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Flashforward author Robert J. Sawyer on the LHC, Higgs, and Hollywood

FlashForward Book Cover

This Thursday, the ABC television network will premiere FlashForward, a drama series based on Robert J. Sawyer’s science-fiction novel of the same name. While the details of the television series are being closely guarded, nuclear and particle physics is at the heart of the novel. Sawyer's novel kicks off at CERN, where the Large Hadron Collider provides the setting for an event that triggers global mayhem, and features physicists and engineers as main characters.

In an e-mail interview with symmetry, Sawyer discussed why he chose the LHC for the plot of Flashforward, how he relates the search for the Higgs to dinosaurs, and which physics laboratory is next in line for the science-fiction treatment.

Why the LHC?

Sawyer’s novel was conceived in 1997, well before CERN became a household name. But the author prides himself on keeping up with the world of science, and twelve years ago the LHC was already big news in the scientific community.

“My original notion was that I wanted to briefly punt the consciousness of everyone on Earth into the future,” he said, “and even before 1997, the various science magazines I read were all noting that CERN was planning to build the Large Hadron Collider, so it immediately sprang to mind as a possible plot point for the novel. I needed a reason why such consciousness displacement didn’t happen all the time, and why indeed it hadn’t happened yet, and the notion that the LHC would unleash, in a controlled way, energy levels not ever previously produced on Earth, was irresistible.”

Sawyer has kept up with the LHC’s progress, and admits to a special interest in the use of the new accelerator to search for dark matter. Stephen Hawking’s famous bet against CERN finding the Higgs also caught his attention, for that fact that a non-discovery might make the world of particle physics that much more mysterious.

“I understand where he’s coming from: if CERN finds the Higgs, the Standard Model is confirmed, and all is neat and tidy,” he explained. “I actually wanted to be a paleontologist; I was and am fascinated by dinosaurs. But, in many ways, the discovery by Luis Alvarez and his colleagues that an asteroid impact probably caused their extinction took a lot of the wonder out of that field; questions can be more interesting than answers, and Dr. Hawking is clearly hoping that what the LHC finds—or doesn’t!—will give us exciting new mysteries to wrap our heads around, rather than simply confirm things we already think we know."

FlashForward star Joseph Fiennes and author Robert J. Sawyer. Image courtesy Robert J. Sawyer.

FlashForward star Joseph Fiennes and author Robert J. Sawyer. Image courtesy Robert J. Sawyer.

From sci-fi to prime time

Like many adaptations, the television version of Flashforward departs significantly from the original story, although the two do both take place in 2009. And like all of today's television series, everyone involved is tight-lipped about the plot.

“The TV series based on my novel is a fairly liberal adaptation,” said Sawyer, “and what causes the consciousness-displacement in it I can’t say; they’re presenting that as a big mystery and certainly have brought their own creative juices to bear on the question—but it is amusing that the series and my book both ended up being set at almost exactly the same time.”

Despite the difference between book and series, Sawyer, who is slated to write an episode for the show’s first season, has nothing but good things to say about the creative team behind the show. His novel may have also given some well-known actors a taste of particle physics. During a visit to the set earlier this year, Sawyer discovered that many of the actors had read his novel in preparation for their roles on the show.

“I was thrilled to find how many of the actors—including Joseph Fiennes, Sonya Walger, and Zachary Knighton—had chosen to read the novel; actors, of course, have no obligation to read anything but the script. It was fun talking with them about the philosophical notions from the novel—the central questions of fate vs. free will and of the nature of time and consciousness.”

Which physics lab is next for the novel treatment?

Flashforward is not Sawyer’s only novel to feature particle physics, nor is it his sole story set in a real-life physics laboratory. Hominids features the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, an underground experiment dedicated to detecting ghostly neutrinos, while Starplex is largely about dark matter.

Sawyer also features scientists as main characters in most of his novels. As a non-scientist, he does plenty of research in his quest to portray  characters accurately–including spending two months this summer at a laboratory in Saskatchewan.

“I just finished a two-month stint as the first-ever writer-in-residence at the Canadian Light Source, Canada’s national synchrotron research facility, a position created specifically for me," he explained. "I think I’ve done a good job portraying scientists in the past, but getting to spend two months with them, day in and day out, in their lunch rooms and at their lab barbecues and visiting their homes, and so on, was enormously useful, and will bring even more verisimilitude to my future portrayals of scientists.”

His recent synchrotron stint will also feed in to one of his upcoming novels.

“Part of the implicit deal with the Canadian Light Source was that I would indeed feature that facility in one of my upcoming books," noted Sawyer. "Of course, they do all kinds of research there—a synchrotron is a Swiss army knife of science—and, indeed, the experiment that I was helping with during my time there was archeological in nature. But science fiction is the literature of fundamental questions—where did we come from, why are we here, where are we going—and of course there’s nothing more fundamental to understanding the nature of reality than particle physics.”

Check back on Thursday for more on the real science behind FlashForward.