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A Physicist, An Engineer And A Cosmologist Discuss The Science Of 'Star Wars'

Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) leads a group of stormtroopers in search of a map hidden inside a droid.
Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studio
Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) leads a group of stormtroopers in search of a map hidden inside a droid.

Sci-Q: The Science Of 'Star Wars'
A Physicist, An Engineer And A Cosmologist Discuss The Science Of 'Star Wars' GUESTS:Jon Kaufman, experimental cosmologist, UC San Diego Steve Snyder, CEO, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center Greg Schumsky, industrial and product designer

After month, some would say years of anticipation the new Star Wars movie is finally here with early screenings in San Diego tonight. The force awakens takes up where return of the Jedi jet left off. For those pesky prequels to cover the franchise. Whatever happens to Hans, Leah, lead. Did Empire arise again. The science of Star Wars is the subject of Sci-Q science topic. First KPBS arts reporter is here not to answer those questions, no spoilers will be revealed. But to talk about the anticipation of this movie and about the fans that have been waiting for it. It's been such a long time since a Star Wars movie provoked this kind of excitement. Wises such a big deal, Beth? For a number of reasons. If I went to Star Wars celebration which is where all the Star Wars fans gather up with year, and they reveal the teaser trail at that point. It was a moment where 5000+ people in the arena just went insane. People cried, people were waving their lifesavers around. I think it's a couple of things. We are coming out of the dark ages. The dark times which is the prequels. Which all of us look forward to. Star Wars fans look forward to phantom of menace and we bought the toys picked we got all excited and then we were crust by. We heard that there was this new set of sequels coming out. JJ Abrams and recently done a good job with Star Trek was helming it. They were going back to Lawrence Kasdan as one of the writers. He worked on Empire strikes back. We were getting Hohn and Luke and Leia all coming back to the film. JJ Abrams promised he was going back to practical effects and shooting it on film. We started getting excited again. So you have had the opportunity to see the force awakens earlier this week. In your review with no spoilers, you call it the perfect sequel, why is that? I called the perfect sweet, it's not a perfect film but it's a perfect sequel because a lot like creed which is out right now. The Rocky Balboa film franchise. It understands its place in the franchise. That is he is not there to reinvent the wheel. He is not there to break new ground to try out some daring new formula or something. He understands that fans want a little bit of the nostalgia. They want to be connected back to those original films that they loved. There's a whole new generation out there that may now have grown up those films and likes them that maybe does not have the same affinity and want something a little new and fresh. So we got these new set of actors. A new storyline. Is this nice balancing act of paying a mosh and appreciation to what came before with an eye to the future to creating something new. We heard that lines had formed up in LA for the force awakens as early as last week. Is that the case here? Forming lines with the films this time around is very different because what we have now is a lot of online ticketing which guaranteeing to go to tickets. Some of them are guaranteed seats and you actually have a reserved seat at the theater you're going to. A lot of the lines of formed up in LA a few weeks ago were actually for charity they were waiting in line to help raise money for charity. I know that the San Diego Star Wars society is planning to be up at the sin Opelousas in Vista starting early this morning but they are all getting beaning in costume and really kind of having a fun celebration and you and photo ops. You reported on some scalping going on. Variety was reporting that tickets were going for as much as $200 just for regular tickets to opening weekend. $1000 if you're trying to get into that Disney screening that they had. I talked to one of the management at fandango and he said don't panic. There are tickets, the thing is that movies aren't like a concert event. Where he have a finite number of seats to sell. If a movie theater self-doubt, these multiplexes have the ability to, let's say we add another screening at 8 AM and let's go ahead and dump a film that is on its last legs and add another whole theater for Star Wars. Question, do you expect the force awakens to be the blockbuster this blockbuster holiday season. I think so it's grossed more money in ticket sales in the and some have in their entire release. Is looking very strong. I've been speaking with K bps arts reporter. Thank you. Are science panel is here to discuss the science of Star Wars. Is a possible that light can be contained in a light saber. How long would it take to hop around a galaxy. Even one far far away. Joining me are Jon Kaufman he is an experimental cosmologist at UC San Diego. John welcome to the program. Take you. Steve Steiner is a physicist and CEO of the -- Thank you. Greg Schumsky is an industrial product designer has built a full-scale molto of R2-D2. Greg welcome to the program. They can are