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TV: Lost’s magnetic plot

Books: A search without data: A review of Life As We Do Not Know It

Lost’s magnetic plot

Spoiler alert: If you have not seen both seasons of the show Lost and plan to watch them, read no further, as this story reveals plotlines.

It’s 2004. Somewhere in the South Pacific, a group of plane-wreck survivors struggles to learn to adapt to life on a mysterious island, filled with palm trees, gorgeous stretches of sandy beaches and a mutated polar bear.

Characters in the TV show Lost work to uncover the mysteries of the island on which their plane crashed — such as what ties the mysterious events might have to seemingly abandoned electromagnetic experiments. The show’s writers mix scientific concepts with fantasy to create the drama. Image is copyright 00A9 2006 ABC, Inc./Mario Perez.

The castaways have no communication with the outside world, are frequently under attack by other humans on the island, and are increasingly seeing signs of scientific experiments gone awry. One castaway asks in an ominous tone, “Where are we?” And no one knows. They are lost.

Fans of ABC’s hit television show Lost are undoubtedly familiar with this plot and have long wondered about the mysterious island on which the castaways find themselves. People who do not watch the show might not realize, however, that the show’s mysterious island involves some forays into science — magnetism, to be exact.

Carlton Cuse, an executive producer and writer on Lost, describes the fictional island as “geologically unique” with a strong electromagnetic anomaly. Part of the premise of the show is that the island had been the site of scientific experiments in the 1980s, collectively called the DHARMA Initiative, one of which focused on electromagnetism. The idea of the experiments, Cuse says, was to see if the scientists could harness the power of the electromagnetic anomaly. However, the experiment went awry and there was “an incident.”

Following the incident — which somehow unleashed a force strong enough to bring down planes — electromagnetism builds up on the island, and has to be discharged every 108 minutes by the castaways having to enter a sequence of numbers into a 1980s computer. If those numbers are not entered and the magnetism discharged, “devastating consequences” occur, Cuse says.

Viewers got a hint at these consequences at the end of the second season, as the electromagnetic forces exploded, he says, and momentarily blanketed the island with a blinding light that resembles the North Pole’s auroras. The buildup of electromagnetic power also drew everything metal toward the source of the power beneath a hatch on the island (where the computer to enter the numbers was stored). Even when diffused, the island’s electromagnetism is so strong that compasses do not work.

The producers and writers consult with scientists and do a lot of research on the Internet, Cuse says — “taking scientific facts and making up them our own” by fictionalizing the science with mythology and mysticism. One of the central philosophies in writing the show is “walking the razor’s edge between scientific empiricism and fate or fantasy,” he says.

Although the show does not employ any geologists or physicists, several of the producers studied some science in school (including Cuse, who says geology sort of “permeated his consciousness”). The writers and producers try to keep the plotlines somewhat believable.

Threads on chat forums abound with speculation of the various potential causes of the electromagnetism — everything from remnants of nuclear testing or an ancient impact event, to a sudden reversal of the magnetic poles, says Amy Bauer, a music theory professor at the University of California in Irvine, who moderates one of the forums and has started a quasi-academic journal about Lost.

Cuse says that he and other producers of Lost are amused by the forums and the hypotheses proposed by viewers. “There are plenty of people who know a lot more about science than I do, who postulate theories utilizing science and math that make me glad I went into this field,” Cuse says. But to keep the viewers who know something about science and math enthralled with the story, as well as viewers who do not have a scientific background, he says that the producers try to find a good mix of science and fantasy.

Having not seen Lost, Rob Evans, a geophysicist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says that if the island is somehow electromagnetically charged, there must be a combination of magnetism and current flow (the “electro” part). As to whether that could be natural, he says it is “unlikely.”

Natural magnetic anomalies do exist, Evans says, in that some rocks are magnetic: for example, iron-bearing metals in mineral deposits. But the magnetism exists to such a small degree that while it might affect compasses held very closely to the rocks, he says, the magnetic properties “fall off” very quickly with distance. And very sensitive instruments are needed to measure the magnetic fields of rocks at any distance. Even hypothetically, he says, it is unlikely that any spot on Earth has a strong enough magnetic anomaly to bring down planes or even upset compasses enough to impair navigational systems — “and we certainly would know about it by now if there were such a spot.”

Fraser Thomson, an electrical engineering graduate student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., performed “a very rough calculation of what it would take to pull a plane out of the sky with a magnet.” Assuming a plane about the size of a Boeing 767, an Earth-based magnet would need to be at least 1 quadrillion times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field, he says. The most powerful magnets ever made are roughly only 200,000 times stronger than Earth’s field, he adds.

Similarly, the strongest natural magnetic anomalies on Earth are on the order of tens of nanoTesla, whereas Earth’s nominal magnetic field is about 50,000 nanoTesla, Thomson says. That means even the strongest natural magnetic anomalies are only on the order of a few hundredths of a percent of Earth’s field, he says. All of these anomalies, he says, are caused by local concentrations of “ferromagnetic” material, which can be remnants of ancient impacts, for example, or volcanic eruptions. So, the Lost bloggers who suggest that an impact event caused the magnetism could be on the right track (even if off by orders of magnitude).

A less likely scenario, Thomson says, is the hypothesis that the electromagnetism on the show is the result of a buildup of energy from nuclear weapons tests. A large electromagnetic pulse is released when an atomic bomb is set off, but permanent electromagnetic signals usually are not left behind.

