Like other Lost fans around the world, Kristine Larsen can’t wait for Feb. 2, when the final season of the maddeningly complicated TV show starts. Unlike most Losties, however, the Connecticut-based astronomy professor will be taking notes. She is just one of a coterie of academics who have taken to analyzing Lost from every possible angle as it evolved from a series about plane-crash survivors on a mysterious Pacific island into a multi-layered jigsaw with clues pertaining to everything from hard-core science to philosophical debates about faith vs. rationality.
Even as its fan base shrank as the show twisted itself into a Gordian knot, appreciation in the ivory towers exploded. As Larsen explains: “Everything is symbolic, everything has meaning. Watching it is work.” The show’s creators entice scholars in virtually every academic field by dropping clues about Lost’s ultimate meaning in the most unexpected places. One of the most intriguing puzzles had to do with the island’s colossal statue, which played a crucial role in last season’s cliffhanger. After studying glimpses of it over the seasons, experts narrowed down what god it represented until they settled on Taweret, the Egyptian goddess of birth. (The name was confirmed by the show only after mathematically inclined Losties used a cypher to break a code hidden in an issue of Wired edited by Lost creator J.J. Abrams.)
On campuses, philosophy departments have the greatest attachment to the series. That could be because Lost’s writers created characters—including John Locke, Desmond David Hume and Danielle Rousseau—whose personalities fit their historical namesakes. “Two of the writers, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, have said they are working with questions about empiricism vs. rationalism. I’ve being tracing that theme throughout [the series],” explains Sharon Kaye of Ohio’s John Carroll University, who’s working on a second edition of Lost and Philosophy: The Island Has Its Reasons. Yet even she can’t figure the show out: “Every time I come to a new point of understanding, the next episode begins to disintegrate it.”
Another academic writing a book on the show is communication studies professor Paul Heyer of Wilfrid Laurier University. Last fall he had his students watch Lost’s first season on DVD for a course he taught about the show and desert island survivor fiction. “It is the most complex show on TV ever. I’ll stake my reputation on this.”
Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, is one of the experts who help make the show so hard to decipher. “I get to solve puzzles all day long. Others do it vicariously through Lost.” To make it more difficult for fans to crack the show’s hieroglyphics, for instance, Cooney suggested writing them backward and in the wrong direction. She’s also responsible for the five symbols meaning “underworld” that pop up in various places on the show, from a doomsday timer to an airline boarding pass. Everything about those symbols, even hi-res screen grabs, can be seen on Lostpedia, an open-source site devoted to the series. Scientists adding to the wiki had its creator, Anchorage, Alaska-based Kevin Croy, even add a special module so they could properly copy complex formulae related to the show, such as those found by John Locke hidden on a blast door in an underground facility.
A peer-reviewed journal called Lost Online Studies offering in-depth explorations of the show is edited by Amy Bauer of the University of California at Irvine. So many academics are into Lost that Bauer is almost finished editing a book on the series filled with their contributions. And now the show itself has gotten into the university game. Lost University is an online creation of ABC that features pre-taped lectures by experts on subjects related to the show. There are required readings, tutorials, exams and even prerequisites. Kara Cooney teaches ancient Egyptian history; one of the profs of PHY 101: Introductory Physics of Time Travel is Clifford Johnson, a theoretical physicist at the University of Southern California. While he thinks that LU was “a brilliant idea,” he warns that his course isn’t easy: “This is not something you can learn without effort.”
Recently, academics were among those who lit up the blogosphere when reports spread that Barack Obama was plunking his state of the union address on Lost’s premiere night. Days later an embattled White House admitted defeat: Feb. 2 belongs to Lost.