The science of Star Wars



Charles Pring

Whatever you may think of them, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Star Wars film. And, if you’re anything like me, you may well have attempted to levitate the TV remote into your hand afterwards. But even if I can’t use the force, could anyone? And will I ever be the proud and irresponsible owner of a working lightsaber? I’m going to put some of the science in Star Wars under the microscope, and see whether it has any grounding in our own reality, in the present, in a galaxy not that far away.

Science fiction would be rather boring without rapid travel between distant locations, and in the Star Wars universe, this is achieved through entering hyperspace: an ethereal extra-dimensional space accessed by reaching the speed of light. But how feasible is this? Well, that depends on just how freaky you like to get with your theoretical physics.

According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, nothing can travel faster than light, and even reaching the speed of light not only requires an infinite amount of energy, but would also laden you with infinite mass. And besides this, even if you somehow moved as fast as light, it would still take you absolutely bleedin’ ages to reach distant stars. So, if we want to build our own functional Millennium Falcon anytime soon, we’re going to have to tell Einstein to suck on our middle finger as we whizz past him faster than light.

Enter string theory, a so far unproven “theory of everything” in which the entire universe is composed solely of tiny, one-dimensional strings. It is these strings that, when they fold and vibrate, give the appearance of particles, such as quarks and electrons — or so the theory goes. It is a rather divisive theory amongst physicists, but interesting to potential hyperspace travellers because of the additional dimensions required to make the “string maths” work. Differing versions of string theory work on the basis that there at least 10 dimensions, if not 11, rather than just the four that we experience on a daily basis.

Subsequently, some scientists have speculated that these extra dimensions could be used to traverse vast distances much quicker than lightspeed, by “folding” through higher dimensions. This sounds rather confusing, and doing it for real would be far beyond our current capabilities, but the actual principle is fairly simple. Imagine an ant on a 2D piece of paper. If you fold the paper in half, literally “fold it through the 3rd dimension”, that ant can now get instantly from one side of the paper to the other, without having to walk the distance himself. So the idea is that by “folding” lower dimensions through higher ones, you can instantly travel across galactic expanses.

Of course, no one really knows how that would work in practice, or how many dimensions even exist, so anyone hoping to explore an Outer Rim anytime soon will have to do so on Earth for now.

But what about a lightsaber? When will I be eviscerating innocent fruit with my sweet beam of Jedi justice? This is a hotly debated topic, with such luminaries as Bill Nye, Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson chiming in on the subject; the latter two even had a mild-mannered Twitter argument on the matter. But how might these candescent cutlasses actually work?

As you may have discerned in your youth, a beam of white light fired from a household torch does not make a lightsaber, so a working example would require something a little stronger than just light. Given that they are literally used to slice through diamonds, you might think that lasers would do the job nicely, but since laser beams don’t have a fixed length, they would just extend forever.

Thankfully, there is an alternative: plasma. Plasma is the fourth state of matter, and is essentially a gas that has been stripped of its electrons. Examples include fluorescent and neon lighting, as well as lightning, but plasma has also been used to cut metals commercially since the 1980s. Handheld plasma cutters even exist, and crucially, hot plasma can be contained using magnetic fields (lightsabers here we come!)

Before I get too carried away though, it is worth noting that plasma cutters, even the handheld ones, are very bulky objects, owing to the large amount of power required to slice stuff with ionised gas. Beside this, they also use plasma arcs of only millimeters in length, and two magnetically-contained tubes of plasma would unfortunately pass right through each other if they came into contact. All things considered though, I find myself pleasantly optimistic about the prospect of one day getting drunk and accidentally injuring myself or my friends with my awesome new lightsaber.

And finally, how about some Jedi powers while we’re at it? Would that be so much to ask? I initially thought that force powers would be the least attainable of all the different Star Wars magics, but it turns out that we are already pretty close to living as Jedi! Obviously we have not quite reached the point of telekinesis, but there are a variety of technologies that are on their way to enabling all kinds of cool Jedi stuff.

Electroencephalography (EEG) is a way of measuring electrical brain activity, and EEG headsets can already be used to control devices such as drones. So yes, young Padawan, you can fly a drone using only your mind. And while on the subject, Elon Musk’s Neuralink is just one of many projects developing methods of connecting the brain to computers, with the goal of enabling people to communicate telepathically — much like Jedi. More spookily, such brain-computer interfaces could also be liable to cyberhacking, meaning the hacker could actually control someone’s motor skills, and potentially even thoughts.

And while no one on this planet can yet make things float just by looking at them, it has been shown that even non-magnetic substances can be made to levitate in a magnetic field, for instance an experiment in which scientists successfully suspended a small frog in mid-air.

So all things considered, maybe I was a little too hasty to abandon my dreams of joining the Jedi High Council. We probably won’t be travelling across galaxies in the foreseeable future, but we are surprisingly close to developing versions of lots many things found in Star Wars.