Other scenarios, such as the sudden reversal of polarity, are not very likely explanations for the electromagnetism on the fictional island either. The polarity reversal, for example, wouldn’t really affect anything, Evans and Thomson suggest: Compasses would point south instead of north, but they should still work.

Then there’s the plotline of the buildup and discharge of the electromagnetism. “As to the notion of a magnetic field that builds up over time and then requires discharging, I can think of a few scenarios that could lead to that sort of situation, but all of them require, at some level … a leap of faith,” Thomson says.

For example, Thomson says, imagine some sort of extremely powerful superconducting electromagnet (which relies on the fact that the moving charge, or electric current, generates a magnetic field) that could be energized with an induction source that somehow slowly adds current to the superconducting coils. It would show no sign of weakening even years after the source of energy is removed, he says. Such a charge would build up and then need to be discharged, he says, by, say, flipping a switch (or entering numbers?) to collapse the magnetic field, and dissipate its energy as heat. “But you see, this scenario even requires some mysterious induction source,” he says.

In the end, Lost’s producers won’t divulge their secrets about the island’s mysteries. They say everyone just has to wait and watch. Bauer says that from what she’s read in the forums, most viewers expect that in the end, plot developments will be rooted more in scientific concepts than in purely fantastical notions. In the meantime, people will continue speculating, and trying to learn more about geophysics. And that can’t be a bad thing.

Megan Sever

Lost, on ABC
Lost, DHARMA Iniative on Wikipedia
Society for the Study of Lost
U.S. Geological Survey National Geomagnetism Program

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Book review
Life As We Do Not Know It
by Peter Ward.
Viking Adult, 2005.
ISBN 0 6700 3458 4
Hardcover, $25.95.
A search without data
Chris McKay

Go out from the city and stand in silence in the quiet dark beneath a country sky and you may wonder: Are we alone? And if we are not alone, what might they be like? Would they be like us, composed of carbon-based molecules suspended in water? If they are intelligent and can talk to us by radiowaves, we can simply ask them. If they are present on any of the other worlds of our solar system, they are almost certainly microscopic, and we will have to go find them. Either way the question stands: Are there other ways to make life?

Unfortunately, we have only one example of life on Earth. It’s based on DNA and proteins made up of 20 amino acids. All life on Earth shares this fundamental biochemical and genetic heritage. The unity of biology is a beautiful scientific result, but rather limiting in providing us grist for speculating on alternative ways to construct life.

Scientists who have pondered the problem group into two categories: the “lumpers” and the “splitters.” The lumpers think that our DNA and protein biochemistry is the best way to make life and therefore, by convergent evolution, life that forms anywhere in the universe will evolve to be just like us biochemically.

The splitters argue that anything as complex as carbon-based chemistry has many possible favorable conditions and that life as we know it could be found locally in a certain set of conditions that do not necessarily represent the global optimum. Life elsewhere could fit itself in a different optimum. And then, the splitters would add, there is life based on other elements altogether. In the absence of data beyond the one example of life on Earth, little prospect exists for resolving the debate.

When I saw the title of Peter Ward’s book, Life As We Do Not Know It, I was excited to see how one of the leaders of the nascent science of astrobiology would fill a whole book about a subject for which there is no data. Disappointingly, Ward does it primarily by redefining life “as we know it” to be a subset of life on Earth. Viruses and the putative RNA world are considered alien life forms. These definitions allow Ward to argue that we already know of several types of alien life and he then proposes a taxonomic system for cataloging them.

This all seems more semantic than enlightening, and the reader might be justified in feeling that there has been a bit of bait and switch. But then Ward does go through the usual suspects for truly alien life, including silicon- and ammonia-based life — a useful review, but nothing new.

He still presents no plausible suggestion for how life might work other than “life as we know it.” Perhaps the lumpers are right. Or perhaps our imaginations are too limited, and we need more than one example before we see the pattern.

Ward fills most of the rest of the book with a review of the search for life in our solar system, focusing on Mars and Europa, but also touching on Mercury and the moon. This approach could be how we get more data points. On these worlds, we might find a second genesis of life, or the remnants of such life. But our search for life on these worlds is “following the water,” so even if we find alien life it is likely to be based on carbon and water. Still, we can hope that it might be different enough to show us a general pattern.

The style of this book is very much first person. Ward is involved in the research he writes about, and his enthusiasms and prejudices are clearly evident.

This personal perspective is most clear in his discussions of the people involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He is disingenuous in his criticism of SETI, stating that the money would be better spent on ecological problems on Earth and arguing that “no one but the religious” doubts that there is intelligent life beyond the Earth. He then advocates the search for life in our solar system and the human exploration of Mars and Titan using arguments that would equally apply to SETI. These turf battles are to be expected in the competition for limited funding, but it is disappointing when they appear in trade books.

At its best, Life As We Do Not Know It is a current review of our understanding of the life on this planet from the perspective of searching for life elsewhere. The important lesson is how limited we are because we have only one example of life on which to base our search. Clearly the way forward is to search, and the search for “life as we do not know it” should be conducted on all fronts, even ones we don’t even know enough to know which of the many search strategies will work best.

McKay is a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, where his research deals with the search for life beyond the Earth and studies of life in extreme cold and dry environments.

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