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Expert comment: When Science Fiction becomes Science Fact

Star Wars Wednesday 4 May 2016

As film fans celebrate Star Wars Day, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science Dr David Reid discusses how close we are to a world of Death Stars, Cyborgs and BB8s. May the 4th be with you!

Scarily, science fiction often becomes science fact. In 1865, Jules Verne wrote the novel From the Earth to the Moon about space travel and in 1870 he wrote 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, which predicted submarines. Automatic doors are mentioned in HG Wells' When the Sleeper Wakes, a novel about a man desperate for the future to arrive. Arthur C Clarke went one better - predicting the future by inventing it. He wrote a paper in 1945 called The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications that suggested how the Nazi V2 rocket technology could be put to peacetime use. From this, the idea of a geostationary communications satellite was developed.

In 1999 Jeannes Cavelos wrote a book called the Science of Star Wars exploring whether the science and technology set in the “Galaxy far, far away” would be possible or not. In the years since the book was written, the science has stayed the same - but the technology has changed significantly.

Death Star
A megawatt laser can burn a hole through a jet up to six miles away - though it needs to maintain contact with the aircraft for one to two seconds. In a 1998 test, MlRACL, a 2.2-megawatt laser, was able to hit a satellite in Earth orbit. Lots of research is currently being conducted on beam, plasma and rail weapon, but this is still in its infancy. But can this technology be scaled up to Death Star proportions? The biggest difficulty in generating a beam powerful enough for either of these options would be in finding a stable-lasing material - the material whose electrons are amplifying light inside it. Lasing materials can be gases, crystals, or even semiconductors. However, in very powerful lasers, these materials are subjected to extreme heat.

Dr Michio Kaku, Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York and author of Hyperspace and Visions, believes that a Death Star could be built. "The Death Star is very practical," he says. "We could even build it ourselves, if we had enough gross national product. We have nuclear weapons that could crack the Earth … they could build a laser powered by a hydrogen bomb, an X-ray laser. I've got no problems with the Death Star."

However the Earth is a big object (6 × 10^24 kilograms). The force of gravity holding us together is tremendous. To overcome this force would require 2.24 × 10^32 Joules of energy, which would mean the entire energy of the sun for a week would have to be harnessed in a split second. Using normal nuclear reactions, as Dr Kaku suggests, would need a nuclear conversion of 4,300,000 metric tons of matter into energy. However a solution may be to use antimatter. If we can deliver antimatter to the core of the planet then a delivery of an asteroid-sized lump of anti-matter would provide enough energy to destroy the planet.

Likelihood of it happening 6/10

In Star Wars, there are lots of cyborgs - Luke Skywalker has a robotic hand and Obi-Wan says of his former pupil Darth Vader, "He's more machine now than man." In the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, we have experimented with robotic hands and with autonomous movement. One of Dr Secco’s students has created a robotic arm that picks up tiny electrical impulses in the muscle to move the joints. While this is primitive at the moment, a number of more sophisticated interfaces are being constructed. These will inevitably become more mainstream and sophisticated as sensors become more accurate, lightweight and powerful.

Likelihood of it happening 10/10

CP30, R2D2, BB8

The robots in Star Wars have personalities. They can react to their environments and hold sensible conversations with their owners. The Amazon Echo system provide a useful speech interface not dissimilar to HAL in 2001 a Space Odyssey. The Battle Droids in the “Clone Wars” movie look very similar to Boston Dynamics Atlas robots, and vision systems are getting increasingly sophisticated. While these advances are generally in isolation from each other, Robotics provides a common platform in which to in incorporate advances in natural language processing and vision system. Increases in computationally power may mean that such robots may be just around the corner.

Likelihood of it happening 10/10

Virtual Reality
When in 1977 Princess Leia said “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope”, Augmented Reality (AR) wasn’t around at all. Today, this would be child’s play if Luke and Obi-wan were plugged into their HoloLens or AMD Sulon Q headsets. Now AR technology – which involves projecting computer-generated 3D imagery over your field of view – is all the rage. This year, both Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are really going to take off. While still in its infancy, we have a number of people in the department exploring and developing these technologies.

Likelihood of it happening 10/10

Perhaps the best legacy of the Star Wars franchise though is that it provides many young people with the inspiration to become scientists. Materials scientist at Carnegie Mellon University Elizabeth Holm said: “I think there’s a lot of scientists who would say that these movies gave [them] the mental attitude that maybe it can be done. They kept me thinking outside the current - the ‘now’ - and toward the future.”

Whatever worlds Star Wars can imagine, one thing is certain, reality is even more unexpected, exciting and mysterious. 

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