Thursday, April 30, 2009

Physics, Philosophy & Faraday

LOST fans, put on your thinking caps and fasten your time traveling seat belts. It is my great pleasure to introduce you to Dora, a fellow Lost friend and fan who happens to be an undergrad student majoring in Physics at MIT (with a focus in physical philosophy). As a huge fan of Daniel Faraday, and given what occurred in last night's episode ("The Variable"), Dora was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to help shed a little light on and perspective about the science behind the man!

Feel free to leave her comments below, and as usual - please be respectful and constructive if you disagree with anything. Thanks! - jo

When Jo asked if I wanted to do a guest entry for her blog a couple months ago, I was both honored and hesitant. While I would have loved to share my opinions on such a complex show, I was also uncertain as to what I could write about (the best idea, to date, had been an intricate study of how Jack might have biologically manipulated his stubble to stop growing). However, with the apparent death of my favorite character, Daniel Faraday, I can think of no better opportunity to share my thoughts on the questions of time travel and free will.


The fourth season of LOST, for me, was an extremely well-timed season with respect to the courses I was taking in college. The entirety of the season itself occurred during the spring of my freshman year, when I was taking a basic course in Electromagnetism. One of the greatest scientists in the field of electromagnetism was Michael Faraday, and so the last-name connection jumped out at me immediately when we were first introduced to Daniel early on in the season. Seeing as the electromagnetic radiation on the Island is a key aspect of the show, there was no mistaking Daniel’s namesake. (Further nerdiness ensued with Faraday’s episode “The Constant” – an aptly chosen name. If you really wanted to get technical, the actual Faraday’s Constant can be numerically approximated to 96,000, and you may recall that Daniel instructed Desmond to return to 1996.)

The following fall, I took Special Relativity, which I found to be as important to LOST as electromagnetism. My first clue was the name of Daniel’s freighter buddy, George Minkowski. Much like Daniel was named after Michael Faraday, Minkowski must have been named after Hermann Minkowski, the German physicist who came up with the concept of a Minkowski diagram, which is often used in the field of relativity.

In fact, if you look closely enough at Daniel’s journal, you can see a Minkowski diagram in his notes.


In addition to providing a mandatory character name, special relativity also serves to explain some of the phenomenon we see in LOST. Specifically, it provides an explanation as to why Daniel’s rocket reads a different travel time than what Daniel had clocked on the ground.
In fact, such a situation is a very typical problem one would encounter in a relativity class. To give some very basic and intuitive background on the subject:

Imagine that you have two clocks, both of which measure the duration of a second in the following way: there are two flat surfaces, in which a ball can bounce back and forth between them. We will call the amount of time it takes for the ball to travel from the bottom surface, to the top surface, back down to the bottom surface, as one second. In this case, the path of the ball is straight: up and down, along the same vertical line. Both these clocks are synchronized – that is, to begin with, both these clocks measure the exact same amount of time for one second, and the balls are bouncing in sync with each other.

Now, imagine that we take one of these clocks, and put it on a rocket to orbit the earth, and leave the other one to sit on earth. The rocket travels at a considerable speed. From our point of view on earth, the path of the ball in the clock on the rocket no longer travels in a straight vertical line. If you were to look at the path of the ball as it went from the bottom to the top, you would find that the ball not only traveled upwards, but to the side as well. A better, more intuitive way of thinking about this is to think about standing still and watching someone bounce a ball on a bus moving to the right. As the ball travels upwards, it is also moving to the right with the motion of the bus.

Because the shortest path between two points is always a straight line, we can see that the ball bouncing diagonally is going to travel a farther distance than the ball back on earth, bouncing in a straight line. If we assume that the balls bounce with the same speed (since the clocks were synchronized), then it follows that the ball bouncing diagonally on the rocket measures a longer second than the ball on earth. Thus, if we were to compare the number of seconds (or ball bounces) of the rocket clock to the earth clock, we would find that the rocket clock measured a smaller number of seconds. In short, time moved more slowly on the rocket, and in general, moves more slowly when the object is traveling faster.


