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April 6, 2010

Geek Out!: 'Lost,' time and quantum mechanics

Posted: 02:43 PM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi 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.

If you're watching "Lost," you're probably wondering how the writers are going to resolve all of the questions about time and parallel existences. Sean Carroll, physicist at California Institute of Technology and "Lost" fan, is wondering the same thing.

But as far-fetched as the show may seem, there are ways in which concepts from modern physics could explain what's happening in terms of time, says Carroll, author of "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time."

To recap: In the last two seasons of "Lost," characters on the island found themselves jutting through time. Season 5 found the characters transported to different eras on the island again and again thanks to some uncomfortable - even deadly! - white flashes.

At the beginning of Season 6, after Juliet activated the hydrogen bomb at the Dharma Swan site, the characters appeared in a new timeline.

This timeline portrays what happens to the characters on Oceanic Flight 815 had the plane not crashed. But many aspects of their lives are different, suggesting that the detonation of the bomb in the 1970s (after some of them had gone back in time) changed their lives in 2004 in significant ways - Sun and Jin are not married, Benjamin Linus is a schoolteacher, etc. etc.

But we don't know if the bomb actually created this timeline, or if it had always been there.

In real life, physicists think about multiple worlds all the time when it comes to quantum mechanics - the study of matter on atomic and subatomic scales. That's because nature gets freaky when you try to describe the behavior of particles smaller than the eye can see.

In quantum mechanics there is a concept called the the "many-worlds interpretation," Carroll says. The theory goes that the universe splits into multiple "worlds" when we observe a quantum system in which the particles are in multiple places at once.

Let's say we observe a single particle at positions A and B simultaneously. Each place that the particle is in corresponds to a different world - so, there's a world with our particle at A, and a separate world with our particle at B.

"We might imagine that detonating the bomb acted as an especially dramatic quantum event, splitting the universe into two timelines. The show has hinted that there is some sort of connection between the two timelines, so we'll have to see how that plays out," Carroll says.

Also, if time travel were possible, it would have to operate according to a principle that "Lost" characters kept repeating in Season 5: "Whatever happened, happened." That means that if you could go back in time, you wouldn't be able to change anything.

So let's say you go back to 1990 and encounter yourself, saying "Hey, you - I mean, me." That would have always happened, and you would remember now having met yourself then (so it hasn't happened!).

Recall, for instance, that in "Lost," Eloise in present-day Los Angeles clearly remembered that she had met her own time-traveling son Daniel many years earlier, but Eloise on the island in the 1970s did not, because from her perspective it hadn't happened yet.

All this goes to say that the "Lost" creators do have some basis for the sometimes outrageous time travel elements in the show. Still, a lot of underlying ideas haven't been resolved yet. Tune in on Tuesday nights to see if we learn more!

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Physics

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Mr. Lamen   April 6th, 2010 4:17 pm ET


Evan Keane   April 6th, 2010 4:27 pm ET

I really hope that the show ends well! Curious as to what there plans with this alternate timeline are. I have a feeling the final episodes will be either truly excellent or a total let-down. I am hoping for the former!

Evan πŸ™‚

Kaydz   April 6th, 2010 4:27 pm ET

I got it!

chrisstevens   April 6th, 2010 6:21 pm ET

The bad news is that there is a new moralistic thread in Lost of good versus evil, God versus the Devil, which might lead to a horrendous Hollywood and apple pie ending of good/God triumphing from an Armageddon event.
Hopefully we will get a more satisfying denouement of particle physics versus quantum entanglement with parallel universes thrown in for good measure.
Maybe like Sliding Doors all the parallel lives will re-merge at the end and carry on as if nothing special ever happened.
How many more episodes are there going to be anyway? Maybe they'll string it out until the LHC proves the Higgs or Susy or string theory.
Could bad Lock be Dark Matter or anti-matter Lock made visible?

Sency   April 6th, 2010 10:26 pm ET

It is sad that lost will be done after this year – greatest TV show ever

David   April 7th, 2010 12:27 pm ET

"Lost" has the movie "Time Bandits" written all over it (and inside it too). I halfway expect to see Terry Gilliam do a guest appearance in the finale.

