Published on: April 24, 2008
At its geeky core, Lost is a show about science and faith—and it's undeniable that this season, science is taking center stage. As the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 try to unravel the island's mysteries in an effort to get off of it, they are thwarted again and again by temporal distortion, electromagnetic energy and time travel of the mind—not to mention a really cranky smoke monster that may or may not have a basis in science.
In a revealing interview with Popular Mechanics on the eve of Lost's return from a strike-induced hiatus, show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse insisted that they agonize over the real-life science behind the sci-fi drama as much as they do over six-year plot arcs and love triangles.
Before the production crew in Hawaii gets to chalking up physics equations, eight writers in Los Angeles dissect the finer points of each episode just as rabidly as Lost's online nerdosphere. Script coordinator Greg Nations tracks down even more specific research than PM's weekly Hollywood Sci-Fi vs. Reality fact check, while the rest of the writer's room relies on a couple years of physics classes, decades of engineering know-how passed down by Cuse's father ... and every time-travel theory in comic-book history.
But text books can be left on the cutting room floor of a show that ultimately abides by "Jurassic Park rules," because it does, after all, take place on an island full of out-of-place creatures. "The science needs to be right enough that we create a sense of believability to the storytelling," Cuse says. "But we're always trying to skirt that line between the two possible explanations—the scientific one or a mythical and magical one—and we are purposefully ambiguous about which one might be correct."
"Hopefully it won't feel like it's a copout when the show does answer that question," Lindelof adds, "because we never promised a show that was based entirely and grounded in science."
Perhaps the most ambiguous faith-or-science mystery on Lost is that murderous smoke monster (rumor has it Smokey will be back in tonight's episode). Because the travelling black cloud often materializes with a roller coaster-style clanking sound, one popular theory suggests that it comprises thousands of nanobots working in tandem. Lindelof, however, says that's definitely not the case, and that the monster's true identity won't be revealed until the show's final stretch in 2010.
But the creators did let slip that the rest of this season will revolve around some very real—and very big—physics: the Large Hadron Collider, the much delayed European particle accelerator that could reveal information about the Higgs boson and dark energy. Some physicists believe the LHC will produce mini black holes, which might actually be able to open a one-way portal to another universe—a gateway that can only be kept open by a force of energy as strong as Jupiter ... or an electromagnet inside a desert island.
Michio Kaku, author of Physics of the Impossible, thinks the Lost creators are using cutting-edge science to lay the groundwork for a transversible wormhole to another point in space and time—a trip foreshadowed in an off-season video about the so-called Orchid station, which Lindelhof and Cuse promised would be a key to the next few episodes. "They're amping up the energy to the point where space and time begin to tear, and the fabric begins to rip," Kaku tells PM. "When the fabric of space and time begin to rip, things that we consider impossible become possible again."
Even new technology, though, has its limits. And the Lost team had no problem modifying some next-gen touchscreen satellite phones to its needs in showing off its beyond-iPhone power, beginning late last season. "We didn't really want to put ourselves in a position where we were married to everything that exists technologically," Cuse says. "We decided that our satellite phone would be a very modern, high-tech version." Plus, Lindelof adds, they're dealing with the personal property of a bad guy who can plant a fake plane crash in a submarine trench too deep for recovery.
One thing's for certain: Lost is the first mainstream TV show since Mr. Wizard to make science cool again. Across thousands of Web sites devoted to Lost, obsessive viewers analyze screen captures, debate theories of living in purgatory and play online games in trying to answer the ultimate science question: What is this damn island? Andy Page, webmaster of Lost fan site DarkUFO, says his site normally receives 800,000 hits the day after a new episode, and has had over 50 million hits in two years. "It started as a simple blog listing all the outstanding mysteries of the show and snowballed from there," he says, insisting that The X-Files has nothing on Lost when it comes to myth hunting.
"It kind of boggles our minds, actually," Cuse says. "We never imagined that people would get wrapped up in the intricacies of it to the degree that they have. We really just set out to make a show that we thought was kind of cool and entertaining."
SOURCE: Popular Mechanics