Lost Book Club: 'A Brief History of Time'
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; 12:00 PM
Jen Chaney and Liz Kelly -- co-authors of washingtonpost.com's weekly "Lost" analysis (in season) -- continue the "Lost" Book Club series with a discussion of Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," another book that may hold clues about the past, present and future of "Lost."
Start reading now. Then, join Jen and Liz on Wednesday, Nov. 28, at Noon ET to talk about the book and answer any holiday season time travel questions.
Visit washingtonpost.com's new "Lost" hub.
Jen Chaney: I have a feeling we are going to hit maximum density on nerdiness in this chat. Discussing quantum physics AND "Lost" at the same time? Forget the universe contracting and expanding ; this alone could make all the stars and planets in the system explode.
My feelings about reading "A Brief History of Time"?:I was glad I read it, since it's not a book I would ever have picked up on my own. And I do think there are some "Lost" connections to explore here. But I would also say that the prose in Stephen Hawking's book sang as beautifully as the text in my high school chemistry book. Which is to say, it was often dull and incomprehensible. The closing chapters, which delve more into philosophy and how that ties into science, were the meaty, more interesting parts to me.
Liz, your thoughts? And please explain them in Einstein-style equation form.
Liz Kelly: The dog ate my homework.
Sigh. Okay, not really. But there really is no excuse for the fact that I did not complete my reading of "A Brief History of Time." This is doubly lame, I know, since I am partly responsible for assigning this beast in the first place. But there it is. Mea Culpa. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we just don't make it to the finish line.
What did I read in the past month? A couple of Agatha Christie books (see, we should've read "Evil Under the Sun"), an expose on sugar in our diets and a collection of short stories by Etgar Keret. I have, however, at some point in life, seen "Time Bandits," "Quantum Leap" and an episode of the Simpsons featuring Stephen Hawking. So, I feel at least as qualified as the average TV pundit.
I get that the universe is a vast and largely unexplained place and that Mr. Hawking's ideas as relate to time travel and whatnot are probably -- consciously or not -- at work in "Lost."
So, okay, I feel like a tool. But let's talk about this since Jen, the good one, did her reading.
Woodly Park, Washington, D.C.: So, if the Losties are virtual particles of spin 1, and the Others particles of spin 2, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies, will Benry (being a quark) and Jacob (an anti-quark) annihilate if they meet at the event horizon of a non-rotating black hole?
And can we conclude that Hurley has reach sufficient mass to reach the Chandrasekhar limit and maintain stability within he camp despite his significant gravitational force?
Jen Chaney: Wow. This is stunning.
I love that we're already trying to connect the particles/scientific theories mentioned in the book with "Lost" characters. Which one is Sawyer? I say he's the big bang (meow!). Or maybe that better describes his relationship with Kate.
Re: Hurley, I believe Hawking says gravity is not as significant within the laws of the universe as previously thought. So I believe Hurley's mass will not affect the ultimate outcome of "Lost." Unfortunately, nothing in "A Brief History of Time" explains how too many DUI arrests in the same TV show cast will affect the conclusion of "Lost." Such an oversight on Hawking's part.
Liz Kelly: Chandrasekar limit? Is that anything like the Chandrasekaran limit, which states that a Post reporter can only fit so many Pulitzer prizes on his mantel?
Bethesda, Md.: I wonder if the "Lost" producers could hire writers from an alternative universe. Would that violate union rules?
Liz Kelly: Hmmm, I think even someone from another dimension might be considered a scab for crossing this picket line.
But this is as good a moment as any to bring up the elephant in the room: Rumor has it that "Lost" may not return until 2009 because of this blasted writers strike. Jen can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe there are eight episodes of the new season in the can, however, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are loathe to air them as a mini-season.
So maybe for us non-readers out there, this could be a sub-topic of discussion -- is a potential 18 month (at least) hiatus a potential show killer for "Lost?"
Jen Chaney: Yup, Liz, I've heard the same rumor. And you're correct, eight eps are in the can. Of those, the eighth one is a cliff-hanger of sorts, which would make it that much more painful if the new airings stop there. Seems to me there are a few potential outcomes.
1. Strike gets resolved via the talks that are continuing in a secret location (perhaps the hatch?) today in Hollywood. And "Lost" airs as scheduled. This is the ideal scenario.
2. Strike continues; eight episodes air starting in Feb. and we wait until next Feb. to see the rest. Me no likey this option.