much. Are all of you Star Wars fans. Of course. Let me start with you John Y? I had the Star Wars sheets growing up on my bed. I have been a huge fan since I can remember. It's just the magic and the majesty and anything involving space. I like terrible movies as long spaces involve. And wire you a Star Wars fan, Steve? I can still remember going into the first movie with my father. It was raining out, I can remember the theater. And this was 40 years ago. Is one of those moments where it excited my imagination in a way that nothing else had before. And Greg, did you have the same set of sheets? Actually I did. It's funny how -- I remember being in sixth grade and we got Scholastic magazine. In the back of it was production art. Concept art from Rolf McCoury. I said to myself, that's what I want to do. I was already into film. I let filmmaking and I was making movies since I was five years old. This really spoke to me so when the movies came out we saw that the trailers on TV -- trailers but they were so much different. When we thought we said that is it. We went to the movie theater and sought down at the Valley Circle. There was a line of hundred people around the building and it just stuck. Actually one time I went to go see the movie at the United artist cinemas down in the home and I watched it all day. They let me stay in the theater and I watched it over and over again Let me ask you all a question. I will start again with you John. What do you think the force could be? Should we get metaphysical? Anyway you look at it. It's a wonderful way to invent some how that humans can control the scary world around us. We do create electrical pulses in our brains. We can control prosthetic limbs with these. It's kind of a nice warm fuzzy feeling to think that we can then control the outside world with the impulses in our brain. It's pure fiction. Steve, do you think that there is some science there. That there could possibly be some sort of the way that a human being could emanate this kind of power? I think the idea that's more exciting about it is that it's that hope. And that intent to be able to do it. This is an impossible thing. And how are we going to make that possible. That's the exciting that's why think so many scientistic eked by it. Can I? Could I? How could I? What do and to make this possible. Could the force be a physical rather than a metaphysical entity do you think Greg? It's interesting about the force -- when you think about when Star Wars was being written back in the day there was a lot of hype or news about telekinesis. Remember dish everyone was doing telekinesis. I think something like that in -- and George Lucas to get an what if there was a real thing and people could use it for good or evil. Are. Steve, what about those light sabers? We had a listener right in that light sabers should not be possible because a beam of light with finite length is not possible. The light would have to travel to another point to stop. Smacked right now no one is saying there's something we can actually do MIT where they actually were able to cluster photons together and create an experiment in situation where they could -- almost as if you were creating a model molecule. If you could actually do that, create a way for photons to cluster together, you might be able to build something innocence with that. Its way the heck out there. Highly speculative. Is that driving idea. Wouldn't it be cool if we could. And what do we have to do to the physical laws that we know right now to make a possible. So speculatively, it could be possible? No one has away right now -- here's the rule of physics that you would need to make it happen. People have ideas of what might be possible or way that we could bend the physical laws. Right now there's no good understanding of how to bend the physical laws to make light stop. And John, do you think any kind of weapon could blow up an entire planet like the death Star? I was thinking about this recently and I did little standard physicist back at the envelope calculation. It turns out there's a group of physicists in England that they estimated the amount of energy required to blow up the earth. To completely disintegrate of all of the atoms in the earth and molecules in the earth. I took that number and I did a couple of calculations and some assumptions and you would need the entire energy output of the sun for a full week to be able to disintegrate the earth. We are talking some star that is 1 million times more powerful than the sun. To control the amount of energy, certainly now is not even in the realm of possibility. Maybe in 1 million years. What kind of debris would be left after an explosion like that? Even if it were possible. It depends on what assumptions you want to make. In terms of how the death Star operates. If it's the spine laser beam that is sort of the description of how the death Star weapon operates, you would not expect too much debris if it was just being disintegrated. Things we just sort of fall apart. Not these giant chunks of the planet. For that, you would need some sort of giant explosion from the center, I don't know how something gets deposited in the center of a planet. Out from space. Or you would need some sort of massive collision event. Something probably 1 billion times more powerful than what killed off all of the dinosaurs. I see. So I'm going to chalk that up and are not possible. Smacked will go with improbable but not necessarily impossible. You