This week’s prophet strays from the traditional format that we’ve seen in the last 7 episodes in that this forecaster in science fiction didn’t write novels but wrote screenplays instead. George Lucas, the man behind one of the biggest and inspirational franchises in the world, is the subject of this week’s episode of ‘Prophets of Science Fiction.’
So why does Ridley Scott include George Lucas in the group? As he says in the beginning of the episode, “He’s the man!” The originality of his space fairy tale is still a “formidable” piece of work. ‘Star Wars’ caused a shift, not only in movie making, but in society in general as it opened up people’s minds to the universe and the possibility of what can be done.
Lucas drew people in with the notion that the future can be an adventure. He turned space into a living breathing escapade. According to physicist Michio Kaku, “If ‘Star Wars’ were never made, perhaps a generation of scientists may have never been inspired to go into science.”
In the early 1970’s, at the time when the type of movies that were being made were considered more for adults like the ‘French Connection’ and ‘Exorcist,’ Lucas felt that the children of this era were losing their optimism and imagination and decided to write an epic screenplay filled with wonder called ‘Star Wars.’ Film executives didn’t quite get the concept and couldn’t even comprehend why the story even took place in space!
The ‘Star Wars’ saga starts simply enough with plea a for help from a Princess Leia hologram. At the time, holograms were still in the early stages of development let alone even heard about, but now scientists are expanding the scientific possibilities of holograms by making them usable in everyday life. Dr. Paul Debevec and his team at ICT are working on creating the next step into actual virtual reality. Right now, scientist can create holographic images using rotating reflective surfaces but hope one day to be able to project live holographic images into thin air. This concept is currently aimed to one day give holographic TV where your favorite shows will play out right in your living room!
Lucas has always been intrigued by the books of Joseph Campbell who believed that the mind was genetically drawn to stories with universal themes. Campbell’s ideas would inspire Lucas to write his saga on a dual foundation: science and myth.
In the Star Wars “mythology,” Lucas gives his cosmos a higher mystical power permeating throughout his high tech universe called the Force. As Obi Wan says, “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us; it penetrates us and binds us all together.”
Physicists around the world groaned when this was first heard because in the late ‘70’s, the consensus was that the universe was made up of atoms. Decades later, these same physicists are eating their words. When they began to examine galaxies, these same physicists realized that the galaxies they were studying were spinning way too fast and should have, by all reason, flown apart. But something was binding these galaxies together, keeping them well within their shape despite the high speed spinning. They have named this the Dark Matter, otherwise known as Dark Energy, otherwise known as ‘The Force.’ As astrophysicists calculated the numbers of the contents of the universe, they realized that only 4% of the universe was actually made of atoms. The other 96% was ‘The Force’: dark energy and dark matter.
Dark matter is hard to detect as it doesn’t emit or reflect light. To know it exists it is inferred by observing its effects on the visible universe, like seeing a distortion of space and time around a massive object like black hole. Dark matter is all around us and physicists still don’t really know what it is. One day it is hoped that someone can explain what dark matter is that surrounds the galaxy, how it holds it together, how it can permeate through our body and how it makes up 96% of the universe. To that person, a Noble Peace Prize is waiting for you!
In ‘Star Wars,’ this dark matter (aka ‘The Force’) does more than hold the universe together. Combined with the power of the mind, the characters in the movie are able to channel the Force in order to perform superhuman capabilities, telepathy and mind control. It can be controlled by will and powered by a single thought.
The idea of mind control as seen in ‘Star Wars’ was once thought of as fantastical, but neuroscientist Brian Pasley at UC Berkeley is working on giving our thoughts a voice. Right now the technology is to the point where computers hooked to a human brain can estimate the sounds that the person is hearing. The next step is to find a way to allow internally verbalized thoughts, i.e. a person’s inner voice (the one that nags you not to eat that second piece of cake) and transform it into sound. Since the same brain areas are involved whether the sound comes from an external source or internally, Pasley and his team hope to be able to create the technology where we can broadcast our thoughts.
Harnessing brain power to interact with the external world is not something new that Lucas created, but it was the use of the Force that kicked it up to prophecy level. Because our brain is electrical, it is also responsive to radio waves. The question is, can we invent technology that can harness radio, electromagnetic signals, with our mind to communicate and control objects in the outside world? In other words, is there a way to actually use the Force the way it is seen in the movie? Time will only tell as experiments with the brain continue on.
Of all the elements in ‘Star Wars: Episode IV’, it’s the technological advances and the dog fights scenes with the Rebel Fighters and other space vehicles that added to its appeal. Lucas would spend hours watching old war movies and screen the dog fighting sections taking note what he thought was exciting to watch. He then took that idea and transformed it onto space. This was an example of how Lucas could take existing technology and combine it with the leap of his imagination.
But the problem Lucas had was that the technology of that day didn’t have the capabilities of bringing forth his vision to life. So Lucas decided to create the technology himself. He started the company Industrial, Light and Magic who, at the time, worked on mind boggling stuff like motion control camera and digital effects.
