After last night's mind-bending episode, it's a question only this heady physicist could answer: How do you move an island, then show up halfway across the world? Let's just say the Looking Glass has nothin' on Ben.
By Michio Kaku
Something very strange is going down on the island. People suddenly appear out of nowhere, then vanish. A doctor is found dead, a day before he is actually killed. And finally, the entire island itself suddenly vanishes into thin air.
With space and time turned into a pretzel every week, you know that this is not your ordinary Robinson Crusoe adventure. That's one reason why Lost has made addicts out of millions of loyal viewers—and why I've advised the Popular Mechanics team for their "Lost Watch" on more than one occasion.
In last night's season finale, a video tape finally reveals the most scientific secret behind the series. There is a top secret laboratory on the island, the Orchid Station, in which a "pocket of exotic matter" was discovered that has created a kind of "Casimir effect" that has warped "four dimensional space-time." But is this all Hollywood mumbo-jumbo? Actually, there's a kernel of truth to all this techno-babble.
A pocket of "exotic matter," if it exists, would have truly remarkable properties. First of all, it would fall up rather than down. It would have anti-gravitational properties, so that, if you held it in your hand, it would rise and float into outer space.
But remarkably, it might also rip the fabric of space and time. For example, both Shakespeare and Isaac Newton adopted the picture that all the world is a stage, and we are actors making our entrances and exits. But then Einstein showed that the stage of space and time is not empty and flat, but actually curved, so that any actor walking across the warped stage would feel a "force" (i.e. gravity) tugging it to the left and right, like a drunken sailor.
The new wrinkle on all of this is that exotic matter, if it exists, could allow for trap doors in the stage of space-time. People can suddenly fall through these trap doors and re-appear in a different space and time, like the characters on Lost (particularly Ben). These are "wormholes," or shortcuts through space-time. The simplest example of a wormhole would be Alice's "Looking Glass." Another example would be a folded sheet of paper: By punching a hole in the folded paper, you can show that a wormhole is the shortest distance between two points. (So the Orchid Station was probably built around a meteorite made of exotic matter that hit the island.)
But unlike exotic matter, negative energy has actually been created in the laboratory. It was first predicted to exist by Dutch physicist Hendrik Casimir in 1948, and actually measured in 1958. For example, two uncharged parallel metal plates would normally be stationary. This is a state of zero energy. But Casimir showed that quantum effects within the vacuum push the two plates together. Since you have extracted energy from a system with zero energy, you have created negative energy. However, the Casimir effect is very tiny; in the experiment, the force was only 1/30,000 the weight of an ant. So all the bizarre electromagnetic disturbances in Lost are due to somehow creating a large Casimir effect with electric plates.
But what would a wormhole machine that can bend space and time into a pretzel look like? It would be truly gigantic. First, you would need the equivalent of a black hole to create a hole in space, and then negative energy or exotic matter to stabilize the hole so it didn't collapse on itself. The amount of exotic matter necessary to build a time machine would be about the mass of Jupiter. So the machine, instead of moving just the island, might have unintended consequences, such as actually eating up the entire earth!