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Explaining the Force: Physics faculty tackle the science behind Star Wars

Lightsabers may not be as fascinating in real life, according to science

Contact: Curt Smith


​Earlier this year, the latest film in the Star Wars franchise debuted with record numbers. The film brought a resurgence of fans back to the classic storyline, including Central Michigan University physics faculty members.

In honor of May the Fourth, faculty have answered a few off-the-wall questions related to the science within the franchise to help explain the story from long ago, in a galaxy far, far away:​

Are lightsabers possible?

Things that look like lightsabers are possible in principle. It is not clear that they would possess the properties and capabilities shown in the movies, however.

One can find articles about manipulating photons for various applications in quantum optics literature. For example, there is an article in the journal Nature from 2013 on "Attractive photons in a quantum nonlinear medium."

How does a lightsaber beam know when to stop? Shouldn't the beam continue until it hits a solid object?

If you mean the length of the saber (and since we don't know much about the technology that is used) then it could be the same as in the case of a hologram, which has specific boundaries.

On the other hand, if we refer to the problem of a lightsaber beam hitting another lightsaber beam, then the two beams would just cross each other and continue with no collision. No additional force should be needed from the user to surpass the contact point of the two lightsabers. I am afraid lightsaber duels would be much less fascinating in this case.

Does the Force exist in real life? Is it something we could potentially learn to control in the future?

Star Wars forces, to our knowledge, do not exist, and they also don't qualify as forces in the scientific sense. There are other forces tha​t do exist, and they can help us predict the outcome of various actions. For example, physics students can use their knowledge of the force of gravity to predict for how long an object tossed across the room can fly or when and where it will land.

What's the deal with Tatooine's twin suns? Is that possible?

The Washington Double Star Catalog contains information about more than 100,000 double-star systems. To our knowledge, there is at least one double-star system with planets orbiting that was discovered by the Kepler mission of NASA. Here is an example from the Kepler mission of  two planets orbiting a binary star system: 

 

How do people growing up on a planet with twin suns end up being so comparatively pale?

The color of the human skin is related to exposure to UV light and the intensity of it. If the twin suns combined provide only as much UV light per surface unit through the atmosphere of Tatooine as our Sun does through earth's atmosphere, also of the same spectra, then the inhabitants' color should be similar to that of the Earthling's sunbathing just as much.

If we traveled at the speed of light would it look the same as when they make the jump to hyperspace or would light seem to stop?

The Theory of Relativity tells us that if you travel at the speed of light and turn on your headlights, they will not help you too much. Actually, as we approach the speed of light, time would slow down immensely for us, but not for bystanders observing us.

Physicists use a similar technique to extend the life of short-lived particles. They observe them at relativistic speeds such that their half-lives become longer for the observers at rest.

Can we freeze people in carbonite then with the push of a button unfreeze them?

We can, but they will not survive the procedure. Different fluids and tissues inside the human body freeze at different temperatures and expand by different percentages. Immediately after an ultra-fast freezing, even if instant-freezing is achieved, the uneven expansion of tissue and fluids would irreversibly damage human organs and tissue.

If sound doesn't travel in a vacuum, why do the lasers make sounds in space?

Space is not a complete vacuum; still, sound cannot propagate and a sound emitting source can as well. As such, you could hear a sound in space if you hit an object containing the listener. Say, a laser hits a spaceship and there is air inside of it. Then you will hear the sound of the impact.

One can also perhaps register the sound produced by the laser exiting the attacking ship, but this requires a laser microphone that measures the vibrations of the hull of the attacker or the weapon firing.

Answers were submitted by Andrei Neacsu, postdoctoral researcher, faculty member Glenn Williams and Georgios Perdikakis, assistant professor of physics. Click here to learn more ​about physics at CMU. 


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