Happy Star Wars Day! May the 4th be with you!
Sunday, May 4, 2014, 2:41 PM -
To celebrate Star Wars Day today, let's take a look at some of the real science behind George Lucas' vision.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...
George Lucas may not have known that a parsec was a measure of distance, rather than time, but he certainly knew his stuff when it comes to the speed of light. If the events of the Star Wars movies really did happen in a galaxy far, far away and they were transmitted out from Tatooine or Coruscant or some other planet there, it would take a very long time for us to receive those signals - at least millions of years. In this way, astronomy is not only the science of looking further out into space, but also further back in time.
At the time when Star Wars hit the big screen, alien planets were only the stuff of science fiction, but since then, we've found thousands of them. So far, astronomers have confirmed the existence of nearly 1,800 of them, and there are over 3,700 more candidate worlds waiting for confirmation by telescopes on the ground.
Tatooine, the planet that Luke Skywalker grew up on, is a blazingly-hot desert world that was baked dry by the two stars it orbits around. There have been doubts about whether planets could actually form in those kinds of conditions, since two stars orbiting each other could produce stresses that could rip apart any planet that tries to form. However, there's a real 'Tatooine' out there, as that's the nickname of a planet that's actually named Kepler-16b (although it's more like Saturn than a desert Earth-like planet). There's even a planet, named PH-1b or Kepler-64b, discovered orbiting in a star system with four different stars (two sets of binary stars)!
Nearly every fan of Star Wars has wanted a lightsaber at some point in their life. There's plenty of toys, from $20 to over $200, to satisfy some of that craving, but last year scientists actually took us a step closer to having real ones.
Photons don't interact with each other under normal conditions. Fire two lasers at each other and they'll pass right through each other without any of the photons in the lasers even coming close to each other. However, fire two lasers into a cloud of super-cooled atoms, and as the photons from the lasers interact with those atoms, they will exit out the other side of the cloud bound together. The resulting 'photonic molecule' behaves like it has mass (photons have no mass), and the researchers believe that this might be used at some point in the future to make three-dimensional objects made of light (although just making a meter-long sword-like blade would be fine).
Go to any convention with a science fiction theme and you're bound to see R2-D2 and his fellow astromech droids wandering around, typically being remotely-controlled by someone nearby, however we have some excellent examples of droid-like robots these days. We can look at various examples here on Earth, but personally, the ones on the International Space Station are probably the most interesting. Dextre, a Canadian contribution to Space Station, has been likened to R2-D2, due to its repair abilities, while Robonaut 2 just achieved full 'humanoid' status when its legs were delivered last month and Japan's Kirobo is the perfect robotic companion for astronaut Koichi Wakata.
Darth Vader was 'more machine than man' and Luke had his mechanical hand. We have had very basic artificial limbs for some time, but there are now truly cybernetic limbs that can be connected to our nervous system for control and include a sense of touch. They're still in the experimental phase, but we're getting very close to having fully-functional prosthetic limbs that look completely natural.
In Star Wars, hyperspace is another dimension that's beyond what we experience, but still connected to spacetime so that we can enter this other dimension and travel quickly from one point to another. It's doubtful we'll be 'engaging the hyperdrive' to fly to other stars anytime soon, but scientists have shown that there are very likely other dimensions beyond what we perceive. It could be that we figure out a way, perhaps through wormholes or something else, to use this as a method of travel someday in the future.
Death Stars? Artificial gravity? Anti-gravity? The Force?
Well, we're not quite up to the point of figuring these things out, and some will (and probably should) remain beyond our grasp, but they might just be a matter of time.