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The science of Stranger Things

Leave the plot aside — is Stranger Things actually a show about popularising science among teenagers?

Making nerds cool
Making nerds cool (IMDb)

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Forget its exciting plot involving secret government experiments gone wrong, dangerous creatures from another dimension, and the group dynamics of a bunch of hormonal teenagers all discovering themselves and each other while fighting terrifying things that are, well, quite strange — is Stranger Things actually a show about making science cool?

Right from its absolutely riveting first season, Stranger Things has presented us with theories and scenarios that, like the best science fiction, are rooted in real science. Take the first season, which introduced us to the Upside Down — a parallel dimension to our own where strange bloodthirsty creatures roam. How was the Upside Down created? It came into being or rather became accessible — think of this is as a portal to another dimension opening up — when Eleven, with her tremendous telekinetic powers, made contact with the Demogorgon while immersed in a sensory deprivation tank and panicked. The predominant theory is that the huge surge of energy caused by this event created a path to the parallel universe known in the show as the Upside Down.

Parallel worlds

Are there parallel universes in real life? Well, theoretically, yes. String Theory, a key theory in quantum physics, posits and tries to explain the existence of the multiverse — multiple parallel universes. In an interview with NPR, physicist Brian Greene, author of The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, says that recent discoveries in physics and astronomy point to the idea that our universe may be one of many universes populating a grander multiverse, and String Theory, which attempts to make a connection between two seemingly irreconcilable yet foundational theories of physics — Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics — does so by basically admitting the possibility of multiple dimensions. “String theory smooths out the mathematical inconsistencies that currently exist between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. It posits that the entire universe can be explained in terms of really, really small strings that vibrate in 10 or 11 dimensions — meaning dimensions we can't see. If it exists, it could explain literally everything in the universe — from subatomic particles to the laws of speed and gravity,” Greene says in an episode of the NPR podcast Fresh Air.

Let aside big theories that check out — even smaller details on Stranger Things are based in real science. Take the sensory deprivation tank in which the evil scientists of the show force Eleven to get into in order to fully exercise her powers, for instance: isolation tanks like that are actually used in scientific research, except the term "flotation-REST" (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy) is preferred today.

From the flea and the acrobat to the Large Hadron Collider

Imagine a tightrope an acrobat is walking across. The acrobat can only walk back or forth across the rope, right? Now imagine a flea on the rope. The flea can go to the side of the rope or even to the lower surface of the rope, experiencing all its dimensions.

This is the example Mr Clarke, the kids' science teacher, uses to explain the concept of parallel dimensions to Mike, Lucas and Dustin when they approach him during their search for Will. “It turns out the ideas presented in the Stranger Things episode The Flea and the Acrobat are pretty much spot on… Since we’re the acrobat in this analogy, the question is how to test if extra dimensions really exist. One way of seeing evidence for other dimensions involves gravity – specifically, the theoretical particle associated with the force of gravity, called the graviton. One theory suggests that the graviton may move in all dimensions, not just the ones we live in. And if we can create gravitons at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, we might be able to see evidence of them leaving our dimensions for other ones,” says an article on the website of the US Department of Energy (ironic, considering it’s this very department that assumes the role of chief villain during the first season, and partially in later seasons!).

The mindflayer’s hive mind

Yet another theory that explains the presence of creatures like the Demogorgon, the demodogs, and the Mindflayer — all aggressive and hostile life-forms not found on Earth — is that they could be actually alien! One possibility — and a perfectly plausible one — is that the creatures came from a wormhole in space from another point in the galaxy. “If we relax the idea of a 'parallel universe' and think more in terms of alternative life forms, then, yes, strange complex life like this one could be viable somewhere else in the galaxy,” Marcelo Gleiser, professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, said in an interview to CNN.

There’s a time travel theory as well — which throws up the idea that the Upside Down is actually a post-apocalyptic version of the human world, which explains how the town of Hawkins looks like itself in the Upside Down but a particularly decrepit one, with slime and mold growing from every surface and strange particles floating in the air. The idea is that Eleven didn’t open a portal to another dimension, but tore a hole in the space-time continuum, connecting present Hawkins with its desolate post-apocalyptic version.

But these are still in the realm of theory and speculation about the nature of the Upside Down. What is more intriguing is the way the writers of Stranger Things have drawn on real science to create the creatures that inhabit it, especially the ‘hive mind’ the demodogs in the second season seem to possess (when they think and act as one unified brain), or the Mindflayer in the third season, which controls humans beings by ‘infecting’ them through actual physical contact.

Now the hive mind is a real natural phenomenon demonstrated by creatures like ants and even really primitive organisms like slime molds. Research into slime molds suggests that they can sometimes pick up behaviours through a form of communication, not just through experience. In a 2018 article from Quanta Magazine, Katia Moskvitch writes about the work of Audrey Dussutour, a biologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and a team leader at the Research Center on Animal Cognition at Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, who led an experiment that not only taught slime molds to ignore noxious substances that they would normally avoid, but demonstrated that the organisms could remember this behaviour after a year of physiologically disruptive enforced sleep. “Dussutour’s work suggests that the slime molds can sometimes pick up these behaviors through a form of communication, not just through experience. In a follow-up study, her team showed that ‘naïve,’ non-habituated slime molds can directly acquire a learned behavior from habituated ones via cell fusion,” says Moskvitch.

Fascinating stuff!

There are many more scientific easter eggs in Stranger Things — so when you start the much-anticipated fourth season today, watch out for them, do some research, and unlock the show’s true purpose: giving us a thoroughly engaging lesson in science.

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