Not only is the Foundation Series on Apple TV a massive hit for science fiction fans, but it also showcases cool futuristic technology. From spray-on skin to force-field bracelets, Foundation wows the audience into wondering what our own future will be like. And while Foundation is full-on sci-fi, a mystery remains concerning the ‘Jump’ drive, and how people travel quickly across the Empire’s galaxy.
The series is loosely based on the novels by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. The TV series has made some major adjustments from the book to overcome the obvious tones of misogyny and make the narrative more coherent. The books were initially published in a serialized magazine, so the timeline was all over the place.
One primary subject that the show retained from Asimov’s books was the space travel technology known as the ‘Jump.’ In the show, the Jump is used to quickly transport individuals from one place to another. As time progresses, this technology becomes more valuable, to the point where people kill each other to control a Jump ship. Jump technology may actually have roots in real science, specifically in quantum tunneling or wormholes. It’s essential to understand the basics of these two scientific processes before comparing them to Asimov’s space-travel technology.
What is Quantum Tunneling?
Out of the two, quantum tunneling is much more difficult to understand. It is a phenomenon within quantum mechanics where particles, like electrons, can move through a potential barrier. The conditions needed for quantum tunneling can be quite tricky.
According to Ichiro Takeuchi, Professor at the University of Maryland and quantum tunneling researcher: “Tunneling of electrons takes place over a barrier, which would seemingly block the transmission of electrons through this. But under the right conditions-energy of electrons, barrier height (relative energy of the barrier to the electron energy), and the thickness of the barrier, electrons can disappear from the injection side and appear on the other side of the barrier wall.”
This specific type of tunneling is called Klein tunneling, and has been studied since the 1920s, so it’s possible Asimov may have heard about it before writing the series.
Quantum tunneling is used today in electronics and is still being studied to figure out how it exactly works. Quantum tunneling is a bit of a misnomer, as electrons don’t really tunnel through a barrier.
“The term ‘tunneling’ is used because the appearance of a particle on the far side of a barrier (often represented pictorially on by analogy as a ‘hill’) could seem as though it had magically transversed a tunnel, but there is no sense in which any tunnel is being created,” explained Dr. Aephraim Steinberg, professor, and researcher at the University of Toronto. His research showed that the process of quantum tunneling was not instantaneous but rather took milliseconds to happen.
It’s important to note that the process of quantum tunneling, where an electron moves across a barrier, happens in the quantum realm. The quantum realm is a strange place where particles can be connected through a mysterious force called quantum entanglement, and where an observer watching the realm can affect the outcomes of their experiment with their gaze.
We’ll get to why these things matter in a bit.
What is a Wormhole?
Wormholes, in contrast, are a bit easier to understand and have been adopted by science fiction for decades as a form of space travel.
These speculative structures link two different points in spacetime. Wormholes are based on a lot of math, specifically math that Einstein thought up.
The conditions for a wormhole are also complicated. “First, to form a wormhole, some violent topology-changing event has to happen that could connect two initially disconnected regions of space,” explained Dr. Dejan Stojkovic, a professor and wormhole expert at the University of Buffalo. “Second, to keep the wormhole open (transversable), we need some source of negative energy or other elaborate setup which could provide repulsive force to balance gravity, which tends to collapse the wormhole.”
Wormholes have been used in science fiction before for space travel (think Interstellar), and as we’ll discuss below, they may be part of the Foundation Jump technology.
He writes: “Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could transverse the length of the Galaxy in the intervals between two neighboring instants of time.”
This hyper-space realm sounds pretty strange and very similar to the quantum realm. Like the Jump, quantum tunneling must use the quantum realm to move, accessing a similar, higher dimension. Additionally, those who use the Jump in the show have to be asleep for the journey. This could translate to avoiding the observer effect, which could skew the quantum state and possibly collapse a quantum tunnel.
Unfortunately, quantum tunneling doesn’t seem like the perfect explanation for the Jump technology. For one, it isn’t instantaneous. It also has only been seen in small particles.
“One can try to apply it to macroscopic objects-such as a tennis ball tunneling through a wall, but physics quickly tells you that the probability of such events is virtually zero,” Takeuchi said.
It might be that the Foundation Series is bending the rules of physics to allow macroscopic quantum tunneling, but if they have, they haven’t mentioned it.
The Jump could also be accessing wormhole technology to travel, as the ships connect their current locations with destination coordinates. The Jump ships also seem to use enough negative energy to offset gravity to move, but the higher plane of hyper-space isn’t explained in the wormhole theory. We also don’t know how these ships connect with the destination coordinates, whether they use a wormhole or not.
As the series finale drops today and Season 2 is way too far off for our liking, we as viewers can continue pitching theories. Perhaps the show writers may actually listen and give us a full explanation later on. Until then, we just have to speculate, wait, and “respect and enjoy the peace.”
Kenna Castleberry is the Science Communicator at JILA and a staff writer at The Quantum Daily and The Deep Tech Insider. She has written various pieces on diversity in deep tech, covering stories from underrepresented communities, as well as discussing how science fiction contributes to the reputations of deep technologies. Follow her on Twitter @kennaculture