation, meanwhile, is one of the many subjects that Michio Kaku dwells upon within the pages of Physics of the Impossible. Although the concept was made famous by the original Star Trek, Edward Page Mitchell published a short story entitled “The Man Without a Body” in 1877 that constitutes the earliest known mention of teleportation in a work of science fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle likewise wrote about a device capable of disassembling a human being and reassembling them in a different location in his 1927 novel The Disintegration Machine. At the time, however, the idea of teleportation was not grounded in the scientific reality of Isaac Newton that had reigned supreme for 250 years—objects, regardless of being human or inanimate, simply did not behave in a way capable of being magically transported through space.

Quantum theory changed that assumption when physicists along the likes of Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger discovered that electrons do not circle an atom in a uniform pattern as had been previously suspected but act more as waves around the nucleus. Since electrons behave as waves, they in turn are capable of being in many places at the same time, and it is the sharing of these electrons between two atoms that hold the molecules of an object together. This sharing also forms a quantum entanglement between the two atoms. “If two electrons are initially vibrating in unison, they can remain in wavelike synchronization even if they are separated by a large distance,” Michio Kaku writes in Physics of the Impossible. “Although the two electrons may be separated by light-years, there is still an invisible Schrödinger wave connecting both of them, like an umbilical cord. If something happens to one electron, then some of that information is immediately transferred to the other.”

In 1993, a team of scientists led by Charles Bennett used quantum theory to teleport objects at an atomic level. First, they entangled two atoms—B and C, if you will—and then separated them. They then placed atom B in contact with a third atom, atom A. Because atoms B and C had once been connected, the inherent properties of atom A were instantaneously transported to atom C, making atom C an identical replica of atom A in the process. While this experiment is not the same as Captain James T. Kirk beaming down to a distance planet, Australian physicist Aston Bradley was later able to replicate atomic level teleportation in 2007 without the need of quantum entanglement. In his experiment, Bradley’s team converted the properties of a beam of rubidium atoms into a beam of light and then sent that beam across a fiber-optic cable to another location where the light was again transformed into the original rubidium atoms.

“Physicists hope to teleport complex molecules in the coming years,” Kaku explains in regards to the future of teleportation. “After that perhaps a DNA molecule or even a virus may be teleported within decades. There is nothing in principle to prevent teleporting an actual person, just as in the science fiction movies, but the technical problems facing such a feat are truly staggering. It takes some of the finest physics laboratories in the world just to create coherence between tiny photons of light and individual atoms. Creating quantum coherence involving truly macroscopic objects, such as a person, is out of the question for a long time to come. In fact, it will likely take many centuries, or longer, before everyday objects could be teleported—if it’s possible at all.”

Michio Kaku explores other science fiction staples in Physics of the Impossible, including such topics contained on Fringe as telepathy, psychokinesis and the existence of parallel universes. Kaku breaks his discussions into three categories of “impossibility,” ranging from ideas that are possible given that they do not violate the known laws of physics, to those on the edge of current understanding, to those that are not compatible with modern physics. Ironically, the subjects that Michio Kaku explores that coincide with experiments conducted by Walter Bishop on Fringe belong to the first category, grounding the FOX series in reality more than one might expect.

In the epilogue of Physics of the Impossible, Michio Kaku quotes a speech given by Nobel laureate Albert Michelson at the University of Chicago in 1894. “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote,” Michelson declared. His statement, however, came before the works of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger and the discovery of quantum physics, which turned the Newtonian world in which Albert Michelson lived on its head. “The point is that things that are impossible today violate the known laws of physics, but the laws of physics, as we know them, can change,” Kaku writes.

It was just such a philosophy that no doubt drove Dr. Walter Bishop on Fringe during the 1970s and 80s when he was able to turn the “physics of the impossible” into the possible. The FOX drama may indeed be science fiction, but based on the words of Michio Kaku, the science may not be altogether fiction after all.

Anthony Letizia (July 6, 2011)

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