I haven’t let my inner science nerd out to play in a while…

Rewatched several of the Marvel movies yesterday (Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, and as of writing I’m considering whether to watch an Iron Man, though that will be difficult seeing as Netflix doesn’t have them), because it’ll be a little while before I can go see Thor 2. I have to say, at first I thought the Tesseract was just a bit of technobabble, throwing out a science-y sounding word, but the more I think about it, the more it works for me.

The key is, there are a couple of mentions of “dark energy” in The Avengers in relation to the Tesseract. Like a tesseract, dark energy is a real scientific term; it refers to a hypothetical form of energy that is causing the observed expansion of the universe (hence “dark”–we can deduce its existence from observing its effects, but have yet to detect it or confirm its source). Dark energy appears to permeate all of space and act on space itself, causing it to expand. It is very weak, which is why it hasn’t completely shredded the universe; even as space expands, gravity is strong enough to hold structures like galaxies, stars, and planets together, let alone the much stronger electromagnetic and nuclear forces holding together smaller structures such as atomic nuclei, molecules, and people. Despite this weakness, because there is just so much space, dark energy ends up being the majority of all energy in the universe.

Which brings us to the Tesseract, which appears to draw on dark energy to generate power. Of course, the amount of dark energy in a region of space as small as that cube wouldn’t be enough to run an EZ Bake Oven, let alone power a Nazi super-science army, but the name gives a clue to how it could work.

In real life, a tesseract is a four-dimensional cubic prism; that is, it has the same relationship to a cube as a cube has to a square. If you do the math, you’ll find that it has a total “surface volume” eight times that of a single cubical “face,” but still, eight times that tiny cube is only slightly less tiny. However, thanks to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time, in science fiction “tesseract” has a second meaning: a four-dimensional fold in space that connects two points that are very distant three-dimensionally. Given what the tesseract does when Red Skull activates it at the end of Captain America, and that it enables the opening of a gate for the Chitauri to invade Earth in The Avengers, it seems pretty likely that this is the definition meant.

At which point it makes total sense that it is able to tap vast amounts of dark energy. We have no idea how much space it’s capable of folding up, but given that the Chitauri expect to conquer the universe, we can assume it’s a lot. Now it can access the dark energy of vast swaths of interstellar space, folding them up so that they can all be accessed through that one little cube.

Which leads to another fun thought: what if someone mass-produced them? As it stands, there is enough dark energy in the universe to keep it expanding forever. If the “quintessence” theory of dark energy is correct, then the amount of dark energy in the universe is actually increasing over time; eventually there will be nothing else, and space will shred itself completely. Using up the dark energy of interstellar space seems like a good idea, to keep the universe from flying apart. On the other hand, use up too much, and you eventually hit a point where there’s more gravity than dark energy, and the universe starts to collapse in on itself. You could set a pretty interesting story in a universe where that’s starting to happen, and people are faced with choosing between giving up their main energy source or dooming the universe–but obvious as the answer is, it isn’t easy, because it’s a very slow doom that none living will see.

Too on the nose, perhaps?