3. Strike continues and, as Liz suggests, we see no "Lost" until 2009. This option clearly stinks, and I think it would be very bad for the show. Would it be a show-killer? I don't know. "The Sopranos" waited an awfully long time between seasons and fans still maintained interest. But given the slight dip in ratings last season, and the triumphant comeback in the second part of season three, I think the "Lost" peeps, LindeCuse included, would want to build on any momentum they have and get this show on the road.
If they postpone it until '09, I think ABC should pay for the anti-depressants every fan will have to take in order to overcome their despair.
Rockville, Md.: "I have a feeling we are going to hit maximum density on nerdiness in this chat."
Thanks for the warning. Nothing from me today. I actually studied physics for four years. And had many years as a science librarian.
Liz Kelly: Hey -- no fair. You identify yourself as someone who could potentially make sense out of all this, then impose a gag order?
Come on... tell us your theories.
Jen Chaney: Liz, I think this person is trying to tell me that I've completely misused the term maximum density. Which would be no surprise since my primary understanding of the term density comes from George McFly: "You're my density ... I mean, my destiny."
Speaking of "Back to the Future," did anyone else notice that when Hawking mentions that movie in the book, he credits Steven Spielberg instead of Robert Zemeckis? Granted, Spielberg produced it. But Zemeckis co-wrote and directed it. Essentially, Zemeckis invented the flux capacitor. Doesn't he deserve a little credit? I also am disappointed that the flux capacitor isn't even referenced in this book. It's what makes time travel possible, for God's sake.
North McLean, Va.: Chandrasekhar limit means the maximum density before something collapses into a black hole. A rather snarky comment about the big guy Hurley if ya asks me.
Liz Kelly: Ahhh. Yes, that's not nice.
Washington, D.C.: Speaking of Einstein equations, E = mc-2 is a simplification of the more general equation E-2 = p-2c-2 + m-2c-4 for the special case when momentum (p)is zero.
I'm sorry. But it just had to be said.
Jen Chaney: It did have to be said. And Lord knows neither one of us was going to say it.
Liz Kelly: Well, actually, I was going to say it, but this guy beat me to it.
Washington, D.C.: Here's the dirty little secret about time travel via wormholes. In order to prevent violations of entropy, all matter passing through such a hole must be without any structure so that no information can be passed backwards. This suggests that time travel might not be terribly exciting.
Liz Kelly: So, if you were (ahem) explaining this to someone who, say, had never read Hawking would you say that an invertibrate mass of cells would be more equipped for time travel than, say, William Shatner? Maybe this explains H.P. Lovecraft's shapeless Old Ones.
Jen Chaney: I don't know about this. Donnie Darko went through a wormhole. At least I think he did. And Jake Gyllenhaal didn't lose his structure.
See, this is how I refute scientific theories that I don't fully comprehend. I just cite movies that prove they are wrong. Wait until you read my take on how "Little Miss Sunshine" proves that photosynthesis is a myth. It will be published next month in the American Journal of Complete and Utter Nonsense.
Liz Kelly: You're assuming Jake Gyllenhaal has some kind of skeleton and mass. I put it to you here that he is in fact a hologram and is at this moment being projected on the wall of Reese Witherspoon's boudoir.
Speaking of "Donnie Darko" -- can we just say right now that this movie is required watching?
Liz Kelly: So, Jen, I'm not really feeling the love for discussion of this book. Who knew? I thought time travel was all the rage and by this point we'd be sharing what era in time we'd like to travel back to (medieval, if I can take Pamprin and be a princess) and what historical figures we'd like to meet given the chance (Dorothy Sayers and Dorothy Parker).
Jen Chaney: Well, this is the hardest book we've done so far. I am a little surprised that more people aren't into the wormhole stuff, though.
But let's give folks a chance. I see a couple of interesting questions in the queue and maybe some more will come, especially in light of my references to the flux capacitor. That always gets people going.
Personally, I'd like to travel back in time and have a chat with "Thriller"-era Michael Jackson. I think I'd have a really solid chance at saving his old nose.
Reston, Va.: I think the overall reason for including the Hawking work in Lost is to address the singularity concept addressed in the finite universe theory. This is especially true when considering the magnetism "explosion" that occurred when the hatch was destroyed. Your thoughts?
Also, any idea when the new season starts, Early Jan, hopefully?