Timeonics   April 7th, 2010 3:24 pm ET

Were'nt you here before. We all need a little loopback time travel.

Sebas   April 8th, 2010 12:24 pm ET

I was never a big Lost fan. Seems to me that this whole time-travel deal is their "Shark Jumping"

JON   April 8th, 2010 12:49 pm ET

@Sebas your first sentence negates your second sentence. But thanks for trying πŸ™‚

Ron   April 8th, 2010 12:56 pm ET

I have a theory that everything that is occuring is happening in the mind of Hurley. He's the "psychiatric" patient, and all of this could be occuring in his mind. Remember he loves comic books, which I'm sure some of them cover time travel. πŸ™‚ Also, Hurley may be having a psychotic break and these are his delusions. Remember how "Dave" was his "imaginary" friend while in the hospital, but "Dave" also showed up on the island. And the connection between "Henry Gale" and the balloon to the great "Wizard of Oz" is something that someone either very childlike, or delusional, would incorporate into their imagination (or delusions).....something to think about.

Bob   April 8th, 2010 2:59 pm ET

Who Cares......

Matt   April 8th, 2010 4:56 pm ET

Good theory. However, I believe the producers already stated that the show is not about someone's psychiatric episode. I think there was a show in the late 80's or 90's that pulled that on the audience...was it Twin Peaks?

Jason   April 9th, 2010 9:19 am ET

@ Matt, no it was not Twin Peaks, it was St. Elsewhere. The final episode we find out that the entire series was from the perspective of an autistic boy looking into a snow globe. To this day it is one of the biggest "gotcha" finales in history.

mitch   April 9th, 2010 2:28 pm ET

"Who cares"... "Never been a fan".... Morons your bus is leaving! If you dont care and have never been a fan, why are you taking the time to comment on an article about it? This world is going down quick and its all the fault of people like you.

Peter   April 17th, 2010 6:11 am ET

I would say the "Many-minds interpretation" Theory from H. Dieter Zeh could be a explanation of what the hell is going on in the Lost-Episodes.

Wondering about the instability of a quantum state and how it is possible that we can live in an apparently stable world (beside the politics, ... I write now about physics) I wrote a article about the problematic of the locality and nonlocality in the quantum world:

The island is a symbol for the collective consciousness, where all people that in some way are able to change the world comes together. Many are not even aware that "normal folk people" can have a drastic impact on the whole world. Besides all the mystery in the episodes, I watch it only because of the symbolism and the metaphorical meaning.

frank jackson   April 17th, 2010 5:06 pm ET

How should lost end? As fast as possible. This idiotic piece of garbage is as smart as a reality show.

Barbara   April 17th, 2010 7:38 pm ET

Lost is the only show that points to the true reality we are all living in this moment. Only problem we are too afraid to admit that truth to ourselves. Life is a profound mystery with alternative universes. The key that holds it all together is LOVE that is the connecting glue
between us that is what we all share in common and gives us the spirit to move into future realities, lives. Lost shows us how to move forward with free will and love side by side. All characters in the show will share this bond in whatever future or past reality they find themselves. The Locke monster is part of the mystery that propels
us to watch and discover how the universe works within dark matter/energy. Cannot wait to see how they wrap up the show do not feel it will have a nice ending watch for a surprise. The writers are having fun with Lost and so should we.

Maureen   April 19th, 2010 2:05 pm ET

I've been thinking about this too. It's too long to post here but after trying to wrap my head around this I wrote a blog post that might interest you as well:
10 comparisons between Quantum Theory and Lost

Dean   April 27th, 2010 10:43 pm ET

I've watched Lost from the beginning and enjoyed it for the most part. The bottom line is: The show is only as good as its writers. Commenters frequently forget this, pretending as though the events of the show are actual events that will all make sense in the end.

I get the impression that after season one, the show got into a rut of trying to keep itself going by introducing complexity and raising lots of new questions, and now it's in a state where it's impossible for everything to wrap up nicely at the end. This forces me to lower expectations for the ending.

It will be funny when a significant number of questions go unanswered during the finale. A lot of folks will duke it out over what *really* happened, when in fact there is no answer other than: the writers never got around to deciding that to begin with.

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