The Stranger Things About a Scientific Constant

If you haven’t watched the first three seasons of Stranger Things, I’m about to spoil a plot point for you. The most recent season came out over a year ago, so I don’t feel that guilty about it, but just in case, this is your spoiler warning.


Let’s move on.

Stranger Things is a sci-fi thriller focused around some kids growing up in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana in the 1980s. It’s filled with pop-culture references, nostalgia, and a good amount of science. In fact, in season three, one of the kids — middle school student Dustin Henderson, played by Gaten Matarazzo — has just returned from a science and computer camp called “Camp Know Where.” And you hear a lot about it — Dustin claims to have met a girl named Suzie at camp, and the two are now boyfriend-girlfriend. Suffice it to say that the other kids are skeptical that Dustin’s newfound love interest actually exists.

Thankfully for the world, though, Suzie is definitely real. Toward the end of the season — and we won’t go into too many details, in part because you really should watch the show — the protagonists need to get through a locked door, and the passcode is the first few digits of Planck’s constant, “the quantum of electromagnetic action that relates a photon’s energy to its frequency” as summarized in Wikipedia. As I never went to science or computer camp, and a deeper understanding of Planck’s constant isn’t really all that important to the story today, let’s not worry too much about that it does.

In any event, Dustin doesn’t know Planck’s constant — but he’s confident Suzie does. He calls her up on an insanely powerful ham radio of his own making and, after the two sings a duet (rewatch it here), she provides him with the info: Planck’s constant is 6.62607004 × 10^(-34) Joule-seconds. Seriously, Google it and you’ll see. 6.62607004 etc. etc. Suzie was right!

But only if she — and the bad guys she helped thwart — had a time machine.

While we generally think of constants as being, well, constant, that’s not actually always the case. The search for more accurate measures truly is a never-ending story — the science community is always looking to refine and improve its understanding of our world. Planck’s constant is a great example. As Interesting Engineering explains, “Planck’s constant has changed over the years because scientists have learned to measure it better” as we’ve developed “more sophisticated instruments.” And as a result, Planck’s constant has improved a bit over the years — and therefore, changed. As of mid-2017, when the episode was probably written, Planck’s constant was, indeed, 6.62607004. But the show takes place in 1985. And as notes, “in 1985, the correct value would have been 6.626176 x 10^(-34), which was established in 1973.”

So Suzie’s code shouldn’t have worked, and the bad guys should have won. But as both Suzie and the forces of evil both made the same mistake, it all turned out fine in the end.

Bonus fact: Stranger Things isn’t perfect, but neither is Google. As noted above, if you Google Planck’s constant (as of this writing), you’ll see that it’s 6.62607004, just as Suzie said. And that was right in 2017 and into 2018. But now? It’s wrong. According to the National Institute for Standards and Technology, Planck’s constant shifted to 6.62607015 in 2018, and remained there until at least July of 2019 (when the linked-to tweet was sent). So if you’re looking to save the world, Google for info, sure — but double-check, okay?

From the Archives: Stupid Google Tricks: This is from 2011 and therefore some of the tricks won’t work, but it’s fun.