Jen Chaney: As we mentioned earlier, the start of the new season is scheduled for February, but it's all up in the air now because of the writers' strike.
To address the first part of your question, I think this book, as challenging as it may be, wasn't just tossed into "Lost" for the heck of it. It is referenced multiple times in "Not in Portland" and "Flashes Before Your Eyes," enough that I feel like the writers are trying to tell us something. I originally thought the message was that something about the island isn't in synch space/time-wise with what the rest of us think of as real time. The sections of Hawking's book that talk about how time applies only to the observer and differs depending on your location in the overall universe speak to this, I think.
Problem is that LindeCuse, if I remember correctly, dismissed the notion that there is a space-time rupture going on here. So I don't know what to think.
Off-topic (sort of): So, I see that on Sci Fi channel on Dec. 12, there's a new series called "Tin Man" Seems to be some sort of dark, modern-day Wizard of Oz take. Since we previously read TWOO, and since it has Lost tie-ins, I'm wondering if either of you know anything about this new miniseries?
Liz Kelly: I don't know much more about "Tin Man" than that it is a mini-series re-imagining "TWOO." Plus side: it stars Zooey Deschanel (recently seen on "Weeds") and the wonderful Alan Cumming ("Circle of Friends"). Down side: Richard Dreyfuss.
Still, it does look kind of interesting. Here's a link to the official site.
Jen Chaney: Did they cast Richard Dreyfuss in this because he was also in the movie "Tin Men"?
I don't know more than what Liz already mentioned. None of the writers are affiliated with "Lost" so if there are connections, I am guessing they'd be coincidental. Still, might be worth checking out since "Oz" is fresh in our minds.
Cellar Door: Donnie Darko is clearly required watching. But go for the original version. And if you want to understand it, go through the DVD extras.
Also, I am massively (ha ha ) bummed that the soundtrack doesn't have the cool cover of "Mad World"
Liz Kelly: Yes. But that cover can be found on iTunes as a single, I believe. At one point, I compiled my own self-assembled iPod playlist of the songs featured in "Donnie Darko," since none were included on the soundtrack.
Such good '80s stuff, there -- INXS, Echo and the Bunnymen, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears...
Also, after watching the movie, the Salon.com essay about the movie should also be required reading.
Arlington, Va.: I just wanted to confess that I bought the book and couldn't make sense of it. Lucky for me, I bought the illustrated version, which had a ton of really pretty pictures of space.
Jen Chaney: I got the illustrated one, too, from the good, 'ol library. The pictures didn't make me understand it more clearly, but they did break up the text.
I liked those images of the astronaut who fell into a black hole and got stretched out like Plastic Man. That was a helpful visual.
Liz Kelly: No illustrations for me. Maybe that's where I went wrong. The next time I try to read Hawking it'll be an audio book.
Falls Church, Va.: One of the more out-there speculations in "Brief History" (i.e., most physicists aren't sure exactly what he's talking about) is something called "imaginary time." I'm not capable of exxplaining the concept properly, but it kind of boils down to asking, "what would happen if we conceived of time as moving not just forward (and back), but also from side to side?" Mathematically, this helps solve various equations and creates an elegant way of imagining the life-cycle of the universe.
For a screenwriter, it could be a catch-all tool for explaining away all sorts of inconsistencies in cause and effect. "How could that really happen? Well, it took place in imaginary time."
Jen Chaney: Yeah, the imaginary time stuff perked up my antennae, too. But I don't understand it enough to know how, if at all, it would relate to the show. Your "catch-all tool" explanation sounds as good as any.
On a related note, I didn't really grasp imaginary numbers when we studied them in school. If they're imaginary, can't I just "imagine" I solved any equations involving such numbers? And then "imagine" my teacher gave me an A? Seems like it would save a lot of time.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Jen and Liz -- I'm afraid that my reading of "A Brief History of Time" greatly increased the disorder of the universe -- for my brain definitely expended more energy than order and understanding was obtained! Not to take away from Hawking's genius but I have to say I much prefer Brian Greene or Carl Sagan as far as accessible science reading goes.