constructed a model of R2-D2. What could that model did? R2-D2, the one that we built, whirls around and makes noises. It's all led up. It's a full-scale replica based on the movie models. We've got an international builder the are two builders. Is a website Astro People to go there and get plans. All the other builders get together and share information. They measure things out and people who are electronically challenged can come in and say well I can build a model but I can't do electronics. And we will help them out. What happens is when he gets a certain point where you consider yourself done, if you want Lucas and his need to know who has given us permission to do these things, they get pictures and they say good job. Then we get into roster where it can be used for Disney events or Lucasfilm events or so and so forth. Smacked -- Obviously the physical presence of R2-D2 is absolutely doable because you've done it. What about the artificial intelligence of R2-D2? We are getting there. Robots are right now starting to be, I think where we were with personal computers in the 70s. People are starting to get them in their homes the biggest thing to have right now home lies and in a large amount is there rumba. I would consider that in insect robot. Where you push a button and it does a specific task and it goes back and forth until it's done. Not allowed to that. Companies like brain Corporation which are here in San Diego and there is a lot of robotic companies up in San Diego have figured out how do we take -- you've got the machine learning camp and then are assigned camp. They are taking neuroscience and applying it to robotics. What they've done is guys like Todd Helton, and Eugene and some others all these PhD's from you -- how do we take a brain duplicated into a machine form. And now when you put the brain into the robot -- the brain OS when you put it into robot, you train the robot. You show them what to do. Spending months and months of programming with hundreds of coders. Then the robot remembers what to do. And it learns. We are taking steps towards it. Smacked exactly. What about the movement of the -- The tie fighters, the millennium falcon? Is that the Wii ships actually would operate in space? Obviously I'm a few Chan -- huge fan of Star Wars. We only say this because we are huge fans of Star Wars. It's one of the biggest criticism that's levied against Star Wars from the scientists and engineers. The ships, they're beautiful and capture our imagination. They make no sense absolutely no sense. If they were to be fighters or anything like the tie fighter it has these wings which are completely unnecessary and space and completely unstable in the atmosphere. Wide is the millennium falcon bank when it turns when there's no atmosphere. The G forces would kill the pilots. Oh -- they are beautiful. Their wonderful. But they are just not the way you would design from a ground-up perspective. And what about the sounds? Steve, what about the battle sounds in space? Certainly if you're in the ship you might be cheering something. Obviously since without any air and space sound is not travel. When the death Star goes up that's what you would've heard. Until the shockwave hits you and that is a no -- another issue. Smacked now in Star Wars and Star Trek the alien races encountered may look different. The have a lot of different costumes and a lot of different designs. They are all usually -- they have arms and faces. Is there any scientific reason to suppose that life forms on other planets would share our basic physical structure? Who wants to take that one? I do spend a lot of time, even before I was a physicist, thinking about life among the stars. We only have one really good data point. We extrapolate very far on that data point. We think that we have good reasons to do that. Now in terms of bipedal life, that is probably very specific to the conditions that lasted on earth. We see on earth there is not just by pedal people lifeforms. There are some things that we know, we believe should be the case. And that is liquid water. The temperature is on the planet to allow for liquid water. There are chemicals that are needed for creating things like DNA. One of the questions that I really enjoy pondering as a physicist isn't so much what that life will look like but where is it? It seems impossible given the vast size of even just our Gala ski but especially our universe. We are talking about trillions and possibly habitable planets. And trillions of galaxies in our universe. It seems scientifically silly for us to be the only planet that has evolved life. The question really isn't what do they look like, but where are they? Why haven't we seen them? I'm wondering though is there any -- I read somewhere that it kind of makes some sense for living form to actually devise the kinds of equipment that we've got. When it comes to eyes, and when it comes to a way to get around and stuff. The idea of death per section, having two eyes but I think the challenges we have one data point. It's what we've seen evolved here. We don't really know what the other variations could be. We don't have a good way to project that. Even if you just think about the raised -- the vast range of what life looks like on earth from the amoeba to the millipedes are human or an elephant. There such a wide variety there of sensory and mobility and all of the different aspects of how these things work. Than to assume that again, while there will be