We sense a disturbance in the force. What with Brexit, the fall of global markets, Nigel Farage’s EU performance and England crashing out of the Euros to Iceland, it’s been a chaotic week here on planet Earth (though particularly so for the British). Not to worry though, we at the thefullapple are here to transport you off this planet and to a galaxy far, far away with the ultimate geeky blog post. That’s right, we’re taking a scientific look at some of the most outrageous technologies in Star Wars.
With the epic The Force Awakens sending ripples through the film industry last year, and the much anticipated Rogue One prequel being released in December 2016, it’s fair to say the Star Wars space opera is still a huge deal on the film scene, one that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Indeed, how many film franchises spawn their own religions? See: Jediism.
It’s clear to see why the films have gathered an increasing following of diehard fans over the years. With some of the livest banter this side of the galaxy, a plethora of lovable characters, and a film-numbering system to keep even the brightest of mathematicians busy, it has certainly stood the test of time since it’s inception in the 70s. Furthermore, every single episode has maintained a wildly imaginative technology scene. Thefullapple take a closer look at some of these technologies and asks: is there any real science behind these crazy ideas, or are they just pure fantasy?
Lightsabers, of course!
How could we do a piece on Star Wars technology without mentioning the iconic lightsaber? These badass weapons allowed jedis from across the galaxy to battle with apparently solid beams of light that ‘clashed’ with each other, and could sever off a limb in the blink of an eye.
Already, we can feel the brows raising at these claims; a solid beam of light of controlled dimensions, that also has the ability to slice through basically any material? Right…
Sure, it doesn’t take long to unravel Wookie mistake number 1: the very nature of light as a collection of massless photons doesn’t allow for any sort of ‘clashing’ with beams. If you shine two lasers at each other, because the streams of photons have no mass or charge, the streams of photons simply pass through each other without reacting.
The only evidence of photons interacting with each other at all comes from research from Harvard and MIT (See the original paper here) wherein they have managed to coax photons into binding together to form molecules. This was done by pumping rubidium atoms into a vacuum chamber and using lasers to cool the atoms to just a few degrees above absolute zero. Extremely weak laser light — a stream of single photons — is then shone through the rubidium-filled vacuum. The researchers then found that instead of one, the photons became a two-photon molecule by the time it left the medium.
The potential uses for the new state of matter range from advanced quantum computing to perhaps creating entire crystals out of light. While fascinating, this does not indicate that lightsaber battles could be on the horizon (at least in the immediate future).
Laser Based Weapons
But the wider concept of light-based weapons? Perhaps not quite so silly. The US Navy have been working on several directed-energy aka laser defence methods, and the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) is the first to have obtained Initial Operating Capacity- meaning that this system could actually be the first of it’s kind implemented in battle. The idea is that the LaWS can be mounted to a ship and used for a huge range of operations, from shooting down drones to attacking enemy boats.
But it doesn’t stop there. Further reports suggest that the US Army are planning to arm soldiers with their first laser weapons in 2023 (imagine that) and that the Air Force are already pushing ahead with testing for their RADBO system, a big laser ‘gun’ that can be mounted onto various modes of transport and incorporates a hefty 3 kilowatt laser. For the record, this is only about 2 times more powerful than some of the best industrial laser cutting machines in the world, but still 600,000 times more powerful than your cute little laser pointer. You don’t know the power of the LaWS side of the force.
Lightspeed travel and the hype about hyperspace
Anyone who has seen the films will remember many sticky situations avoided by the Millennium Falcon starship- all they did was zoom off out of trouble and into hyperspace. When in doubt, hyperspace it out. According to the films, hyperspace is actually a whole new dimension that could only be accessed by surpassing the speed of light in the spaceship, allowing faster than light travel between destinations in space across huge distances.
‘Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?’ – Han Solo during A New Hope
Han’s got a point here: entering a new dimension and travelling at speeds greater than 670 million (!) miles per hour is certainly not something you want to be cavalier about. However, travelling at lightspeed could obviously be extremely useful – not only for escaping the wrath of the Death Star, but for today’s space travel challenges.
