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May 4, 2010

Geek Out!: The real Dharma Initiative?

Posted: 02:40 PM ET
The Dharma Initiative booth at San Diego Comic-Con 2008
The Dharma Initiative booth at San Diego Comic-Con 2008

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From sci-fi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it, you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

The Dharma Initiative. Red herring or consequential? Once one of the biggest mysteries of "Lost," much of what it was about was revealed in season five.

A short refresher course: Dharma (Department of Heuristics And Research on Material Applications) was founded in the 1970s by a couple of scientists named the DeGroots, who were greatly influenced by the work of psychologist and inventor B.F. Skinner. They were given funding by one Alvar Hanso, which allowed them to send a large team to the island to conduct research in meteorology, psychology, parapsychology, zoology, electromagnetism and Utopian social engineering.

A major reason why we know all of this is thanks to the orientation films hosted by Dr. Pierre Chang, a.k.a. Marvin Candle, a.k.a. Mark Wickmund, a.k.a. Edgar Halliwax. So what did Francois Chau, the actor who played Chang, think of all of this? "This stuff is way over my head. Astrophysics is not something I would read about," he said. "But what they were researching is pretty interesting. I never would have known any of this stuff if I hadn’t gotten involved."

Much of their research does exist in the real world, leading one to another question: Are there organizations from history that may have inspired the idea of the Dharma Initiative?

Ask many who have pondered that question, and one answer you often hear (aside from Skinner, obviously) is DARPA. DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - is often credited with creating the internet and has researched and developed some pretty advanced stuff, especially in the area of robotics. DARPA even sounds like "Dharma," but as tempting as it is to draw conclusions about the two, the similarities start and end there (for one thing, Dharma is a private organization).

One person who has thought about this quite a bit is blogger Klint "Klintron" Finley, who has written about the concept of "real-life Dharma initiatives" extensively at Hatch23.com. "I think it stems from various trends and movements from the '60s and '70s," he said. "More specifically, anywhere that two or more of the following intersected: Eastern spirituality, fringe science, defense spending, disturbing psychological research, experiments in utopian/communal living and experiments social control."

He points to many possible influences for the Dharma concept but thinks there is one in particular that shares a lot with Dharma: the Esalen Institute. Made famous in a 1967 New York Times article, the institute began as a place where one could, as its website says, have "the intellectual freedom to consider systems of thought and feeling that lie beyond the current constraints of mainstream academia."

It still serves as a retreat center at the beautiful Big Sur mountains to this day and, according to the website, has been devoted to the exploration of human potential since the 1960s. It's here that the "Physics Consciousness Research Group" was allegedly co-founded in 1975 by theoretical physicist Jack Sarfatti. Sarfatti is the author of such works as "Progress in Post-Quantum Physics and Unified Field Theory" and "Super Cosmos: Through Studies Through the Stars."

And what about Dharma's benefactor, Hanso? Aside from maybe Richard Alpert and Charles Widmore, no one character has fascinated and mystified fans more. ... In fact, much of the online "Lost Experience" a few years ago revolved around him. (According to Finley, Hanso may have been modeled after people like inventor Charles F. Kettering, who died in 1958.) In ABC's game "The Lost Experience," players found out that a main reason for his interest in the Dharma Initiative was the "Valenzetti Equation." In "Lost" lore, this is a calculation of the exact date on which humankind would wipe itself out, consisting of the familiar "numbers" from the hatch, Hurley's lottery ticket and, we now know, Jacob's candidates. Dharma was trying to change these numbers in order to save the world.

The closest thing to such an equation in the real world would appear to be the doomsday argument, which theoretically would calculate the probability that a certain number of humans could still be born in the future. Similarly, there is the Doomsday Clock, which symbolizes how close we supposedly are to the end of the world, whether due to nuclear war or, more recently, global warming or possibly harmful technological factors.

Leaving aside the reasons behind Dharma and their areas of study, it turns out that Dharma's method of having a closed-off area for research is quite common, according to Georgia Tech associate professor of electromagnetics Gregory Durgin: "There is a longstanding tradition of placing research groups in secluded places together, providing the members resources, privacy and freedom to develop important technologies. One of the earliest and most famous examples of this is the Manhattan Project, where an entire community of scientists was established in the New Mexico desert for developing the atom bomb."

Durgin says that such arrangements are necessary in certain cases. "Any researcher will tell you that, when a new frontier of knowledge opens up, some degree of seclusion and freedom are required to study the emerging field," he said. "Without some 'hedge of protection,' technical people get roped increasingly into the mundane maintenance of an organization. ... Thus, today's corporate research labs foster an 'island culture' of freedom (complete with the same hippie themes of the Dharma Initiative) without having to ship out their technical personnel to the South Pacific."

A modern example of an "island culture" that comes to mind for him is that mysterious, shadowy organization known as ... Google. "They have game rooms, pools, cafeterias with exotic foods and eclectic décor, all in the hopes of providing a unique culture of innovation for their personnel" at the "Googleplex" near San Jose, California. "It’s the 'do no evil' approach to managing researchers."

Close to reality or not, some of the most hardcore fans focused in on the Dharma Initiative over the years as a major part of unraveling the mysteries of "Lost." Clearly, the "incident" (or lack thereof, depending on how you look at it) caused a lot of what we're seeing take place in this final season. But what further role, if any, does it play in the war between Widmore and the Man in Black? That remains to be seen.

How do you think the show's last few episodes will play out? Share your theory (keep it brief!) on CNN iReport. In the meantime, share your thoughts on Dharma, or anything else "Lost"-related below, and look for another "Geek Out!" post on one of our favorite shows next Tuesday.

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