Physics Seminar Explored Wormholes, Extra Dimensions, and Stranger Things

Seminar speaker, Victor Parkinson, speaking to the audience. Photo: Hannah Lavin

SALEM, Mass., Sept. 26, 2016 — Diving into the world of physics in search of ways to understand our universe can feel like diving head-first into a wormhole unless the complex concepts can be broken down into more relatable terms, which is exactly how the seminar “Stranger Physics: Wormholes and Extra Dimensions,” part of the “Our Strange Universe” seminar series, unpacked the theories of wormholes and extra dimensions with the help of Netflix series Stranger Things.

Victor Parkinson explaining ontology. Photo: Hannah Lavin

Victor Parkinson, adjunct physics professor at Salem State University, began the seminar with a big question: “What is ontology?”

The audience, made up largely of first year physics students from Parkinson’s classes, was silent and intently listening.

Parkinson’s task — describing the existence, the ontology, of wormholes and extra dimensions — was not a simple one. Parkinson said the best way to describe these challenging concepts is with analogies and references to basic logic and simple situations.

Sometimes basic logic and relatable situations can be substituted for popular shows like Stranger Things, a science-fiction horror series released on Netflix in July 2016. The eight-episode first season was the “third most watched season of a Netflix original series to debut in the last year,” according to a article from August. Although the show is not explicitly about wormholes and extra dimensions, Parkinson found one scene be a perfect springboard into a physics pool much deeper than the puddle Stranger Things’ writers usually dip their toes into.

The scene focused on four young boys asking their teacher hypothetical questions about the existence of other dimensions, but Parkinson focused on where the “crap science teacher” character got things wrong. The scene was an interesting plot point to viewers like Sam Welton, 24, who thinks it is “better to just buy into the fiction of the show.”

Cynthia Ibarra, who graduated from Salem State with a degree in chemistry and a minor in physics in spring 2016, noticed the attempt to incorporate actual theories in physics because of her background, but also noticed that it was “obviously really watered down.”

“Most of the population watching isn’t going to have a great understanding on the theories of physics anyway,” Ibarra said. “Stranger Things did a good job of adding just enough to make it a point, but not enough to where it was like a physics lecture.”

To Parkinson, the inaccurate science gave him the perfect opportunity to turn it into a lecture and a more engaging way to share complex theories with an audience of students, something that there isn’t always time for in introductory physics courses at Salem State.

“Often there are ideas about how physicists do things… and think about the universe that students are simply never exposed to,” Parkinson said.

As Parkinson noted, the purpose of the seminar and others in the “Our Strange Universe” series is to show students things physicists are currently thinking about in the field, as well as to encourage them to learn more about physics on their own.