Significant scientific research has been invested into the possibility of creating a warp drive, i.e. Faster Than Light (FTL) travel and sadly, has revealed Wookie mistake number 2: travelling this fast is physically impossible. This is according to the fundamental laws of physics, specifically in Einstein’s theory of special relativity:
‘Energy and mass are interchangeable, and therefore speed of light travel is impossible for material objects that have a mass.’
Light itself is carried by photons, which are massless particles.
However, research has looked to the alternative concept of distorting space itself to shorten the distance between two points and achieve the same effect.
Recent press has rumoured NASA to have unintentionally invented a warp drive whilst experimenting with a prototype propulsion system. This system seeks to reduce fuel by using electromagnetic waves to create thrust, unlike other engines that use conventional fuel and rely on an exhaust .
However, the organisation have vigorously denied accidentally creating a warp-drive since, and seem to think this kind of result could still be 50-300 years away. In the meantime however, science will continue to move forward. And while NASA is not pursuing interstellar flight, scientists continue to advance ion propulsion for missions to deep space and beyond using solar electric power. This form of propulsion is the fastest and most efficient to date.
Looks like we won’t be getting on the hyperspace bus anytime soon, then…
Cybernetics, aka prosthetics
Prosthetic limbs are undoubtedly one of the most important developments in scientific and medical history, and Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand was actually a pretty revolutionary vision for it’s time. Referred to as Cybernetics in the films, these prosthetic limbs boasted an absolute aesthetic resemblance to a natural limb, not to mention the ability to move just like the replaced limb would.
There have been huge developments in prosthetics during the past century, but getting us one step closer to Luke’s almost organic looking and feeling hand are Case Western University in Ohio. A groundbreaking Biomedical Engineering research team have developed a moving prosthetic arm that gives the user a sense of touch, and communicates with the user’s brain through using bundles of electrodes at nerve endings. With this prosthetic arm, even when blindfolded, you can not only “sense” the object, but gets a remarkably precise feel of the object’s texture.
Another seriously high-tech development in the world of prosthetics comes from a small company called Cambridge Bio-augmentation Systems, who are looking to revolutionise the way our bodies and even specific organs can interact with prosthetic limbs. Described as ‘The USB connector of prosthetics’, the system looks to transform the stump left by conventional amputation into a slick and standardised port for truly integrated bionics.
Can we make these prosthetics appear life-like?
With the ability to foster more complex interactions between the limb and our bodies, the visions of Luke’s bionic hand don’t seem too far away anymore, but mistake number 3 here arises with the exterior of the limb. Getting the appearance of a truly organic limb with this functionality, as well as the sense of touch, is still a significant challenge – if possible at all.
Organisations such as the Alternative Limb Project are pioneering the appearance of ‘realistic’ limbs, but also endeavouring to create alternative and artistic limbs that are an extension of the wearer’s personality such as the gaming-inspired limb below. While this limb doesn’t look like anything human, we cannot deny that it looks seriously cool.
Either way, any research into improving prosthetics for users can only be a good thing- whether it’s inspired by Star Wars or not. Just compare Jamie Lannister and Luke Skywalker (who both had one of their hands chopped off), one went on to defeat the sith with lightsaber in hand whilst the other had to retire from the front line into management.
While it’s quite clear that lightsabers are currently a resounding ‘no’ from science, the dawn of laser warfare is certainly creeping up on us. And even though irritatingly, we can’t quite yet zoom off into hyperspace to defend ourselves, at least we’re making large strides in prosthetic technology. The technologies fantasised about in the Star Wars films also certainly provoke some interesting scientific debates, and perhaps have even helped to shape research over the last four decades alongside.
The visions portrayed by the films continue to be ahead of their time, but some parts of the fantasy film, are (for now) just that – fantasy. Don’t give up on science just yet though – who knows what we’ll see in the next 50 years?
May the force be with you all for another week of earthly chaos.
Thefullapple investigates the science behind the sci-fi in our new fantasy film series. Stay tuned for our upcoming articles on your favourite science fictions films of all time, or suggest a film to us in the comments below.