But I did bring away one "Lost" thought from the book. Hawking explained towards the end of the book why we can't remember the future and why Time's Arrow only points in one direction. I hope I'm summarizing this correctly -- Hawking stated that when the universe expands Time's Arrow can only point in one direction and thus it is not possible to know the future. But in a universe without boundaries -- sounds like a bad political slogan -- when the universe starts collapsing on itself to a final end, only then does Time's Arrow point in the other direction. Only then is it possible to remember the future. This reminded me of a statement from "Lost" creator Damon Lindelof where he said that he couldn't write the flash-forward in the season finale until an end date for the show was agreed upon. Perhaps Hawking is a philosophical metaphor for the show. If "Lost" had no end date, it would continue to expand until entropy took over and it disappated into nothing (i.e. cancellation). Now with a set end date and with the show past its halfway mark on its run, like the universe, "Lost" will contract to a final end point; and like the universe, when the contraction begins only then can we know the future and thus the flash-forward. Metaphor or not, having a story with an end point is simply good dramatic structure. And if God is the ultimate creative genius, God would want there to be a dramatic structure to his masterpiece. But does this all means that when I start remembering how "Lost" ends then the final days are near at hand?
OK, brain hurt. I go now.
Liz Kelly: Okay, that is an incredibly eloquent explanation of Hawking's theories about the properties of expanding/contracting universes and how those qualities relate to "Lost." I'm wondering -- can we take this one step further and extrapolate that somehow the "Losties" are in the midst of a world shifting from expansion to contraction? That perhaps this explains the jump into flash forwards?
Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Hawkings said that using a wormhole for space travel was very risky and unpredictable. If you don't go through the right way, you get turned into spaghetti.
Liz Kelly: Well, if we assume the "Losties" plane traveled through some kind of wormhole to arrive at the island, I think we have some pretty good indications that the folks inside that plane changed on a very basic, cellular level -- John Locke can walk, Rose's cancer is gone, Sun and Jin are able to conceive, etc.
Perhaps the producers are using a variation of Hawking's warning to account for these abrupt changes. It isn't quite spaghetti, but it'll do.
Jen Chaney: Ooh, interesting theory, Liz. But what about the other people who came to the island, like Ben and co. Do you have to go through a wormhole to get there? Or did the wormhole only affect Oceanic Flight 815?
I think Desmond may have been cellularly modified, too, but it seems to me that didn't happen until he turned the key in the hatch. So while I like this theory, I am not sure all of the transformations could be explained this way.
Liz Kelly: I think Ben and the Others also had to travel through some kind of wormhole to arrive at the island. Perhaps their cellular rearrangement was the fact that they are unable to produce offspring (hence their work to try to scientifically overcome that sterility).
Washington 20008: So you're saying I shouldn't add "Donnie Darko: Director's Cut" to my Netflix queue? I should order the original version?
Jen Chaney: No, you should. You should watch them both. The extras on the director's cut DVD are pretty great.
I agree with the previous poster, though, that I still like the original a little more. And the primary reason is the beginning: I much prefer Echo and the Bunnymen in that opening scene to "Never Tear Us Apart," which is what's in the director's cut and was originally intended for the movie.
I spoke to director Richard Kelly once and told him that, and he completely busted on me. He had good reasons for using the INXS song, which are too complicated to explain here. But I still think Echo and the Bunnymen works better and sets a better tone. For the record and all.
North Mclean, Va.: I am a physicist who regularly reads Celebritology, and I was initially unsure where to go with this "Brief History of Time" discussion as it relates to "Lost." Then it struck me that what BHOT and "Lost" have in common is that both are compelling narratives subject to multiple valid interpretations.
Hawking presents an elegant story about the universe. The problem is that the details of this story are a practical impossibility to confirm through experimentation. The only approach available is to see if his theories are consistent with the observable universe. And many of his ideas, like black holes, clearly are.
It is just that there are alternative explanations for many of the things he presents. So the argument could be made that some of his work isn't "science" as much as mythology. You know, a beautiful story that makes sense and fits observations, but is not really testable. Sort of like the various theories about "Lost."
Jen Chaney: In other words, many of these theories may apply. It all depends on what perspective you bring to it or, in Hawking's terms, where you are in the universe. Interesting.
I also found Hawking's invocations of God intriguing. In the final words of his conclusion, he talks about how amazing it would be if scientists ultimately could explain a complete theory for the universe's existence, noting "for then we would know the mind of God." Hawking is clearly a man of science, yet he also accepts the existence of a Creator, or at least that possibility. Instead of "Lost's" man of science vs. man of faith dichotomy, Hawking implies it's possible to be both at the same time. Is that what the "Lost" writers want us to believe, too?
