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Light Saber Love Affair

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By Brian Clegg

Image from Wikipedia

Over the years many scientists and technologists have admitted that they were inspired to work in their field by Star Trek, but few, if any, would say the same about Star Wars. And yet the same individuals have an almost universal affection for the first trilogy of Star Wars movies. This is because, where Star Trek was solid science fiction, primarily influencing the head, Star Wars won the heart as an epic fantasy that comfortably wore the robe of 1930s pulp sci-fi. And nowhere is that more obvious than with the light saber.

Take a look at the technology of Star Trek and you’ll find a whole gallimaufry of items that have already made it to reality, or that are setting future directions. Our smartphones and tablets have left the TV show’s equivalents far behind. Even Siri is a better conversationalist than the Enterprise computer. And while we might not have warp drives or transporters, NASA is giving serious thought to ways of getting around the light speed limit, while quantum teleportation brings the transporter to life on an atomic scale. But the one really original technological development in Star Wars, the light saber, is the stuff of dreams, not of reality.

We want to use the technology from Star Trek. But can you imagine the reaction of the military if they were told that scientists had perfected a light saber and it was going to be issued as a sidearm? It would be difficult to be sure if they would laugh or cry. As a weapon, the light saber sucks. There’s a good reason why soldiers stopped using swords. They’re not much use against firearms that work from a distance. And though Star Wars creator George Lucas fudged the issue, showing Jedi masterfully stopping incoming blasts with flicks of their sabers, we all know that it just wouldn’t work. In reality, while they were busy stopping a blast to the head (which they couldn’t actually do with projectile or energy weapons because of reaction time), another one would have taken them out from the rear.

Why, then, are light sabers so wonderful if we wouldn’t use them as weapons? Because we want to play with them. They are the ultimate toys. Take away the unpleasant effects of slicing through flesh and who wouldn’t want to take part in a light saber battle, clashing insubstantial glowing blade against blade to a sound track of that glorious ripping buzz? There’s a reason that there’s a toy light saber on my desk, rather than a Star Trek phaser. It’s more fun.

Image from Wikipedia

This doesn’t stop people who don’t understand science and science fiction getting it all wrong. In 2013, we saw headlines like “Scientists Finally Invent Real, Working Lightsabers” from Fox News. No, scientists didn’t. Not even close. The discovery referred to was fascinating – a mechanism for making two photons of light temporarily link together. But it was no light saber, and it never will be.

Part of the light saber’s charm is the way that it effortlessly breaks the laws of physics. It’s magic not math that makes the light saber work. So we shouldn’t look to Star Wars for technological marvels. But we should hope for movies that encourage us once more to dream of wielding the ultimate incandescent blade.

Now Appearing is the blog of science writer Brian Clegg (, author of Inflight Science, Before the Big Bang and The God Effect.


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