Star Wars: The science fiction behind the fact

It started a long time ago in a galaxy far far away… but this week sees the release of the latest film in the Star Wars movie series ‘The Last Jedi’.  In this article, Dr Ian Turner, Head of Forensic Science at the University of Derby, talks about the global phenomenon of Star Wars and explains some of the science fiction behind the science fact.

There is a group on Facebook devoted to people who use “The Force” or wave their hand every time they open an automatic door. I am a member of this group! The Force in Star Wars is a universal power that can be utilised and harnessed by inhabitants of the universe. Most famously, the light side by the Jedi and the dark side by the Sith. It is a force youngsters up and down the country dream of wielding.

May the force be with you

But is the force real? Well, forces are certainly real. In fact, you are feeling their effects now. A force is an interaction which, if not stopped, changes an object, for example causing it to accelerate. A force you will be familiar with is gravity, which brings things towards each other and here on Earth gives us weight. Gravity is actually one of four fundamental forces. The others are electromagnetic forces (acts between electric charges) and the strong and weak nuclear. There are no forces that humans could use to bring to life an X-Wing out of Dagobah swamp, yet, but there is some hope. Scientists are searching for a fifth fundamental force to explain that most of the mass in the Universe is ‘dark matter’. It sounds very Sith like to me.

The Star Wars universe

In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace we learn that all living things in the Star Wars Universe contain microscopic organisms called midi-chlorians inside their cells. When midichlorians are present in sufficient numbers they allow their host to detect the Force. We learn that Anakin Skywalker (spoiler alert: Darth Vader) has a midi-chlorian count of over 20,000 per cell. We do not have midi-chlorians inside us but we do have mitochondria, these are factories of cells and are responsible for generating energy.

One theory of mitochondria is that a “long time ago in a galaxy far away…”, no wait, in our early evolution, mitochondria were simple life forms (called prokaryotes) and they evolved to live in our cells. We do not quite have 20,000 per cell like Anakin has, but some of our cells in the liver, for example, have as many as 2,000.

Lightsaber wannabes

The ultimate aspiration of Force wannabes is to wield a lightsaber. So, is this possible? Most people think lightsabers are actually lasers (they look like them) but there are some problems here as lasers are silent, pass through each other (rubbish in a duel) and need something at the end to reflect them back, or they will continue forever (no stabbing motions).

The best suggestion is that real lightsabers would be made from plasma. Dr Michio Kaku, a physicist, has designed a blueprint for a lightsaber and concludes that they are theoretically possible… in about 50 years with scientific advancement. I am so looking forward to 2067!

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