With ‘The Force Awakens’ set to hit UK cinemas later in the month, James Beeson, Editor, asks; how realistic is the science behind Star Wars?
THE Star Wars franchise is a science-nerd’s paradise, chock o’ block full of futuristic and far-fetched technologies and mysterious wonders, from Tatooine’s two suns, to super-intelligent robots such as C3-PO. For the most part, these concepts are considered to be pure fantasy; a figment of George’s Lucas’ vivid imagination, with no real scientific clout. However, being a Star Wars super-fan and a bit of a techno geek myself, I decided that to mark the release of ‘The Force Awakens’ I wanted to find out whether any of the concepts in the films have any real scientific clout… and the results were somewhat surprising!
Easily one of the biggest wonders of the Star Wars universe is the existence of The Force – a metaphysical, spiritual and limitless power that gives Jedi and Sith the ability to leap huge distances, read minds and shoot lightning from their hands. In the original trilogy, the Force was seen as a highly spiritual and unknowable power, with almost religious connotations. However, fast forward to the prequel trilogy and the force is explained by Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn as a sentient entity that could be tested for in life forms, detectable by the Midi-chlorian count in the cells of that creature. When present in sufficient numbers, Midi-chlorians could allow their host to detect the force and use it to perform remarkable feats.
Midi-chlorians can be detected through by measuring their concentration in a being’s red blood cells, in a process not dissimilar to a modern day blood-test. It is believed that Lucas based the idea on mitochondria, organelles that provide energy for cells. In humans, mitochondria help to produce Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by oxidizing products of glucose and Pyruvic acid. Unfortunately, this only results in the transportation of chemical energy within cells for metabolism, and doesn’t enable us to force choke pesky lecturers and annoying housemates.
Easily the coolest weapons in the Galaxy, lightsabers are the weapon of choice for Jedi Knights and Sith Warriors. Usually around a metre in length, lightsabers have a metal hilt that projects a brightly-lit energy blade capable of cutting, burning and melting through most substances with little resistance. The weapon consists of a blade of pure plasma emitted from the hilt and suspended in a force containment field, which enables the blade to retain its shape. The plasma is projected through a crystal, focusing the energy beam and giving lightsaber’s their distinctive colours.
Scientifically, lightsabers are problematic for several reasons. Logistically lasers do not clash when their beams cross and are also silent (unlike the humming incarnations in the films.) More pressingly, however, is the fact that the level of engery required to create such a beam could only currently be produced by something along the lines of a nuclear reactor – not something you’d comfortably be able to fit into the palm of your hand at any rate!
In the documentary ‘Can You Build A Lightsbaer?’ Dr. Michio Kaku argues that a nanotube, while small in size, could produce the energy required to create a lightsaber through the use of carbon atoms that can conduct electricity. However, this still leaves the problem of how to hold the beams of light in place to produce a blade that is limited in size, as opposed to the endless reaches of a normal light beam if it is not obstructed by another surface. Dr. Kaku suggests that this could be solved using the relatively new process of trapping light by firing laser photons into a small container filled with gas atoms. However, this would expose the wielder to extreme sun-like heat, which, without the protection of a force containment field, would render the lightsaber highly dangerous. Kaku suggests that making the lightsaber hilt from the kind of ceramics used by NASA for building spacecrafts could provide a solution to this problem, containing the heat and protecting the nano batteries stored within.
Dr. Kaku concludes that lightsabers are theoretically possible, but still require some scientific/technological advancement to function in the same or similar manner as the ones in the Star Wars universe – one for the future perhaps!
One of the most iconic moments in the Star Wars franchise is the sight of Luke Skywalker staring out across the Tatooine desert at the twin setting suns of the planet. In the past scientists thought that planets would be unlikely to form around binary stars. However, it is now widely accepted that planets can revolve around multiple stars. In the case of Tatooine, where the two stars are very close together, it would most likely be the case that the planet would orbit their common center of mass. In fact, in 2011, it was reported by The Guardian that a NASA space craft had discovered a planet, named Kepler-16b, with twin suns as seen in the Star Wars films. Kepler- 16b is around the size of Saturn and thought to be uninhabitable due to being made up of half gas and half rock and ice, but similar planets could exist that are capable of sustaining life elsewhere in the galaxy.
Okay, so I’ll admit, I’m ignoring some of the more fat fetched and hard to explain sci-fi elements of the Star Wars films here! Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that the hoverbike chase between Luke, Leia and the Stormtrooppers in Return of the Jedi isn’t one of the coolest scenes in the original trilogy. The hoverbikes depicted in the Star Wars universe are small, fast units of transport that use repulsorlift or anti-gravity engines to float around a metre off the ground.
Levitating an object without the use of constant propulsion requires magnetic repulsion and hence, the closest we have got to replicating such technology in the 21st century is Maglev trains – high speed railway trains that levitate a small distance above their tracks by the use of magnets. These trains are able to travel at high speeds (The Shanghai Maglev Train has a top speed of 270 mph) and move more smoothly and more quietly than wheeled mass transit systems, but are only able to follow a set route dictated by the magnets, unlike the hoverbikes in Star Wars which have coils that directly repulse the gravity of the surface of the planet they are on.
The type of levitation depicted by hoverbikes in Star Wars may well be physically impossible, but similar bikes have been developed by an Australian inventor and engineer Chris Malloy, whose bikes use turbofans to enter flight and can travel at a horizontal speed of 173 miles an hour. These bikes are reportedly being developed by the US military, which I think makes it just about legit for me to claim hoverbikes are a real scientific possibility (well, sort of.)