Wormholes: The Superstars of Inter-Stellar Travel

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You might not have noticed their stellar performances, but with feature roles in Thor and Green Lantern, wormholes are the biggest movie stars of the summer. Not to mention, without these theoretical shortcuts in space-time, neither film would have much of a plot. A wormhole (the characters call it an “Einstein-Rosen bridge”) in Thor allows the film’s characters to travel between the Nine Realms and in Green Lantern, Hal Jordan travels to Oa through a wormhole (though it’s not mentioned in the film). Without wormholes, neither superhero would have gotten very far – nor would the plot.

It’s All Relative

Imagine two doors connected by a corridor. That’s the basic premise behind a wormhole, a corridor connecting two regions of the universe (or possibly two universes). It sounds like science fiction and, actually, wormholes are hypothetical. The theory of wormholes originated in 1916 when Austrian physicist Ludwig Flamm found that the Einstein field equations for gravity allowed for a black hole and a white hole (possibly in different space-times) to be connected by a conduit or throat. 

The problem with Flamm’s solution is that the wormhole is not traversable, that is, an object or person could not travel in or out of the wormhole. Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen further explored wormholes in 1935 (coining the name “Einstein-Rosen bridge”) and found such wormholes would collapse before any travel could occur. 

A traversable wormhole wasn’t theorized until more than 50 years later, when Carl Sagan asked theoretical physicist Kip Thorne for a scientifically sound way to travel inter-stellar distances in a brief amount of time. The answer, Thorne realized, was a wormhole. But how could a wormhole stay open long enough for an object to travel through it? Thorne, along with his PhD students Michael Morris and Uri Yertsever, theorized a wormhole could be maintained with “exotic material,” or negative mass. You might recognize the resulting traversable wormhole from Sagan’s novel Contact (also adapted into a film of the same name).

Traveling the Universe

Wormholes are very popular in science fiction. Whether it’s jumping to hyperspace in Star Wars or a doorway into an alternate universe on Fringe, wormholes allow for all sorts of imaginary leaps in space-time. There are even some hidden wormholes in children’s literature. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice travels through a wormhole (a mirror) to Wonderland and the wardrobe from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could also be seen as a wormhole that leads to Narnia.

In the non-fictional world though, wormholes are still theoretical, meaning we won’t be traveling through one anytime soon. Unlike black holes, we aren’t even sure if a wormhole could occur naturally. The mathematics behind wormholes is sound but it doesn’t mean they exist. Still, scientists and writers continue to explore wormhole theories, inspiring each other to examine the possibilities in new ways and further our understanding of the limits of science and imagination.

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.