So I think we all can agree: Stranger Things is an 80’s synth-music masterpiece stitched together by beautiful, complex characters and perfect references. Fine. Great. Obviously. Moving on.
The real question that’s burning us up is, “How accurate is the physics in said masterpiece?”
Yes, that is the real question. Shut up.
The sixty-five dollar problem is of course the Upside-Down, the parallel dimension with perpetually falling dandruff flakes that serves as the residence for the monster whose mouth opens almost as wide as Whitney Houston’s when she hits that note we all know so well.
Sorry, Ms. Houston.
Stranger Things actually offered an explanation for the Upside-Down courtesy of Mister Clarke, the boys’ chemistry teacher and the love of my life (check that ‘stache, folks). In his explanation, there’s an acrobat walking on a tightrope. She can go forward on the tightrope, and backwards too, but in no other direction. Let’s ignore the whole gravity thing here because the acrobat falling off the tightrope would be detrimental to both her health and this metaphor.
Along with our friend the acrobat, there’s a flea on this tightrope. Now, this flea can go backwards and forwards, but can also move under the tightrope because it’s small and can stick to surfaces like some bug-themed superhero, or something (Flea-Boy? That must be it).
This flea has another “dimension” of movement available to it that the acrobat doesn’t. In the series, the monster is the flea, since it can move freely between the Upside-Down (the bottom of the tightrope) and the human’s world, which we’ll call the Right-Side-Up (the top of the tightrope). Us humans, however, are stuck in the Right-Side-Up. Bummer.
So, okay, how scientifically accurate is Mr. Clarke’s explanation? Unfortunately for my mustachioed beau, not at all. At least, not in the way he intended. Turns out he was actually describing one of the central ideas of string theory.
What’s string theory, you say? Well, string theory is the relatively young idea that the smallest particles in the universe aren’t actually particles at all, but tiny vibrating strings.
Because f*ck it, why not.
All joking aside, string theory is a revolutionary concept. It plugs a lot of holes in modern science, and even stands to unify quantum theory and relativity, which to this day are completely incompatible without string theory. You can think of it as one of the great rivalries: Coyote versus Roadrunner, Hamilton versus Burr, Taylor Swift, versus, uh… well, everyone except Tom Hiddleston, lately.
So, getting back to that central idea of string theory: when he was using the tightrope and its various occupants to describe the Upside-Down, Mr. Clarke was borrowing one of renowned string theorist Brian Greene’s famous analogies — with some alterations. Instead of an acrobat and a tightrope, Greene used an ant and a telephone wire to explain this idea: if we look at telephone wire from afar, we see it as a line — it has length, but no width or height. However, if we were to zoom in on the telephone wire and think of an ant walking on it — well, the ant can definitely go backwards and forwards, but it can crawl around the telephone wire as well. For the ant, the telephone wire has two extra dimensions — width and height — that we can only see at very small scales. Greene was using this to get the concept across that there are more dimensions than the four we live in — three space dimensions (length, width, height) and one time dimension — curled up into special shapes at very, very small scales.
It’s a little tricky to wrap your head around. Think of it this way: the strings of string theory are the smallest possible things—the building blocks of everything else. These strings vibrate, and depending on how they vibrate, they create different forms of matter and energy. Also pretty wild, but hold on to your underpants here, because according to the really fancy (read: mind-bendingly awful) equations that govern string theory, the strings have to be able to vibrate in eleven dimensions (ten of space and one of time) to be able to create the matter and energy we see in the world around us. That’s seven more spatial dimensions than the three we know and love—all super duper tiny and in special shapes.
“Well that’s pretty darn out there, Jerry,” I hear you say, “but let’s get back to brass tacks here: how does this relate to hideous inter-dimensional monsters like the one on Stranger Things and also Donald Trump?”
Well, first off, sick burn. Secondly, all of that crazy string theory stuff was to illustrate a point: when we’re talking about “dimensions”, it’s a really shaky word. This next part might sound like semantics, but it'll work into a really cool reveal that’s coming up that will totally justify slogging through the last 200 words of strings and stuff.
The folks in Stranger Things call the Upside-Down a “different dimension”. Well, as we can see from that whole string theory thing, as far as we can tell there are eleven dimensions, and they all exist within our “dimension”—our universe, the Right-Side-Up. And as far as string theory tells us, the Right-Side-Up is pretty much as far as it goes.
But hark! When Mr. Clarke was explaining the Upside-Down to the boys, pitching it as an “alternate dimension”, he mentioned Everett’s Many-World Interpretation. Now that’s a whole other bag of cats but the gist is that every time something happens in this universe — whether an atom moves right rather than left or you choose challah over rye (and why wouldn’t you?) — a universe is created in which the opposite thing will take place. So, in that universe, the atom goes left and/or you choose rye (you sick bastard).
Which is all fine and dandy, but where do these universes go? Surely they must pile up? Well, to get very out there but still vaguely grounded by physics, consider our universe, which has four dimensions — three space and one time. I know we just went through how there are actually eleven, but for the sake of simplicity, bear with me here. Our four-dimensional universe, and another universe created by you sickeningly choosing rye, would exist within a “Bulk”. That’s a higher-dimensional space in which all the existing universes hang. Let’s reduce the dimensions by a couple to make this a little more clear: imagine our universe like a two-dimensional piece of paper — with length and width — floating through a three-dimensional space with an uncountable number of other pieces of paper. That’s kind of what the Bulk would be like.
So, let’s imagine, just for fun, that one of these other universes floating around in the Bulk is the Upside-Down, a universe where our history took a slightly different, dandruff-infested turn. To move from our universe to the Upside-Down universe, you’d have to make a pathway connecting the two through the Bulk. According to general relativity, space can bend like rubber, so the space of this universe would have to bend so much as to connect to the space of the Upside-Down. Cool. That sounds doable. Mr. Clarke mentioned it would take a lot of energy to open such a connection, but the boys live next to an energy plant, so hey, why not?
"Why not" would be something along the lines of well, the energy required would be so off the charts there would be no chart large enough to describe the degree to which it is off the charts. But hey, Eleven can make dudes pee themselves with her mind, so who’s to say?
Oh yeah, I should probably include a little bit on the scientific feasibility of psychic powers. There’s a long version and a short version to this, but for the interest of my word count, here’s the short version: no, absolutely not, no way, get out of my house with that nonsense. To the clairvoyant members of my audience, I hope you aren’t disappointed with the verdict, but let’s be honest: you probably saw it coming.
Here are some sources I used for this article.