Liz Kelly: It all comes back to the science vs. faith argument for Jen. Luckily, our December selection will give her ample room to expand on these theories.
I have to wonder, though, is that what Hawking was really implying? I don't know his on-record views about religion, but I wonder if he included that statement to appease those who might take exception to his obviously scientific bent.
Washington, D.C.: Rumor has it that the "flux capacitor" has shown up as a prop in lots of other sci fi shows. It's one of those in-jokes the prop guys love.
Liz Kelly: And let us not forget that the actor who played Biff (Thomas Wilson turned up as the gym coach on the short-lived, but wonderful "Freaks and Geeks." He was really good, too.
Jen Chaney: And there are a couple of "Back to the Future" jokes in "Knocked Up," directed by Judd Apatow, executive producer of ... "Freaks and Geeks."
We really are all connected, just like the "Lost" castaways.
Heart of Gold: As every nerd knows, if you achieve an infinite improbability you pass through every point in the Universe simultaneously, which can result in nuclear missiles being turned into bowls of petunias and whales. So, as the plot of "Lost" becomes more improbable, you can expect your underwear to move two feet to the left during a future viewing. I'm just sayin'.
Liz Kelly: You assume a lot.
Washington, D.C.: Okay, one of the themes in Hawking's work is the notion of multiple universes. The idea that distinct universes can "bud" off. (This is very similar to the conceit behind Donnie Darko, but with fewer giant rabbits.) I have heard some muttering that Lost might involve multiple universes. Thoughts?
Liz Kelly: I'm with you on this theory, D.C. I have long been nursing this theory of the island being an alternate or parallel universe. I was strongly convinced of this late last season when I found all sorts of coincidental similarities between the plots of "Lost" and the Stephen King/Peter Stroab book "The Talisman," which follows the adventures of a young boy (named Jack Sawyer) who sets off on a quest to save our world and another, parallel world which has the ability to seep into ours from time to time.
It would explain a lot.
Jen Chaney: This is what I was getting at earlier (or trying to, anyway) when I talked about the space-time stuff. I really bought into this idea, too. But then I could swear that LindeCuse dismissed it in one of their podcasts, which soured me on the concept.
But maybe they didn't dismiss the idea entirely. I can't remember now. I still think it's a theory worth keeping on simmer in your brain.
Now that I'm thinking about it, this idea and the wormholes tie in nicely with last season's finale. Jack kept flying over and over again, thinking that somehow that would take him back to the island. That sounds like someone searching for a portal to another universe or a wormhole, doesn't it?
Chantilly, Va.: Oooh, "imaginary time" -- is that anything like Doctor Who's E-space? Who needs Hawking? I'd rather have The Doctor. He always seems a bit "lost."
Jen Chaney: I suppose I'll get a demerit in geekitude for this, but I never watched "Doctor Who." So I'll have to take your word for it.
Liz Kelly: I watched Dr. Who back in the '80s, when he had big floppy hair and a too-long scarf. I think "Lost" could use some floppy hair. We don't seem to have any floppy hair.
Singularityville: Could the submarine have been used to travel through the wormhole? Intriguing.
Jen Chaney: Hmmm...
Right on Echo: Okay, so I don't watch Lost (no time, but years from now when my kids are older, I'll watch all seasons in a marathon Netflix session), but I just had to say you're right on as far as Donnie Darko not being the same unless it starts off with creepy "Killing Moon."
I love Richard Kelly, and I know it's technically his story to tell, but he's simply wrong on this.
Liz Kelly: I have to chime in and agree with you. Killing Moon was just such a chilling way to start the movie. I just got chills thinking about it.
Liz Kelly: Okay. Thanks for hanging in with today's chat. I know my universe has expanded as a result.
Let us now turn our attention to the December selection. By popular vote, the winner is Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" -- a delightful, quick read that really makes the whole time travel notion a bit more accessible for us Hawking-averse folks. We'll reconvene to discuss it on Dec. 19th.
Jen Chaney: Thanks to those of you who at least tried to read along with us. I don't think we solved any mysteries of the universe, but we may have cranked up our brain power a notch. And that's always a good thing.
Looking forward to "A Wrinkle in Time" come December. Maybe by then the strike will be over. And maybe then we also can discuss some of the "Missing Pieces" installments, since we didn't get to cover those today.