Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Key to the Whole Game...

Many of the most important lines on Lost are delivered to, or through, the character of Hurley. One example I've discussed previously is "you make your own luck," which we first heard from Martha Toomey and subsequently from Chee-, er, David Reyes. Another is Hurley's own admonishment that "Australia's the key to the whole game" of Risk. In this post, I explain why his warning may actually be an ironic reference to the Island.

For those unfamiliar, Risk is a game of global strategy and conquest. Players begin by placing armies in various countries, then compete to take over the world. The player who starts in "Australasia" has a natural advantage because that region is the most defensible. Here's an hilarious riff by comedian Eddie Izzard on how Hitler obviously never played Risk. About a minute in, Izzard summarizes why Australasia is so advantageous:

So the literal meaning of Hurley's statement seems clear. But what about the ironic significance I alluded to earlier? Later in the same episode (i.e., 4:9) Ben accuses Charles Widmore of changing the rules of the "game." That could mean many things, but the objective of the game of Risk suggests one highly plausible candidate: world domination. Perhaps the two are vying for control of the planet with "Australia" as the key.

I put "Australia" in quotes because I don't believe the writers were referring to the Land Down Under. It's tempting to think otherwise given the prevalence of Australia in flashbacks. But that's because most of the flashbacks over the first few seasons involved survivors of a flight from Sydney. As the cast has expanded, we've met many characters with no apparent connection at all to Australia, including Desmond, the Others, and Widmore's freighter crew.

In my opinion, the reference was to the Island itself, which is obviously a point of strategic importance to Ben and Widmore both. And what makes the Island the "key" to their "game"? Part of the answer may be its isolation in spacetime, which makes it more defensible like Australasia in Risk. But its real significance was summarized best by Locke, who explained: "It's not an island. It's a place where miracles happen."

Stated another way, the Island is a place where the infinitely improbable is entirely possible, even routine. It's a place where 72 passengers survive a catastrophic plane crash with mostly minor injuries, where terminal cancer and paralysis are cured, where time travel actually happens -- all against preposterously long odds. It's the kind of place one might very well analogize to a "magic box," where dreams become reality.

Ask yourself, why did Dharma pick the Island as the location for their experiments? The secure design of the stations and the the sonic fence around the barracks suggest they knew it was hostile. Bringing people by submarine had to be difficult. Why go to the trouble? Dharma realized the Island is ruled by the physics of the improbable. It's one of the few places they might actually succeed in altering the Valenzetti Equation's grim probability forecast.

If that sounds familiar, you may be a fan of Douglas Adams's works. One technological premise of his Hitchhiker's series is the infinite improbability drive, which exploits quantum mechanics to enable instantaneous travel across the universe. Its activation has all kinds of random and unpredictable side effects -- e.g., turning nuclear missiles into sperm whales and petunias. Now that we know the Island moves, maybe it's really one big infinite improbability drive!

The physics of improbability also resonates with the works of Stanislaw Lem. His novel Solaris, in which cosmonaut Kelvin investigates the fate of scientists studying a sentient planet that manifests their dreams, is a major inspiration for Lost. Another of Lem's short stories features the "improbability automatic," a gun that slays dragons of probability by making them less likely -- again with strange side effects. What was it the Blast Door Map said? "Here be dragons..."

Improbability physics is nonsense, but there's an interesting scientific parallel. General relativity and our everyday experience suggest that the universe is an orderly, predictable place. At the atomic level, however, quite the opposite is true. Quantum mechanics tells us that uncertainty rules the universe at very small scales. Here's a great explanation by physicist Brian Greene of this basic contradiction between general relativity and quantum mechanics:

Like Greene's Quantum Cafe, the Island seems to be a place where the laws of quantum mechanics are experienced even at macroscopic scales. As a result, "there's a chance that things we'd ordinarily think of as impossible can actually happen." The main example Greene discusses is walking through walls. Do you suppose it's just a coincidence that Hurley specifically mentioned (in episode 3:17) that the Flash can "vibrate through walls and stuff"?

That's what makes the Island a "place where miracles happen" and "the key to the whole game" of world domination. Let's just hope our Quantum Cafe doesn't also turn out to be the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!