Amazingly, one of the new technologies first seen in the movie is actually used today. In ‘Star Wars: Episode 4’ the rebel pilots lock on to their foes using Targeting Computers. This technology is now called Heads Up Technology or HUT. HUT is the ability to superimpose information and images on top of reality. We see this all the time in gaming to help fighter pilots and can also be seen in the latest new cars where the camera is showing your surroundings and there is data superimposed on top telling you speed or distance.
But HUTs are not limited to vehicles. They have now extended to wearable computers and beyond. In Washington, scientists have developed contact lenses that have electrodes in them. It is hoped that one day LED’s can be inserted in the contact lenses so that the screen can be illuminated just by blinking. So if you are wearing these contact lenes and are talking to a person, their biography and stats will show up next to them as you are looking at them. (The lenses are very similar to what is seen in the series ‘Torchwood: Miracle Day’ that Gwen uses. Looks like alien tech is not so alien anymore!)
By the time ‘Star Wars’ was released in theaters in 1977, George Lucas pioneered the path where film, science fiction and the imagination would meet. If you could think it, Lucas had a way to make it come to life on screen. After Ridley Scott saw ‘Star Wars,’ he thought he had to change his thoughts about the way he directed films. A month later, the script for ‘Alien’ was sent to him. ‘Star Wars’ influenced his vision for that movie and, as they say in Hollywood, the rest is history!
In 1978, Lucas returns to Hollywood to make the sequel to his successful movie. Lucas expanded the ‘Star Wars’ universe and had R2D2 become Luke Skywalker’s RIO/co-pilot. It is only now, over 30 years later, that a robotic navigator has become an actuality. At Cal State Northridge, they’ve developed an autonomous vehicle platform called ‘Red Raven’ which can navigate on its own using images from a laser range finder and a three dimensional camera. The two images are then combined to form a histogram which allows Red Raven to find open areas to move forward. With the navigation software programed into the system, it will allow the device to be able to move around and avoid objects in its path. Red Raven also has the ability to travel long distances using GPS software.
The automotive industry is quite interested in this technology. They are hoping to take the set up and place it into cars allowing the driving experience to become less stressful getting from one place to another. Soon, you may be able to buy cars that will automatically chauffer you around with no one behind the wheel.
In the climatic dual in ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ Luke Skywalker loses his hand (Don’t groan about spoilers! If you haven’t seen the movie, you can just turn in your geek card now.) Lucas imagined the future of medical technology in regards to bionics. In the film, Luke’s bionic hand looked and moved like a normal hand would while completely being robotic. Although prosthetics have advanced, it is still at the point where it is quite noticeable with a limited functions.
However, in San Diego, at the Loma Linda University, the limb that Luke got in the movie is becoming closer to reaching reality with a prosthetic known as the iLimb. Usually prosthetics are rather limited in its abilities and use crude methods to undergo a simple function such as opening or closing the fingers. With the iLimb, the prosthetic has now become a part of your body much like Luke’s hand. The iLimb has a simulated skin covering equipped with an array of surface sensors designed to intercept signals from the brain. When the brain emits the electrical signal to move muscles, it is converted into a bioelectric signal which then produces the intended movement in the prosthetic. Basically, you would be able to control your bionic limb like it was a normal limb you were born with.
In the 1990’s, Lucas decided to return to the ‘Star Wars’ saga and work on the ‘Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.’ Of the scenes that were most remarkable were the pod races. But are flying vehicles still out of reach?
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku revealed a magnetic experiment that could actually transform cab drivers in to pilot! The experiment involves super conductivity that occurs under very cold circumstances. When liquid nitrogen is poured over a super conducting ceramic, it creates a super magnetic field that when an ordinary magnet is placed over it, allows the two magnetic forces to repel each other allowing the magnet to float and spin without friction.
What physicists are working on now is to bring room temperature super conductors to life. Once this can be figured out, then all the levitating speeders seen in ‘Star Wars’ will definitely come to life! Room temperature superconductors will bring in a new age of progress much like electricity did. Instead of fossil fuel, cars would run on magnetism and steered by jets of carbon dioxide.
Lucas revolutionized the world of movies and science fiction. In a 1977 interview, Lucas revealed his goal for ‘Star Wars’:
“I would feel very good if someday I were 93 years old and they colonize Mars and the leader of the first colony says “ I really did it cuz I was hoping there would be a Wookie out here.”
What makes Lucas a prophet of science fiction is that instead of writing about the ‘Star Wars’ universe, he visually brought it to life working from the ground up with concept artists to build uniquely authentic sci-fi technology. While the previous authors allowed our imaginations to picture their world, Lucas was able to expand the experience of his story by using other senses like sight and sound (i.e. the sound a light saber makes) while still enabling the person to engage in their imagination. Although he didn’t write novels in the true sense, he wrote screenplays that inspired people as much as a book would have but more so in that his movies showed them a glimpse of the possibility of the future.
This was the last episode of ‘Prophets of Science Fiction’ I’ve enjoyed watching and learning about each prophet. It’s given me a new perspective of what a really good science fiction story should entail and what makes books from authors like Mary Shelley, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Arthur C. Clarke seem so iconic and lasting. With the addition of George Lucas, it proves that in the world of science fiction, writing sci-fi doesn’t have to be contained in pages but can be transformed into a franchise that has the same effect. I hope that Ridley Scott decides to take on more authors as this was a very interesting series that would benefit all those who love this genre.