Time Travel on LOST

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | May 8, 2009 10:00 am

While I’m on the way to NYC to meet up with Chris as we get ready to kick off the NYAS Two Cultures conference, let’s turn the blog back to exploring LOST

Last time, we considered time travel, and whether the position of where you arrive through such travel might be predictable.  A series of thought-provoking responses ensued, covering everything from the notion of fixed points in space to matters of the competency of your pilot.

Now for round two…

Readers who’ve been following LOST know that if the island’s resident physicist, Daniel Faraday, was right, then variables (a.k.a., time travelers) can alter the future.  [Paging Marty McFly].  So let’s reexamine the possibility of the space-time continuum by imagining that you are that variable.  Say you’ve made the journey back in time, but yout memories and experiences from the 21st century suggest to you that you have already had this role in the past.  (Still following me on this?)

Hence, are you doomed to fail on a mission to change the ‘present‘ you left? Or might free will* result in your making different choices this time–decisions that may yet result in new and alternative realities?


* Yes, many neuroscientists don’t believe in ‘free will’, but that’s another post entirely. For now, let’s stick with theoretical science fiction for fun…

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Media and Science

Comments (19)

  1. pete

    could we make different decisions each time? i say sure. the continuum was set off at some point to get started, so why not again?

  2. I think the present you left is always the past, no matters where it is. So, you can change your present but not your past (in this case: the future).

  3. shy

    The paradox of the Locke/Richard compass is the key…

  4. Jason

    Paging Donnie Darko.


    And so on. It seems most movies dealing with Time Travel somehow preclude the notion that you can actually change the future, or if you do everything falls apart in a big shower of dimensional ‘OMFGWTFBBQ’.

  5. Marcos

    Sci-fi tends to deal with this in one of three ways:

    a) There are alternate “timelines” that split apart (I guess infinitely) and thus you can alter time, though you’re really not, since there are multiple versions of the future. (i.e. I can kill my grandfather, creating an alternate future in which I don’t exist, but I still can do it because I came from a future where I do exist and my grandfather lived on just fine).

    b) The other option is that everything already happened and things can’t be changed and anything you do by traveling back in time already happened (i.e. Locke directing someone to help him in the past, or a certain Harry Potter novel, etc)

    c) I guess a variation on a) is that you alter time in someway creating a bad future but then the timeline ‘resets’ – i.e. Yesterday’s Enterprise, the bad future in Back to the Future II, an x-files episode involving some freezing injection and wormholes, Terminator 2, or various Voyager episodes (year in hell, um, another one where the Voyager is frozen and Harry Kim is trying to do something to make it better). In these, I guess, you can alter the past, but in doing so you also prevent the other timelines from ever occurring? These make the least sense to me, because people from futures that don’t exist are “saving” the past, and it seems rife with paradoxes.

    I think b) makes the most sense and if we could indeed travel through time, I think b) is how it would have to work – we can’t really change things because everything already happened. Otherwise you need infinite alternative timelines and that seems no good to me. (I think that’s actually the idea of “Timeline” the Crichton book, isn’t it? Lots of alternate universes? I can’t remember.)

  6. Jason

    I really liked Donnie Darko’s take on it, even if he wasn’t actually, for a majority of the movie, travelling through time. Seeing the dimensional tunnels between where a person was and where they are and there they were going to move to. It completely abolished the idea of free will, while also each time he tried to change the future it ended up simply fitting into what the future had in mind.

    It was only when he stayed in his bed and let himself be killed that he ended the cycle. … I gotta watch that movie again.

  7. Erasmussimo

    Uh, folks, time travel is utterly impossible. I’m not saying that it is physically impossible. I’m saying that it is logically impossible. When I was 10 years old I remember reading a time-travel story in my Cub Scout magazine in which a modern-day time traveler revealed the design of a compass to a Chinese person, which led to our modern belief that the compass was invented in China.

    All I had to do was ask, “Who invented the compass?” The answer in this tale is “nobody”. The Chinese guy got it from the modern guy, and the modern guy got it from the Chinese guy. The idea of the compass existed without ever having begun.

    This is basic causality folks, not physics. Time travel destroys the very idea of causality. And without causality, you can throw rationalism and science into the trash can.

  8. While I don’t remember the plot very well, 2004’s The Butterfly Effect provided an interesting portrayal of the trouble with changing the past.

  9. i like tuesday

    The destruction of causality is exactly why playing thought games with time-travel in a ficitonal setting is so fun. It upsets all the rules of linear time. By travelling to the past one is granted perfect foreknowledge but either unable to alter course or gifted a godlike power to reshape the future with unknown consequences, destroying foreknowledge in the process.

  10. Bob

    But if you get into the implications of Wheeler’s quantum post selection thought experiments, or the “backwards-in-time” paths Feynman’s sum-over-histories says particles should take, it’s enough to make you re-think what exactly causality is.

    Maybe there’re sort of “side steps” to cause and effect.

    I like Wheeler’s idea of a participatory anthropic principle, where observation has effects both forwards and backwards in time, and the universe sort of evolves a certain way due to the act of observation. I think that kind of thinking is the next step for time travel in science fiction, and might be what Lost is reaching towards.

  11. Erasmussimo

    Well, gee, why should we permit our imaginations to be limited by considerations of causality? Let’s talk about a super-duper science gadget that makes it possible for wishing something to make it so! 😉

  12. Jo

    @Erasmussimo: In a many worlds scenario, you really can interrupt causality with no paradox.

  13. Erasmussimo

    Yes, and in fantasy novels they do all sorts of wondrous things. Time travel properly belongs in the realm of fantasy, not science. I have no objection to fantasy — it can illuminate the human condition. But there’s not much point in analyzing the anatomy of fire-breathing dragons.

  14. So far, on Lost, I’m not convinced “the past has been changed” through time travel.

    I think it’s been pretty clear for a while that, um, a certain minor character had a major tragedy at some point in her life, and now we know what that is (the finale of the episode before last).

    Do we know that anything has been changed through time travel on Lost? I could be missing details, but I’m not sure anything “different” has happened.

  15. Bob

    Laurie, In an episode in Season Four, Miles was doing his Ghostbuster thing in someone’s house in L.A — he went upstairs and the camera showed a bunch of pictures on the wall. But when he came back down, the pictures — and their frames — were all different.

    I originally thought just the frames were different, so I always thought it was a blatant metaphor for frames of reference — but apparently the photographs themselves changed, too.


    So I wonder if that was some sort of foreshadowing, if not just a metaphor or a “pay attention!” type technique?

    But I definitely know that when Daniel Faraday knocked on the door of the Hatch, Desmond came out, was told to find Daniel’s mother — and then he woke up in bed in the future with Penny wondering if he had a dream, but he claimed it to be a memory.

    Can’t think of any other instances…

  16. he woke up in bed in the future with Penny wondering if he had a dream, but he claimed it to be a memory

    Great observation with interesting possibilities…


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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