FlashForward: A Mind-Blowing Journey of Human Consciousness

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ABC’s new drama FlashForward premiered last week to 12.4 million viewers in its prime-time spot. A loose adaptation of the book by Robert J. Sawyer, the show departs significantly from the physics-laden literary plot but keeps the basic moral dilemmas people confront when they have prior knowledge of their futures.

An unexplained catastrophic event causes everyone in the world to “black out” for a little more than 2 mintues, during which planes fall from the sky, myriad disasters happen and global carnage prevails. In the novel, particle physicists at CERN—a real-life atom smasher in Geneva, Switzerland—go public with their culpability for the disaster, which resulted from an experiment run amok.

On the show, agents at FBI’s Los Angeles field office try to sort it out. Joseph Fiennes plays FBI lead crime-solver Mark Benford; John Cho plays his partner.

Instead of blacking out, the characters time traveled 6 months ahead to preview of their futures. “I didn’t black out,” said Benford. “I felt my consciousness went somewhere else. It was like a memory, only of the future.”

Indeed, the TV doctors tell us people who were undergoing brain scans during the event remained fully conscious: “In each case, the hippocampus—that’s the memory center of the brain—was actively engaged. These people were not asleep or dreaming.”

As people begin to share their flashforwards, we learn of impending divorces, pregnancies, relapses, botched suicides, and a life cut short, to name a few. “Since it happened to everyone in the world, we can tell any story imaginable,” said executive producer David Goyer at Comic-Con 2009. “We like to say we have 6.8 billion stories to tell.”

“I was looking for a way to project consciousness forward in time, and for it to be something humans had caused, rather than a natural phenomenon,” Sawyer said in an interview with CERN’s Antonella del Rosso. “The idea of this super-high-energy physics experiment at CERN seemed perfect.”

Here and now, the world’s biggest particle accelerator—the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)—is enjoying a bit of celebrity. It was also the source of the antimatter bomb in Angels&Demons released last spring.

The collider is designed to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang, by colliding two ion beams head-on at very high energy. Teams of physicists from around the world will analyze the particles created in the collisions. A Large Ion Collider Experiment (ALICE) is one of four massive particle detectors that will be used to study the quark-gluon plasma—a state of matter physicists believe existed just after the Big Bang. 

In Sawyer’s book, Lloyd Simcoe, the lead scientist on the ALICE experiment,  uses the machine to seek out the Higgs boson, a particle postulated to have been created during the Big Bang but that has gone missing ever since. A Lloyd Simcoe, who “works at Stanford,” appears in one of the TV character’s flashforwards and in the second episode, which airs tonight. 

Neither ABC nor Sawyer is saying whether we’ll see any physics on the small screen. Nevertheless, the first episodes portend a season of well-produced, compelling drama as intriguing characters grapple with fate and free will.

But, Sawyer says, “it's a safe bet that whatever the series ends up doing will not leave people who are scientifically knowledgeable rolling their eyes.”

Time will tell.

By Leslie Fink/NSF.