You can probably see the connection to LOST by now – the time discrepancy on Daniel’s clock versus the rocket clock can be explained by the fact that one object was moving considerably faster than the other. However, what made Daniel so uncomfortable, and what should make you raise an eyebrow, is that unlike the previous example I had just described, it is not the rocket that measured a shorter time, but instead, the Island. This would imply that the Island was the one moving faster – perhaps an unsettling concept, if one had not seen the Season Four finale.

We now know that this Island can, in fact, move, and not only does it move through space, but it also moves through time. Coincidentally, there’s also a relatively simple (pun mostly unintended) explanation from relativity. As we’ve already seen, the amount of time that someone or something experiences is directly correlated with the speed at which that object travels. The faster you go, the less time you experience. It would therefore be entirely possible, within the realms of physics, to take a one year trip on a very fast rocket (one year being rocket time) to return and find that one hundred years have passed on earth. (In fact, if any of you are familiar with Queen’s B-Side ’39, Brian May, who has a Ph.D. in astrophysics, sings about exactly this!)

Is it possible, then, that the Island (or rather, the people time traveling on the Island) “time travels” by moving at very fast speeds, and experiencing a “slower” time to the time that people on the rest of the earth experience? Your everyday physicist would say no, due to the fact that one would only be able to travel into the future, and not the past, using this method of time travel. However, this may not apply to the world of LOST.

The reason the physicist would say no is due to what some may refer to as the Arrow of Time. Specifically, time only proceeds in one direction: forward. The physicist, and the Arrow of Time, is making the inherent assumption that time naturally goes from 1977 to 2007. Thus, should you take a two month rocket trip, you will return to find that earth time has naturally progressed thirty years forward, and not backward. However, as we found out in "The Variable," time need not necessarily travel forward. Specifically, Daniel tells Jack that 1977 is not their past, but instead, their present, making 2007 their past. Thus, it could very well be that time, in the LOST universe, proceeds naturally from 2007 to 1977, at least for some people.

[side note from Jo: Let's not forget about the Arrow station on the island, which was created by Dharma for defensive against and to gather intelligence about the Hostiles. In addition, Eko discovered a box covered in cloth in the Arrow...and Ben grabbed just such a box from his hotel room vent before returning to the island via Ajira 316. Eko's box contained a bible, glass eye presumably Mikhail's and Orientation film footage; the contents of Ben's are still unknown. Not sure if this relates at all to the Arrow of Time, but worth mentioning nonetheless.]


Having at least somewhat justified the physics of LOST, what about the philosophical implications? Returning to what I had said previously, I also happened to be taking an introductory class to philosophy the spring of my freshman year. (It was, actually, quite satisfying to go from learning about Faraday in one class to learning about Hume and Locke in the next). With the question of time travel, obviously, always comes the question of free will. Is it possible to change the future, or the past? As a scientist, I would say no. Equations dictate deterministic, set results. Whatever happened, happened, and whatever will happen, will happen, or else we invariably fall into logic traps.

Picture the following example:
In 1977, Daniel Faraday tells Pierre Chang of the oncoming electromagnetic catastrophe, much like he did in The Variable. Chang listens to Faraday, and evacuates the Island. There is no catastrophe, and there is no plane crash. Thus, there is no freighter expedition, and Daniel never comes to the Island to rescue the survivors. Ben does not move the Island, and Daniel does not travel back to 1977. But, if Daniel does not travel back to 1977, then who will tell Pierre Chang in 1977 that he has to evacuate the Island? We come to an inconsistency.

The only way for the problem to be resolved is to take Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation, which, succinctly put, says that a parallel universe exists for every possible outcome of every decision. Thus, there is a parallel universe in which Chang does evacuate the Island, and one in which he does not. While the Many Worlds Interpretation is certainly possible, and is a notable theory in physics, I am not sure how relevant it is to LOST. However, I say this mostly due to the fact that there is no character with the last name Everett, so trust my judgment at your own discretion.

Leaving Hugh Everett behind, we seemed to be forced accept, as Daniel did, that we cannot change the past. Yet this doesn’t sit right. Aren’t we, as human beings, more than just numbers or equations? We feel as if we are in control of our thoughts, and our thoughts motivate our actions, so we should also be in control of our actions. More than anything, I think that it’s very discomforting to think that I have a set path in front of me, and there is nothing I can do to stop myself from walking that path. Essentially, many philosophers have postulated that the most important aspect to human happiness is free will.

