Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Strange Attraction of the Numbers

This is not another attempt to catalogue connections to the Numbers. Nor do I claim to describe any property natural to 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42. My theory is rather that the Numbers are a so-called "strange attractor" in the chaos of world events. Knowing their pattern permits more accurate predictions of, and thus greater influence over, the future.

In any changing system, an "attractor" is the position (or set of positions) that the system will gravitate toward over time. As one commentator elaborates:
An attractor can be a point (e.g., the centre of a bowl containing a ball), a regular path (e.g., a planetary orbit), a complex series of states (e.g, the metabolism of a cell) or an infinite sequence of chaotic trajectories located in a bounded region of phase space (called strange attractor). (Full text here.)
That last type, the "strange" attractor, is of particular relevance here because the natural world is a chaotic system. A great example is the weather, where outcomes are highly sensitive to initial effects (e.g., the beating of a butterfly's wings) rendering forecasts unreliable.

But chaos shouldn't be confused with complete randomness. Mathematically chaotic systems still follow discernible patterns. One of the most famous is the Lorenz Attractor, which shows outcomes from a simple model of atmospheric convection over time.

No two outcomes are the same, yet they all follow the general pattern of a butterfly. Attractors derived from different equations create different patterns of varying beauty.

This brings me to the Numbers, whose strange attraction obviously predates the show. Over thousands of years, the chaos of human meaning has converged repeatedly around 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42. As numerous threads attest, each Number is at the center of a dense web of scientific and mythical associations, which is presumably why TPTB picked them.

This strange attraction is even more pronounced within the reality of the show, where the Numbers seem to predict and even influence events and actions. Obviously, that's impossible from a strictly scientific perspective. But is there some plausible pseudo-scientific way to explain the Numbers' effect? Yes, thanks again to strange attractor theory.

As I said, a strange attractor follows a chaotic but discernible pattern when mapped over time. You can't be sure precisely what path any given orbit will take, but you can bet it will follow the same general pattern of prior orbits. Knowing that pattern thus enables a general forecast of the future, albeit limited by the system's inherent uncertainty.

Orbits and Ouroboros
There are six Numbers, a value that may be as important as any of the actual Numbers themselves. It takes a minimum of six values to describe a point moving through space. The first three denote spatial location, the others momentum. In theory, therefore, the Numbers could describe some attractor's recurring orbit.

And here again alchemical aspect of the show looms large. The "ouroboros" of the serpent swallowing its tale is an ancient symbol of what Nietzche referred to as "eternal recurrence." The basic idea is that history repeats itself -- as the saying goes, "only the names and faces change." One goal of alchemy was to transcend and harness this cycle of repetition.

That's what the Numbers do. By describing a recurring cycle of events, they enable forecasts of, and thus influence over, the future. But human behavior is chaotic, meaning any orbit must be erratic and the attraction strange. The cycle of recurrence will coalesce around, but rarely perfectly match, the pattern of the Numbers -- predictions will never be perfect.

If you think about it, though, that's still a pretty awesome power. One of my favorite threads is dweisspt's Improbable Remote View Theory. Therein she posits that Dharma may have mathematically forecasted that a number of people would survive the crash of Flight 815. That's precisely the kind of generalized prediction that I think the Numbers are meant to generate.

Foreknowledge, in turn, permits one to influence the future. Let's say you suspect that people in certain rows will survive the crash in a pattern that follows the Numbers. All it takes is a subtle nudge here and there to insure that the subjects you want end up in those rows. Not all of them will survive, and some you don't want will make it by chance.

That's Lost in a nutshell. Only some of them were meant to be there -- not everyone is a good person.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Two of my favorite threads are Andrew Smith's Ultimate and Anti-Ultimate Theories. One posits that the world has ended already, while the other speculates that someone wants to fool our losties into thinking that it has. This thread explores the related possibility that Hanso and the DeGroots feared that planetary catastrophe was imminent.

