LOST University

By Sean Carroll | July 24, 2009 9:55 am

Here at Cosmic Variance we love our teaching moments. Science is everywhere, and there’s no need to be stuffy about it. One of the best ways to communicate the excitement that we feel about science to a much wider audience is to connect it to popular culture in all sorts of ways — whether it’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NUMB3RS, or Angels & Demons.

LOST University So it’s great to see the producers of ABC’s hit TV show LOST jump on the bandwagon. This fall they will be releasing the DVD collection of the fifth season, and the Blu-ray edition is going to feature a special treat: mini-“lessons” on various academic subjects related to the show. (The final season of the show begins early in 2010.) One of those subjects is time travel, and you have a pretty esteemed group of professors guiding you through this fascinating subject: Nick Warner of USC (who taught me general relativity back in the day), our old friend Clifford Johnson, and myself. Suffice it to say, I’ve seen the rough cut, and they did a good job — and we had quite a bit of fun. I was only included because having all the professors speak with British accents would have seemed a bit posh.

And along with that, they’ve just launched an associated website: LOST University. You can see what the other courses in the curriculum are going to be, including Philosophy and Foreign Languages. At the moment the website is essentially promotion for the DVD’s themselves, but I’m hoping more content will appear over time. LOST has a tradition of enhancing the show with quite elaborate online activities, in the form of alternate reality games. So hopefully this new site won’t simply be an advertisement — one of the lessons of new media is that giving away cool stuff for free makes it more likely that people will pay money for the even cooler stuff.

To be clear: the science of time travel on LOST does not necessarily obey all the rules. None of us had anything to do with the show itself, and I have no idea what the writers did in terms of seeking science advice. But understanding how the rules are broken can serve as fodder for teaching moments just as easily as seeing them obeyed. That’s life here “on the cutting edge of tomorrow.”

  • coolstar

    I find Lost incredibly boring, so I won’t be watching this, but it’s good to hear that they didn’t obey Sean’s time travel rules, because if they did, they couldn’t effectively use time travel at all! As for teaching science and math thru Buffy and Numbers, I’m all for it; Angels and Demons, not so much (hard to think of ANY science they got right, offhand).

  • TheMagician

    @coolstar, Skimming through Sean’s rules LOST does obey all of them, or at least it hasn’t broken any of them.

    Quoting Dr. Faraday (physicist and professor on LOST), “You cannot change anything; you can’t. Even if you tried to, it wouldn’t work… whatever happened, happened.”

    And talking about the accuracy of science on LOST, it is actually pretty accurate (just search for ‘LOST’ at popularmechanics.com), but LOST University is merely an ARG.

  • greg

    If one has to hope television (as opposed to quality primary and secondary education) is needed to raise the public’s awareness of science, then all is LOST.

  • wev

    @greg, it is possible, however, that television can be used to raise the public’s awareness of quality primary and secondary education.

    The majority of people in this country do not go to college, for whatever reason, although many of them do have the intellectual ability. Offering an engaging connection and introduction to formal study is simply not as negative as an academic purist might think.

    The more people can be inspired to value quality education for themselves and their children, the sooner this country can begin to find its way out of the morass of ignorance.

  • Henry Holland

    Unlike Coolstar, I find LOST to be an incredible TV experience. Through the show, I’ve learned a bunch of science, such as the Casimir Effect. I’ve spent hours upon hours wrapping my brain around jargon-filled articles and it’s been great fun doing it.

    I hated the very end of last season though, it took my two favorite characters (John and Ben) and in essence said: “Every horrible thing you’ve gone through for the time you’ve been on the show didn’t matter, you were just plot devices”. I’m really afraid that they’re going to go down a “Flight 815 never happened and it’s all fluffy bunnies and kittens for most of the characters” path but oh well, I’m there ’til the bitter end. I look forward to playing the LOSTU game and learning more stuff.

    Oh, and Michael G’s music is fantastic.

  • Pingback: New Lost Arg? « Photomaniacal()

  • Belinda Goldate

    Hi Sean,

    I am writing an article about the Lost University. I was just wondering what subject you were teaching or helping with? Basically I am trying to write an article about the Lost University, so that people in Australia know about it.

    I cannot find any press releases anywhere and I would really like a quote from someone who knows anything about it…lol

    Can you help me by saying something about the course or Lost University??

    I am a devoted Lost fan and also journalist. Thank you for your time, good luck with it all. I will be enrolled at Lost University, so I might do one of your subjects.

    Thank you.

    Yours sincerely,

    Belinda Goldate

  • Sigmund Freud

    A greater appreciation of science can never go awry.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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