The Science of Star Wars: Light Sabers Already Exist and R2D2 is Coming Soon?

Monday, 04 August 2014 - 3:09PM
Technology
Artificial Intelligence
Science of Sci-Fi
Monday, 04 August 2014 - 3:09PM
The Science of Star Wars: Light Sabers Already Exist and R2D2 is Coming Soon?

Could Star Wars really happen? Science writers Mark Brake and Jon Chase gave a presentation in May and physicist Andy Howell wrote up a recent talk this week about the science behind the iconic sci-fi series, discussing the reality (or lack thereof) behind R2D2, light sabers, Tatooine, and more.

 

Light Sabers

 

 

[Credit: 20th Century Fox]

 

Chase and Brake asserted that we already technically have laser technology that is comparable to a light saber, and the only obstacle is portability. Chase said, "We have lasers that can cut through metal the way that lightsabers can, but they are huge machines rather than hand-held devices. However there are laser weapons being developed by the military that can be fired from ships to bring down aircraft."

 

Howell, assuming that a light saber is plasma (one of the gain mediums of a laser), calculated from evidence of the light saber's capabilities in the films that the technology would need more energy than we can currently provide. He cited the light saber's ability to melt a door in Episode I as a particular feat that would take a gargantuan amount of energy. Even at his most conservative estimate, he asserted that a battery or other energy source that powered the light saber would need "about a hundred times higher energy density than the batteries in your cell phone." It's possible that Chase and Brake did not take the light saber's door-melting capabilities into account, as Howell stated, "maybe lightsabers can be used in some minimal way by anyone, but to get door-melting energies, you need the force. I like that interpretation -- it has a certain elegance, and would help explain why they are still using swords in an age of blasters."

 

Droids

 

 

[Credit: 20th Century Fox]

 

Howell points out that we already have the capacity to build relatively simple droids that perform a specific function, like the fighter droids in Star Wars. But sentient robots are another story. Human-like droids with thoughts, feelings, and personalities appear in Star Wars in the form of beloved robots R2D2 and C3PO, but could they exist in real life? Howell asserts that they could exist within the next decade, according to an extrapolation of Moore's law. Moore's law is an observation of a trend in the rate of advancement in computing, and predicts that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years (although some have cited the statistic as 18 months). Moore's law has mostly held true over the history of computing (although many predict that it will slow down to at least three years after 2013), and according to Howell, "If we extrapolate ahead, in about a decade, computers should have the same processing power as the human brain!"

 

A graphic illustration of Moore's Law:

[Credit: Andy Howell] 

 

(Howell may be oversimplifying a bit. This extrapolation from Moore's law is not undisputed, with Gordon Moore himself stating in 2005 that the law he authored is reaching its limit. And even if this is true, there may be other problems inherent to creating a truly sentient artificial intelligence, such as the difficulty of programming emotions, creativity, or original thought.)

 

Tatooine

 

 

[Credit: 20th Century Fox]

 

The most distinctive element of Tatooine, the home planet of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, is its twin suns. According to Howell, this is more than possible, as binary star systems are fairly common in our universe (approximately one third of star systems have two or more stars). In order to illustrate the exact orbit of Tatooine, he observed the properties of the suns that were demonstrated in the films and compared them to the orbit demonstrated by Pandora in the film Avatar in the chart below:

 

 

[Credit: Andy Howell]

 

If Tatooine had a comparable orbit to Pandora, in which it is only orbiting around one of the stars, while the other star is at a relatively great distance, then it would have an extremely long year, approximately 80 Earth years. Furthermore, the faraway star would fluctuate in size, depending on how far away it was, and it would never get completely dark, as the stars would set at different times. But, according to evidence from the Star Wars films, the Tatooine suns are always approximately the same apparent size, and they rise and set at approximately the same time, with a year of about 18 Earth years. As a result, we can only conclude that Tatooine has an orbital configuration as shown on the right, in which it orbits around both stars, which orbit around each other. This specific configuration can be seen in real-life star systems, such as that of the planet Kepler 16B.

 

Alien Life Forms

 

Howell takes for granted that the human-like appearance of many of the aliens in the Star Wars universe is a "fantasy" element that constituted a "deliberate choice that made it a better movie." Or in other words, it was a choice borne out of expedience rather than scientific realism. But Brake and Chase would disagree, with Chase saying: "All the life forms in Star Wars look quite similar, in that they have two eyes and two legs. It could be that everything converges to the same form of evolution. It may just be that the most effective and efficient form of communicative life has two legs and two eyes."

 

Han Solo flying into a lava tube:

 

According to Chase and Brake, this is not only possible but prudent, as many scientists have predicted that we may use this very technique to survive while colonizing other planets: "When we travel to other planets such as Mars, to start colonising them, astronauts will be able to base themselves in lava tubes in order to stay away from harmful radiation until the built environment is complete."

 

And last but not least:

 

 

 

Howell said, "Is that true? Kind of! I calculated it. Take the destruction of Alderaan -- it would radiate about 10 billion times less energy than a supernova. The closest galaxy to us, the Large Magellanic Cloud, hosted supernova 1987A a few decades ago. That supernova was so bright you could see it with the naked eye. But at that distance, the Destruction of Alderaan would just be at the limit of what you could see with a reasonable exposure time with the Hubble Space Telescope. So I don't know about a "A Long Time Ago in Galaxy Far, Far Away," but you could see it if it happened in a "Galaxy Close, Close By, About 163,000 Years Ago." The LMC is 163,000 lightyears, or 50,000 parsecs away."

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