The 1970's were a time of many such catastrophic prophecies. Neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich predicted that a "population bomb" would overwhelm the planet within decades unless radical changes were made:

Nuclear power, once synonymous with military supremacy and clean energy, became a symbol of destruction and something to be feared. Carl Sagan wondered if self-annihilation was the fate of most technologically advanced species.

Against this backdrop, Hanso partnered with the DeGroots to construct the Dharma Initiative, a prototype community devoted to studying life in the aftermath of planetary catastrophe. Participants were quarantined in underground bunkers, and conditioned to perform certain tasks on faith. The plan may have been to include the "special" among them in a Platonic community of the future.

Several clues suggest a preoccupation with catastrophism. Some have speculated that the 108-minute countdown in Swan Hatch downloads information from an orbiting satellite about the Earth's magnetic fields . I think that's partly right -- there is no actual satellite but the countdown does condition occupants for a time when there might be.

Another clue is the print log Eko and Locke discovered in Pearl Hatch. Some have suggested that the print-log numbers imply a time range of close to 5,000 years. I don't think the countdown has been running that long, but I suspect the period itself is significant. Many believe that planetary catastrophes tend to occur cyclically about every 5,000 years.

One popular catastrophic scenario involves cometary bombardment. Many have noted that the first Hanso Foundation logo looked uncomfortably like a swastika. Carl Sagan speculated that this ancient symbol may originally have been inspired by a comet that approached earth so closely that "arms" of gas, bent by the comet's spin, were visible worldwide.

As proof, Sagan cites an ancient Chinese manuscript depicting various comet tails:

Interestingly, the swastika is linked with the Hanso Foundation's subsequent emblem of the yin yang. Both appear on the famous Falun Emblem, which is said to depict the universe in miniature.

And therein lies a possible clue to what happened to Dharma. The swastika represents the Buddha School, while the yin yang represents the Tao. I don't pretend to understand the difference, but it could suggest a change in outlook or philosophy on Hanso's part. My guess is he became increasingly preoccupied with playing Grand Inquisitor, and forging the master race, prompting and the Dharma scientists to have second thoughts.

ETA: I've edited to add a pic of Carl Sagan and a quote from Paul Ehrlich's book Population Bomb. Notice the similarity between the latter and the notation on the Blast Door Map that the cure is worse than the disease.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Flatland Theory of Lost

If you're a Lost theorist, you might want to check out Doc Jensen's Flatland theory challenge over on All you have to do is come up with a theory in 300 words or less connecting Flatland with Lost. For what it's worth, here's my submission:

In Edwin Abbott's novella, the narrator is a Square who lives in a two dimensional Flatland. There is no up and down in Flatland, only north, south, east, and west. Or so the Square believes until he's visited by a Sphere from three-dimensional Spaceland. The Sphere eventually pulls the skeptical Square out of his plane of existence, opening his mind to higher dimensions.

I believe our Losties' perception of reality pre-Island is like the Square's in Flatland. They see in 3-D but their flashbacks contain tantalizing hints of higher realities (e.g., Claire's psychic) to which we're usually blind. Perhaps some "Sphere" pulled Flight 815 into the "Spaceland" of the Island to open their minds further to such possibilities.

One clue that higher dimensions are key dates back to Sawyer's reading of A Wrinkle in Time. The title refers to a tesseract, AKA hypercube, which is the 4-D equivalent of a 3-D cube. This is a metaphor for perception of hyper-reality, which exposure to the Island stimulates, bringing me to the Numbers.

Many have noted links between the Numbers and Fibonacci Sequence. The latter appears everywhere in nature, from the spiral pattern of shells to the arrangement of seeds on a raspberry. Similarly, the the Numbers appear everywhere on the Island, and represent the structure of Island hyper-reality. They are the hypercube equivalent of the Fibonacci Sequence.

The Numbers also appear in the real world, but perceptual biases prevent most from appreciating their significance. This is the implication of Flatland, wherein the characters aren't incapable of perceiving higher dimensions, moreso limited by strict cultural norms that eventually land the narrator in jail for preaching the "heresy" of three dimensions.

Let us hope the same fate does not await our relentless dissection of the Numbers!