Anonymous said...

Great post BM - wierd, but i have been thinking along the lines of the island being a place where certain people may be able to confound the statistical forecasts of Valenzetti.
Have you read Asimov's 'foundation' series - where a mathematician had predicted through 'psychohistory' exactly when the galaxy-wide empire would fall?
so many parallels to lost.

Bigmouth said...

BL: Hello my perceptive friend! Yes, I have read the Foundation Series and agree there are interesting analogies. More specifically, I see a strong connection between the Seldon Plan and the Valenzetti Equation. Here's the catch: I don''t believe the ultimate resolution of Lost hinges on alteration of the Valenzetti.

Quite the contrary, as the analogy to the Seldon plan implies, the goal is actually its fulfillment. Like the fall of the Empire, human extinction is inevitable. Agents like Ms. Hawking, Brother Campbell, and maybe Matthew Abbadon are working to shorten the period of chaos and pave the way for human evolution, much like the forces in the Foundation series work to fulfill the Seldon Plan.

Others have noted the possible connection between the Oceanic 6 and the six core factors of the Valenzetti. Perhaps the key to its fulfillment is getting them back to the Island.

Thirty-Fiver said...

Is that Green video from I love watching those videos!

Would you care to explain the vibrating through walls bit a little more, for me? I'm not understanding. How is there even a probability that someone can walk through the wall?

BTW, first time posting over here, but I've loved reading your stuff for a while. ;)

Bigmouth said...

Thirty-Fiver: Welcome to the discussion! The Greene video is indeed from PBS -- it's part of the Elegant Universe series. Whether or not one believes in string theory (and I'm personally skeptical) the series is a great introduction to some important topics, including the tension between GR and QM. I have a feeling the writers were heavily influenced by Greene's explanations...

I believe the notion of walking through walls refers to quantum tunneling. Quantum theory predicts that subatomic particles have a reasonable probability of passing right through solid objects. By contrast, large objects (e.g., you and I) have basically zero probability of doing so. But in the Quantum Cafe (and on the Island) big things behave like they're very small and so have a reasonable probability of doing the miraculous.

Landa said...

Glad to see a new post, BM! I've missed you. I've been a long time reader who sometimes will come out of lurker mode. I love reading your posts, I always walk away with food for thought. You're one of my favorite on the net. I've seen portions of the Elegant Universe and while I may not have gotten everything discussed, its was done in a way that you could partially understand. Thanks for getting me prepped for LOST again, I've so missed it. And after a disappointing season with HEROES, I'm ready for the show. Take care!

annebeth said...

I think Australia IS part of the whole game.


Okay, so it is said that there will be at least one DHARMA station out in the real world, not on the island (I don't know where it was said, but I believe it was official, or at least a credible spoiler). And with the whole Vortices theory: how about Australia? With the Ayers Rock (where Rose and Bernard visited the psycic)?

If you watch the newest, ominous trailer with the hooded figure and the computer, I believe that is in the 'ouside' Dharma station (The preverbial Narnian Lantern Station). And if you then look at the map on the computer, it is from an Australian perspective :)

Bigmouth said...

annebeth: Interesting point about the computer map in the promo being from an Australian perspective. I also agree that Ayers rock would make a great location for the Lantern/Beacon station. But I still think the key to the game is the Island. Hurley's warning foreshadows the impending conflict between our Losties and Widmore's men.

annebeth said...

Hi Bigmouth :)
That could be the case too.... so maibe Hurley's comment was multi-foreshadowing?

mystimus said...

Hurley was right. Australia IS the key to the whole game.

Hurley's clue was so close to giving away the secret that I think the writers knew they were taking a big RISK and gave us a visual pun reflecting their feelings.

Hurley's tantalizing clue about Australia, the phone call that interrupts the RISK game, the game of Connect Four where Hurley first hears the numbers, and Kate's toy airplane from season one - these all point to Australia as the key to the meaning of the numbers (4,8,15,16,23,42) and of the show itself.
Discover more below. It is a bit of a read, but it is a thorough analysis of the epic series and the meaning of the numbers.