variations, upright into it eyes is probably a big step can't rule. We can necessarily for safer sure. So back to actual Star Wars and their plot devices. One is the jump to hyperdrive. In order to enter hyperspace. Are these scientific concepts at all? Causality can be problematic. -- When dealing with lightspeed travel and faster than light travel. The sword of Star Wars technical definition of hyperspace are these sort of extra dimensions that allow you to travel long distances in a short amount of time. We have the mathematical equivalent of wormholes. These are things that have never been seen but are theoretically plausible. I don't know that I feel comfortable saying that causality is okay with what happens when we enter a wormhole. But certainly, they kid exist. The issue of course is that as you travel very very fast, the time will slow down for your clocks compared to an observer elsewhere. Length will contract work you have all of these interesting things that will end up making space travel very difficult. Also, it takes a very long time to -- for space travel if you don't enter hyperspace. Certainly the fastest object that humankind is a mate is traveling something like 38,000 miles per hour. This is the Voyager 1 spacecraft. To travel that space -- speed to get to the nearest star would take 70,000 years. It's a depressing number. I know. We are not a very good species when it comes to dealing with numbers this large. We have to ask ourselves can we get something like a faster than light travel or can we be okay with spending thousands of generations addressed out into space. The interesting thing about this but the idea of warp speed the idea of shifting. Is something that was in the mid-90s physicist looks that the laws that we have written down and how we understand the world works comes up with a theoretical way that it might happen. The idea that with an exotic material, there is no law that says you couldn't shrink the space in front of you and expand what happens behind you. You would never break the speed of light, you would never break that lobby you could do it. What material you would need to make that possible, it does not exist. The cool thing is it's something that's in there -- it could be possible with that question have ever been asked if there were these movies and these ideas thrown out there? That is a big thing. That's what my questions to you Greg, had he seen any like design science coming from Star Wars? What I mean by that, cell phones have always sort of reminded me of start -- Star Trek communicators. Could these movies be inspiring people about the kinds of science it gets pursued and how these items it eventually look? Definitely. If you look at any science-fiction movie that's been out, Star Trek a great example. When we had our first flip flown that was a model of the communicator from Star Trek. As they got smaller and smaller, and now they're getting bigger and bigger. Tablets were used in Star Trek. If you look at all the technology of robotics, Star Wars made a great push towards people really getting interested in robotics. There had been some worked in robotics especially Japan. The Japanese were always into these weird human looking robots that look like people and freak people out. But here we are working on robotics that -- how do we create home robotics. That all started in the 70s when we saw big push for it. And now you see people -- companies making robots. Something you would see in the Star Wars universe. Its practical and effective in the home and does something. There are other technologies. Any science-fiction movie pushes us as designers to think about what can we do. How do we come up with this -- this creative processor the director and the rider how did they do that. And had a we make that a reality. I can't believe it but we are out of time. I want to ask you all, will you be going to see the force awakens? Definitely. Tonight. I have been speaking with a cosmologist, Jon Kaufman and a physicist Steve Snyder in engineer Greg Schumsky who has a robotic lab at helix high school. Thank you all very much. Thank you.

Is it possible that light could be contained in a lightsaber? Could a weapon destroy a planet? How long would it take to hop around a galaxy, even one far, far away?

It's not uncommon for "Star Wars" fans to ponder questions inspired by the films.


Jon Kaufman, an experimental cosmologist at UC San Diego, said he did a standard calculation to determine if anything could destroy a planet.

“You would need the entire energy output of the sun for a week to be able to disintegrate the earth,” Kaufman told KPBS Midday Edition. “(It’s) improbable but not necessarily impossible.”

The theory surrounding “The Force” may be pure imagination but it brings excitement, said Steve Snyder, a physicist and CEO of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

“It’s that hope and intent to be able to do it,” Snyder said. “It’s an impossible thing. But how can we make it possible?”

And the world is making headway when it comes to creating robots. R2-D2 is a major character in the “Star Wars” films and the latest film unveils a new robot, BB-8.


Greg Schumsky, an industrial and product designer, said scientists are working to create robots with the artificial intelligence of characters like R2-D2.

“The biggest thing we have right now, home-wise, is the Roomba,” said Schumsky, referring to the vacuum that works independently. “I would consider that an insect robot.”