The best example of this, in fact, comes from none other than John Locke (the philosopher). Should Locke have lived in our day and age, he might have proposed the following situation to you:

Imagine that it’s Wednesday night, and you are settling down to watch LOST, as many of us do. Presumably this is something that you enjoy doing, and something that you gladly do on your own. Now imagine that you are locked in a room and forced to watch LOST. There is now something different about the situation. It’s not that you don’t like LOST, or even that you just wanted to do something else. It’s the fact that, even if you would have made the same choice, you didn’t get to choose.

(In light of this, I find it somewhat ironic that the John Locke on LOST seems to believe in the exact opposite of his namesake – he is, in fact, perfectly fine with the fact that he has a predestined path. Clearly, they differ more than just the amount of hair they have.)


I’ve always thought LOST to be a deeply philosophical show. I had, actually, imagined it to be a huge metaphor for society at the end of season one, in which Locke represented faith, and Jack represented science, and the two clashed and fought and engaged in mortal combat until one triumphed and the other was consumed in flame and smoke (monster). Needless to say, this is false. LOST is never so clearly black and white – if it had indeed come down to Jack versus Locke, I would now predict that the two would meld into one being with no hair but much stubble, representing the ultimate integration of faith and science (and bald and stubble). I think in some ways, though Jack and Locke clearly no longer represent science and faith, there is a similar clash between the hard, deterministic face of science, and the malleability of our own free will. Though I am not quite sure that Daniel’s metaphor of a “variable” in the equation checks out entirely, I certainly appreciate his sentiment. Given the wild, fantastical nature of LOST, a world in which time can move backwards and people can come back to life, who’s to say that there won’t be a compromise between fate and free will?

The fact that Daniel Faraday was the one to propose this idea, if anything, made it more attractive to me. I had always found Daniel to be an intriguing character – not only did he have a surprisingly classy taste in ties that you don’t tend to see too much the world of physics academia, he had two very distinct sides. On the one hand, he was obviously a genius, and clearly much more comfortable with numbers than he was with people. Yet on the other hand, he seemed more human than many of the characters on the show. Unlike Ben, who coldly used his daughter as a chess piece, or Jack, who was too busy “fixing people” to take care of his own wife, Daniel knew exactly what his heart felt about Charlotte, and what he needed to do.


Given all this, I truly hope that Daniel Faraday hasn’t died in vain (or, even better – hasn’t died at all!). His conflict between his two sides – the cold scientist who knows he can’t change the past, and the guy who just wants to save his girlfriend from a time-traveling induced accident, represents two facts of life that, for all of us back here in the real world, we aren’t seemingly able to reconcile. Yet why watch TV if it doesn’t show us an alternate reality to the one we live in? If there is some way, in this crazy LOST world, that Daniel will be able to save Charlotte, and not explode the universe in the process, then I wholeheartedly hope that that will be the direction the show turns to take.

Thank you for reading, and many thanks to Jo for letting me steal her blog for an entry!


Nurby said...

what a treat! thanks!!

m said...

You make my brain hurts Dora XD

I think I need to re-read this when not so tired, but there is so much here with just one read through made me go something along the lines of:

=O , =O!!! ?_? , @_@ , and so forth.

This latest season of LOST has me all sorts of confused and just hoping it will soon make sense to all the ignorant simpletons such as my self.

Also you should write more bloggings, cos you pwn.

ilu!! <3 (ps its Megs xD)

Nat said...

It's lovely to see the worlds of physics and philosophy combined so succinctly. I hope you get to write another entry in the future (or past, I'm a bit confused about that one...) :)

Toniz said...


You remember telling me that you're not that smart? Remember that? IT'S LIES. I do not know how one person can absorb so much science without it all leaking out, but this you have achieved.

This here is a fantastic article! (And it hardly matters that I haven't seen the new LOST yet while reading this, because my entire MSN contacts list spoiled me for it anyway =.=)

1miletogo said...

