Nerding out on Star Wars Science

Nerding out on Star Wars Science


A long, long time ago in a
movie studio far, far away… Star Wars was born. George Lucas’s epic space opera is the tractor beam that captured the hearts of nerds everywhere. The movie helped launch the big budget space blockbuster genre. And as far as fiction goes, it hits all the right notes. But what about the science? [REACTIONS SPLASH INTRO] Some of Star Wars is actually plausible (Help me Obi Wan Kenobi…
You’re my only hope.) And then there’s the other stuff,
which, yeah, not so much. I’ll just get this out
of the way right now. There’s a few things I’m NOT going to cover, like did Han shoot
first (Raychelle: he did.) or does Han know what a parsec
is (Raychelle: He doesn’t.) Or midichlorians. Actually we’re going to steer
clear of the prequels altogether. We’re NOT sorry Jar Jar. (Being able to speak, does
not make you intelligent.) From a technological perspective,
the Death Star is maybe Star Wars’ most impressive achievement. Except for the duct work – what were
the Imperial engineers thinking? Anyway… The Death Star had a laser
that could blow up a planet. For more3 on that, here’s our resident
Sith chemist/Star Wars buff, Raychelle! Ray: Lasers amplify light produced by energetically “exciting”
a gas or a crystal, or sometimes using a chemical reaction. The electromagnetic radiation produced is
highly coherent, meaning all the waves of light all line up together, producing a very
concentrated beam of energy. Elaine: We don’t have lasers quite that powerful yet, but the
principle is the same. The most powerful laser on Earth was
a 2 petawatt laser fired in Japan. But assuming Alderaan was roughly
the size of Earth, the Death Star’s laser would still need
a million billion times more power to blow it to smithereens. Ray: Now, when producing all
that energy, you’d usually also make a lot of heat. Like enough heat to melt the Death
Star if it fired up its laser. Not sure how the Imperial engineers
got around that one…But here’s an even more serious problem with
the Death Star’s laser. Remember how it starts with
eight beams converging? Yeah, light doesn’t do that. The individual beams would just pass through each other and keep
going in their own directions. Elaine: Up next. Lightsabers. Ray: Their blades are made of plasma, which is the fourth state of matter [solid,
liquid, gas, plasma]. Adding heat can turn solids into liquids, liquids into gases,
and gases into plasma. If you keep heating a gas, it gains so much energy that some electrons break free from their atoms, creating
a cloud of ions – called a plasma. Because ions (and electrons) are charged,
plasmas can be controlled with electromagnetic forces. These forces contain and shape the plasma
in a lightsaber according to Star Wars lore–although like
the Death Star laser there are big questions about how much
heat they’re putting out. Elaine: There are other ideas out there. Neil DeGrasse Tyson likes the
idea of using gamma rays. And a couple physicists at Harvard and MIT actually managed to
stick some photons together. So IF – and that’s a big IF (I find your lack of faith disturbing) you could clump enough photons
together, maybe you could build a real actual saber of light out of them. Or maybe Star Wars was
just light years ahead. So now you want to protect yourself against
a laser or a lightsaber. You’re in the market for a force field. Force fields or deflector shields
are seen all over Star Wars but they’re not explained all that well. Some developments here on Earth could give clues about what might work in the real world. Ray: One idea is a bubble of plasma that could surround a ship. It would need a physical structure
like a mesh of fine wires to keep the plasma cloud in place, but it could protect against dangerous radiation
during a trip to Mars, for instance, and sure
maybe some blasters too. Another idea, patented by defense contractor Boeing, is an active
laser force field that would make a plasma to protect against the shockwave
of an explosion, which can do just as much harm as shrapnel. Elaine: So that’s just the
science of the OG trilogy. There’s a whole sequel trilogy to come! What did you see in the Force Awakens that you want to know more about? That adorable rolling droid? Let us know in the comments. Also, it’s that gift
giving season again. As you may know, we have some infographics for sale at the ACS store. Be sure to click on the link in the description below to get a poster for your chemistry loving loved ones. And hey, thanks for watching.