2 Hours of Time Travel, Wormholes and Exotic Matter
By Erin McCarthy
Published on: January 21, 2009
Travelling Through Time
Lost executive producer Damon Lindelof once told Popular Mechanics that he has "a long and storied history in every single time-travel story that's ever been written," and Season Five's two-part, two-hour premiere, called "Because You Left" and "The Lie," draws on that knowledge.
Sure enough, last season we saw Ben (the former leader of the Others) activate a wormhole and move the entire island through time and space to protect it from the nefarious Charles Widmore, who has been trying to find the island for 20 years. In the season premiere, we find out that the island is dislodged in time and is now skipping, like a record, through the past and future—at least according to physicist Daniel Faraday, whose personal history on the island appears to date back to the Dharma's glory days (unless, of course, that was just a trip back through time).
Much of the time-travel physics of the season opener rests on the presence of exotic matter (by definition, matter which violates classical conditions in physics) beneath the Orchid Station, and we get a glimpse of the hatch's construction in "Because You Left." In last year's season finale, Dr. Pierre Chang (as Edgar Halliwax, though he has also appeared as Marvin Candle), the face of the Dharma Initiative's orientation videos, explained that the exotic matter beneath this particular station—one of several on the island— makes use of the Casimir Effect, which allows scientists to manipulate time.
Physicist and time-travel guru Michio Kaku told Popular Mechanics last year that some scientists believe time travel through holes in space and time, known as wormholes, might be possible, but there are problems that need to be conquered. First, there's the matter of energy—massive amounts would be needed to create a black hole, which could function as a portal to another point in space and time. But it would be a one-way trip; black holes aren't stable enough to stay open on their own. Creating a wormhole, a stable portal through space and time that would allow return trips, would require inconceivable amounts of energy—inconceivable, that is, unless you're on an island that can make paraplegics walk, harbors a monster of smoke and can disappear off the face of the Earth. Physicists have created tiny amounts of energy in the laboratory using the Casimir Effect—quantum fluctuations that can create energy in a vacuum—but what has been generated in the lab isn't enough to keep a wormhole open, Kaku says. (We first learned about the Casimir Effect in the Orchid Station orientation video in Season Four's "No Place Like Home.")
Chang warns a Dharma worker who is drilling into the earth in an attempt to access a buried wheel (the same wheel that Ben uses to move the island some 30-odd years later) that under no circumstances should workers building the Orchid Station set off charges near the pocket of exotic matter during the construction process. When asked what would happen, Chang says only, "God help us all."
Exotic matter is hypothetical, and physicists such as Kaku know "almost nothing" about what its properties could be. Such matter would have "formed when the Earth was young, and then floated into outer space," Kaku says, "and therefore there's none left on Earth." However, it may have been possible for a pocket of the matter to become accidentally trapped underground. Physicists theorize that exotic matter could have antigravitational properties (so it would fall up) or it would have negative energy (absorbing energy around it, possibly making it implosive). And if it were to have antigravitational properties, it wouldn't want to stay on Earth either; instead, it would rocket into space—violently. "It would be quite dangerous to people who encounter it," says Kaku.
Time Is Like String
Daniel Faraday, the aforementioned physicist who traveled to the island on a freighter charted by über-villain Widmore—and who also may have been part of the Dharma Initiative during the construction of the Orchid Station—warns the castaways that, although they're skipping through time, they can't change the past or the future. "Time is like a string," he explains. "You can move forward, and you can move in reverse, but you can't create a new string."
Some physicists actually liken time to a river, says Kaku, which meanders at different speeds through the universe. "There are two ways to resolve the time-travel paradox," Kaku explains. "One way is, the river of time [forks] into two rivers, so you change a parallel universe's path, not your own path." This theory, which asserts that our universe may be just one of an infinite number of universes, is known as the Multiverse Theory, and it's what Kaku personally believes. The creators of Lost, however, have taken a different approach, one pushed by some Russian physicists, according to Kaku. "They have whirlpools in the river of time, so you leave the timeline and go back into the past," Kaku says. "They believe that when you go back on a different path, there's some kind of physical principle preventing you from changing the past to make the future impossible."
Equations on the BoardAnd what about those equations Mrs. Hawking—yes, the same woman who told Desmond that he had to ditch his planned proposal to go to the island to save the world—was writing on the chalkboard at the end of "The Lie"? They're probability equations, which come from quantum mechanics. "The only reason you'd be interested in probability is because you want to calculate radiation effect," says Kaku. "And radiation has to do with the stability of the wormhole. Say a flashlight was to go through a wormhole. It would go into the past, but [its] photons don't disappear; they go back in a second time, and go back in and in and in like a circle, until it builds up and the whole thing blows up." Perhaps dislodging the island in time has made the exotic matter and the wormhole unstable, and that's why Ben's ragtag group of the Oceanic Six and other mysterious characters have only 70 hours to get back to the island and make things right before it—or the whole world?—blows up. But those are questions for another time.