The back-story on FlashForward

Micro black holes that consume the world, strangelets that trigger a runaway reaction, and even an antimatter bomb to blow up the Vatican. If you thought you’d heard all the possible ways the LHC might cause cataclysmic disaster, think again: how about shifting the entire consciousness of humanity 21 years into the future? This is the plot of science-fiction author Robert Sawyer’s novel FlashForward, which is currently being transformed into a big-budget TV series. The Bulletin caught up with the author to find out more.

The LHC is just about to start its first operation with lead ions. Suddenly the entire population of the world blacks out for about two minutes. During this time, every person on the planet experiences his life 21 years in the future. They wake up again in the present to see the mass destruction caused by this worldwide blackout, and are left to ponder over what they saw in the future.

This is the plot of science-fiction author Robert Sawyer’s novel FlashForward. Sawyer first published the book back in 1999, but in fact the plot takes place at CERN in 2009. "CERN was the setting right from the beginning," explains Sawyer. "I knew you were building the Large Hadron Collider, that it would come online around 2009 and that it would be the most powerful particle accelerator in history. For my plot, 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—and the idea of this super-high-energy physics experiment at CERN seemed to fit the bill perfectly."

Unlike some other novels set at CERN, Sawyer’s includes very detailed, and more or less accurate, descriptions of CERN’s facilities and the surrounding area. "I confess to being a bit disappointed when Dan Brown chose to set part of his later novel Angels and Demons at CERN, too," admits Sawyer, "but I honestly think I made much better use of the facility."

Sawyer frequently sets his novels at real-life scientific institutions, from Canada’s Sudbury Neutrino Observatory to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, and often uses scientists as his main characters. As he explains: "I think it’s a good way to anchor the reality of what I’m doing in my science-fiction novels. A lot of people confuse science fiction and fantasy, but science fiction is not just crazy made-up stuff; rather, it is rigorous extrapolation from what we actually know into things that might plausibly happen."

His novel has received a renewed bout of attention because the ABC television network premiered a big-budget TV adaptation on 24 September. The series, by the same producers as "Lost", will also be called FlashForward, but will differ significantly from the novel. For instance, the TV adaptation is no longer set at CERN, and will focus on FBI agents rather than scientists. But, Sawyer assures us, it will not be ‘dumbed down’ too much, although he won’t give much away: "ABC Studios are very secretive about precisely what’s going to happen in the show. But I am the creative consultant on the series, and I’m slated to write one of the first-season episodes myself. And David Goyer, who is leading the team adapting my novel, is a very scientifically literate person. I think it’s a safe bet that whatever the series ends up doing, it will not leave people who are scientifically knowledgeable rolling their eyes."

While the cause of the flash-forward in the TV adaptation remains a closely guarded secret, in the novel it coincides with the start of the LHC. But how – in fantasy – might the LHC cause a jump in time? "The novel postulates that the Pauli exclusion principle, which states that no two electrons or protons can simultaneously occupy the same quantum state, also applies to the concept of now—there can be no two simultaneous nows, and a displaced sense of consciousness can only occupy a currently unoccupied—consciousness-free—time," he explains.

Although Sawyer’s trick to justify the world’s flash forward has nothing to do with what the LHC can really do (read and watch John Ellis’ interview about the science behind the novel), it was certainly not Sawyer’s intention to create another possible scare story on the safety of the LHC. As he points out: "FlashForward was first published in 1999, long before this nonsense started circulating about the LHC possibly creating a black hole or otherwise destroying the world. If I’d known that all of that was going to erupt in the media, I might have chosen another setting for my novel! On the other hand, for a time, more people were talking about particle physics and particle accelerators than at any previous moment in history, so I suppose that was good. Who’d have predicted that something as esoteric as the machine designed to find the Higgs boson would be front-page news around the world?"

So will Sawyer be responsible for the next rush of media attention for CERN? Who knows? If only we had a machine that would allow us to see into the future…

Mathew Stracy,

CERN Bulletin

Additional material:

More information about Sawyer and his novels can be found on his website:

A complete interview with Robert Sawyer produced by S. Cochran is available:

Watch the video interview


Watch also the video interview with John Ellis of the CERN Theory Group

For previews and news on the new ABC series visit: