May the Force be with IT

Past and present: how 30 years of Star Wars imagination changed technology forever

Matthew Connell

Matthew Connell

If you saw the first Star Wars film in 1978 you would have been dazzled by the awe inspiring technology the protagonists took for granted. Thirty years later and many of the film's forward-looking ideas – from videoconferencing and mobile communications to robotics and bionics – are being used in our daily lives.

During the next four months Sydney's Powerhouse Museum is playing host to one of the largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia combined with real-life examples of how such technology is being applied for business and social advancement.

The museum's computing and mathematics curator Matthew Connell helped develop the exhibition and, while not a self-confessed Star Wars aficionado, is very interested in comparing the science fiction to today's science fact.

Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, took a year to set up in Australia and this is the first time it has travelled outside of the US. It was originally developed four years ago at the Museum of Science in Boston in conjunction with Lucasfilm.


Click on the following link to see the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination slideshow

“Unlike some of our staff and curators, I don't have a Storm Trooper outfit,” Connell said. “We had another Star Wars exhibition here some time ago and that was about the making of the film and that sort of thing. This is particularly different from that and while it has some artifacts in common, it is specifically about our shared understanding of this well-known movie and how this futuristic world can be used to stimulate thought about our future and how we might go and how science might get us there.”

The exhibition covers a number of core themes from the Star Wars universe and compares the technology to what humans have engineered or a attempting to develop.

“For me, science fiction presents a vast array of questions,” Connell said. “I probably spoil it for some people, but I can't help but look at this stuff and say 'why are they screaming in space?'. I always love seeing how things are represented in these movies because I like to point my physics brain at it and say 'hang on, is that right?'.”

Transport

The exhibition starts with the juxtaposition of the Millennium Falcon, which can travel between galaxies effortlessly, and our own forms of space travel.

“We are not quite there yet,” Connell said. “We can send things out, but people have been thinking about interstellar travel for a long time.”

“These are models made by Industrial Light and Magic and some others are being proposed for how we might travel between the vast, vast, distances of interstellar space. How we will have enough fuel for it, in particular, is one of the big issues.”

Some of the exhibits are based on real scientific concepts, but there is “just a little bit” of engineering to be done for it to become reality.

“There are models of ramjets that harvest the Hydrogen in deep space to power them,” Connell said. But those harvesting shields would need to be several kilometers across. Since a structure like that could not be launched it would have to be built in space and that would take more money than anyone has at the moment.”

Another is dubbed "dataless" and uses nuclear fusion as the fuel. It is a concept that dates back to the 1970s and one originally from the Interplanetary Society.

“This is an anti-matter rocket and this has been in the news a bit lately with the new Large Hadron Collider. There is also talk of being able to harvest anti-matter for fuel. The principles are there but the engineering is a fair way off.”

The physical space ship models were used on the making of the Star Wars movies before it was cheaper to do it with computers. And some aspects of the graphics in the most recent movie were limited by a need to maintain some sort of continuity with the "former, later" films.

Also on display is the young Luke Skywalker's Landspeeder from Episode IV: A New Hope, which Connell believes is a remarkable device because it has unique “repulsorlift” technology.

“When you see the film it is sweeping across the horizon at a constant height. When it stops it sits there, and when somebody gets out it sits there,” he said. “So I'm not sure what type of lift this is. It seems to not only work up and down (like anti-gravity), but also sideways. What sort of technology could that be?

“I also wonder why it sits so close to the ground. It's obviously because of the wheels, but as Luke was looking for R2-D2 he should have gone up to get a better view of the horizon.”

Connell is intrigued but this type of Star Wars phenomenon and wonders what technology would we need to get things to hover like that.

“Wheels allow us to stay stable unilaterally, but if you remove the wheels?”

Opposite the Landspeeder is a powered mini hovercraft where children can experience first-hand how difficult it is to steer a vehicle when there is no direct contact with the ground.

“There has always been talk in science fiction of personal vehicles that move in three dimensions rather than two dimensions,” Connell said. “The Moller Skycar is an attempt to get the vertical thrust. All we want is a cross between a helicopter and a plane. There are two different types of movement.”

Also at the exhibition is the rotorwing – a combination of helicopter and plane. At a certain speed the rotor shuts down for aeroplane-style motion.

“And the SpaceShipOne space plane is what our mates at Virgin Atlantic want to take people into space with. This is a reusable rocket,” Connell said.

“So I think it may well be a while before we have something like the Landspeeder, but it is something we are interested in and people are looking at all the options.”

In terms of futuristic transport technology one of the most interesting methods according to Connell, which has been around for a long time but still being developed, is the Maglev (magnetic levitation, as can be found in the city of Shanghai, China) train system which provides frictionless locomotion.

At the exhibition people can work with Lego magnets that sit on the track. Then you need to create magnetic pulses to give it a little push.

“The Podracer is another certainly implausible vehicle, but it's certainly much loved by Star Wars fans. It uses gas turbine engines which is a mature technology, but it is still floating. Nevertheless it has captured people's imagination, probably because it has a little bit of something they understand with a little but of futuristic possibilities.”

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