Science of 'Star Wars': How Scientists Use the 'Force'

With the light saber, hyper drive and R2D2, the film inspired a generation.

May 25, 2007 — -- As Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader pulled out their light sabers for a deadly battle 30 years ago today, "Stars Wars" movie-goers asked themselves one thing: Where can I get one of those?

The iconic movie series prompted young children to tote R2D2 lunch boxes and teenage boys to fall in love with side hair buns and gold bikinis. But in 1977, the groundbreaking fan favorite did more than just secure its place in Americana -- it also captured the hearts and minds of scientists of the '70s and a few younger, budding lab rats waiting in the wings.

"I think the influence is huge," Michio Kaku, one of the world's most prominent physicists and the co-founder of string field theory, told "Many people don't realize that science fiction has been an inspiration for the world's leading scientists."

The most prominent areas of research inspired by the film are "hyper drive," like that achieved off and on by Han Solo's foundering Millennium Falcon, and robotics research inspired by Luke Skywalker's ever-reliable R2D2 and somewhat neurotic C3PO.

"We physicists have been fascinated, have been inspired by the warp drive," Kaku said. It has been so fascinating to them … that they have found an equation of Einstein's that mimics warp drive.

Now, on paper, scientists know how "warp speed" works and what it would take for Chewbacca to get the Millennium Falcon into gear.

"I should point out that this is not for us," he continued, but rather for future generations. "A gasoline necessary to power a ... starship is far beyond anything ... in our laboratory. But we can dream."

Similarly, Kaku says, some people saw the movies' robots and started working in artificial intelligence theory to create robots of their own.

Not the Droids You're Looking For

While researching "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," a traveling museum exhibition that was developed at the Boston Museum of Science and will be making its next appearance at the Fort Worth Museum of Science in June, exhibit developer Ed Rodley found similar phenomena.

"We interviewed roboticists all over the world … and they all said where they were, how old they were when they saw 'Star Wars' and how that had an effect on their decision [to become roboticists],'" Rodley said.

These scientists often refer to themselves as either R2D2 people -- meaning that they care more about a robot's form -- or as C3P0 people -- meaning that they care more about the way a robot communicates with people.

Furthermore, Rodley contended that scientists could tell by students' robot designs what era they were from, depending on whether their robots resembled those in "Star Wars," "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Silent Running."

Although we're unlikely to ever wield light sabers against phantom attackers with evil intentions, Rodley does believe the concept of traveling without wheels, à la Luke Skywalker's hovering Land Speeder, is definitely a future possibility.

"With wheel and rail technology, you've kinda hit the end of the road" in terms of speed, Rodley said.

But by using electromagnetism instead of wheels, which Europe, Japan and China have been experimenting with, the train is pushed up above the track -- in effect, hovering, but with more control than a hovercraft, which uses air to propel itself.

What really resonated with scientists in "Star Wars" though wasn't necessarily the technology itself, but rather the way technology was treated.

"If you look at all of the stuff that came before it, it was such a departure from everything else. Seventies sci-fi tended to be pretty dystopian -- 'Planet of the Apes,' 'Soylent Green,'" he said. "George [Lucas] managed to paint a much more accurate picture of the way technology integrates into our world. ... He painted a picture of a future where people actually just use technology to do whatever they're going to do, as opposed to just worshiping at the altar or crying at the altar of technology."

That new look at technology is why it may have resonated with the general public, as well, according to Patricia King Hanson, a film historian and the executive editor of the America Film Institute Catalog of Feature Film.

"I think one of the charms ... is that it's both looking forward, but [reflecting on] things in the past that are very enjoyable. It was unabashedly upbeat," she said. "But it was also the first time a film [was] simultaneously a blockbuster hit and a cult film."

Kaku said the film was more than just a fairy tale.

"Fairy tales don't do anything. They don't inspire people to become princes and princesses," he said. "Science fiction does inspire young people to become professional scientists. ... For us it's more than just fantasy. It's like, what if? What if we can become a scientist to prove this thing is possible? It's a challenge. ... We get our thrills by wanting to make the special effects into reality."