That was great!! Thank you so much Dora for sharing! I think Faraday will make a return sometime to the show.

Jon Stueve said...

great article...

to sum up in BASIC no less:
10 Free will and Fate cannot be reconciled.
20 Yes they can.
30 GOTO 10

CuInAnotherLifeBrother said...

Many thanks Dora for taking the time and sharing your knowledge with us. I'm sure I'm not the only person who appreciates the way in which you used the bouncing ball to explain relativity. All the best with your studies and your future :)

Great idea to get Dora on-board at this particular time in season 5 Jo, nice one!

Looking forward to your episode recap.


Nicole said...

Thanks, Dora - interesting to hear a little more about the science end of things! And I too am hoping Daniel comes back someday...

Too Many Hats said...

Wow, Dora! That was really awesome. Thanks so much for sharing your education with us. I love that the writers use names like Locke,Hume, and Faraday - it makes me think even more.

Best wishes with your studies at MIT!

neoloki said...

Great article. Very succinctly summed up the science Lost has been using the last 2 seasons while introducing philosophy, the soul of Lost, into the motivations of the characters; who are trying to cope with their volatile landscape.

Danny said...

Thanks for the blog! However, there were a few things that was ignored. Relativity: Not only is time relative based on relative speed, but also on gravity! So it could be that (a) the island is moving, hence time difference or (b) the special properties of the island (gravity, electromagnetism, etc) affect time. I opt for (b), since it seems that the island is stationary for points of time (it didn't "move" until the donkey wheel was pushed...), but it could be a combination of (a) and (b).

Second, "it could very well be that time, in the LOST universe, proceeds naturally from 2007 to 1977, at least for some people". I'd have to say no. From the very beginning, time was proceeding forward for everyone on the island. The explanation that 1977 is their present and 2007 is their past is not to say that time is traveling backwards from 2007 to 1977 for them (or how would Sawyer & friends have lived from 1974 to 1977, going forward?), but rather just noting that they've already lived through 2007 (those character's personal pasts) but the world hasn't. They are, at the moment, living through 1977, making it the present for them. Moreover, the very way they skipped forward and backward in time when the "time skipping" was going on would show that their "arrow of time" wasn't simply pointed in a different direction.

Finally, the Many Worlds theory may play a part in Lost, even if Everett isn't in the show. Remember Desmond "remembering" the future and constantly trying to save Charlie. Desmond would remember both "timelines", just as in the Many Worlds theory of different timelines or parallel universes existing for choices made. However, in Lost it seems that the universe tends to course correct to lead towards the same outcome in either timeline.

Dora said...

Hi Danny!

Concerning your relativity point - that's true, there is such thing as gravitational time dilation. This enters into the realm of general relativity, which I'm not at all familiar with, but it is possible that the island is in a low gravitational potential, in which case it would also experience "slower" time. It could be that it's in contact with some sort of singularity that would act as the mass creating the potential. I'd never considered this, and given some of the special properties of the island (ie. it's ability to travel through spacetime the way it does) I think that you could be right. Like I said, I don't know much about this, but it's possible! Either way, I think that it's pretty clear that there relativistic effects at work.

Concerning the arrow of time - I think we are essentially trying to say the same thing. What I was trying to get at was the point that Faraday made in "The Variable" - that they weren't safe from dying in 1977 just because they were alive in 2007. I'm not saying that time always travels backwards from 2007 to 1977 for *anyone*, only that, for some of the LOST characters, it goes from 2007 to 1977, making the arrow of time (from the conventional direction of moving forward) seem like it is moving backwards. I'm also not saying that the arrow of time *always* moves backwards for these characters. In fact, for most, it seemed to move forward, then back, then forward again (2004 -> 2007 -> 1974 -> 1977). For others, such as Charlotte, it only moved forward, like it does for us, from 1977 to 2007. So, to each character, they always perceive their arrow of time to point forward. But, when compared to an arrow that points from lower year number to higher year number (such as the one we are used to), we may perceive their arrow to be backwards at times.

Many Worlds - yes, I think there are certain applicable parts of this theory to the show. I just wanted to bring up the concept because I think it is very relevant, but I don't know enough about it to say more.