Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mystery, Knowledge, Science and Television

J J Abrams, the creator of the television show “Lost”, gives a Ted talk where he suggests that sometimes mystery is more important than knowledge. His “mystery box” represents infinite possibilities and hope and that mystery is the catalyst for imagination. He sees the “Lost” television show as a mystery box, always with the sense of possibility.

Now, to be fair, I have not actually seen Lost, so perhaps my comments are unwarranted, but I decided not to watch Lost for the following reason. When Lost was first beginning, several friends said that I would like it. I told them that I would watch it if, and only if, at the end of the series they could tell me that the “plan” for the series actually existed. It was claimed that the series was planned from start to finish, but my friends told me afterward that it was clear it wasn’t, after watching the finale. Too many loose ends, too many mysteries.

I think that J J Abrams learned the wrong lesson about mystery, as represented by his television show “Lost”. It’s not just the mystery, for the sake of mystery, it is the solving of the mystery that yields more mysteries. Scientists are comfortable with not knowing...we are constantly at the edge of what is known and not known. However, what motivates the scientist isn’t the mystery, it is the solution to the mystery knowing that will open up more. There is nothing more dissatisfying than a book, movie, or television show that just opens up more and more “mysteries” and never resolves seems artificial and disorganized. Most people assume that the mysteries will be solved by the end, so they allow themselves to be taken in by the mysteries. However, once it becomes clear that the mysteries are not going to be solved, most lose their attention and become disenchanted.

What made Babylon 5 so engaging was that there was a plan, and you could count on it. You knew that if there was a mystery, that you’d see the resolution of it. I’ll admit that the resolution of the main conflict (the Shadow War) was a bit disappointing, once it happened, but I think part of that feeling had to do with pace and not with the resolution itself. Mystery for the sake of mystery is enough to motivate, temporarily, but not forever. In the real world, solving mysteries opens up more...that’s the real motivator!