Lesson #4: Lightsabers, Fact or Fiction
In this lesson we examine the one weapon unique to Star Wars that I feel sets this IP apart from all other science fiction or fantasy out there. I am talking of course about the lightsaber. We discuss the scientific validity of their existence and also some alternatives to how they could exist.
“If there is a lightsaber, I want one.”
- Adam Savage of Mythbusters
May 1977. In a darkened movie theater, a boy sat with his family watching a new movie called Star Wars (the “A New Hope” subtitle was added later). After the opening crawl and the space ships fighting at the beginning, he was more interested in munching on popcorn than caring about the “boring” story of a farm boy and these two robots. Eventually his popcorn was almost all eaten, his soda was almost empty, and he was about to ask how much longer before he could go home. He looked up at the screen about that time and saw an old man talking to Luke, thinking great, another lame character, just what I needed. Luke was holding a shiny stick, about the size of a flashlight. At that moment a cyan laser beam erupted from the handle Luke was holding. He waved it around testing its weight and feel. The boy’s eyes never left the screen after that. Even though the lightsaber was deactivated, he studied every frame afterwards in the hope he might see the “laser” swords again. That very same little boy grew up to write for an
Since that time I have learned to enjoy good storytelling, regardless of genre. I came to enjoy Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica—basically any show with the word “Star” in it and I was hooked. Despite this, Star Wars has always held a special place in my heart because it included not only lightsabers but also the mysticism of the force. You don’t see mystical characters in any other science fiction done as well as the Jedi, or Sith by extension. Some of the species in Star Trek are able to do similar feats, but it is explained away as either an evolutionary step forward or some advanced alien technology. Stargate comes close with ascended beings, namely the Ancients and the Ori, but they are just highly evolved human beings. The feeling that the Force is magical is, I believe, at the root of the “midi-chlorian” griefing. For some reason, say the detractors, Lucas decided to give the Force a scientific basis. My argument is that he did not make the Force science-based; instead, he made Force sensitivity capable of being scientifically measured. This was an important story hook for the movie saga, a way of illustrating that Anakin was not just your average Jedi youngling. He was special in his sensitivity to the Force. I feel that Star Wars is more space fantasy and less science fiction. The main difference between the two is that, for example, Star Trek will spend almost an entire episode explaining how a warp drive works. In Star Wars, they push a button and off they go. In Star Wars, technology just works; it does not need to be explained.
This leads me into the first point of this article, the technology of the lightsaber. Mr TalN has already done an incredibly detailed and well-written article on this subject. I encourage any of you who have not read his article to do so if you are interested in the lore’s answer to lightsaber technology. As a quick summary, the blade is made of a light beam that is channeled through a crystal in the hilt and focused through a specially designed lens. Even as a kid, there were so many playground arguments about the scientific impossibility of a “light”saber. Even with a civilization with technology able to repel gravity (repulsorlift), light beams—or laser beams if you prefer—terminating at a set length still goes against a fundamental law of physics. Also, one light beam cannot be used to block another; it would simply pass through the other beam. I can personally testify to this since I cannot count how many Maglight flashlights were lightsabers to me as a kid. However, I will concede the point that their technology is far beyond ours and it is always possible that they have developed a workaround for this fact. On the other hand, I would like to put forth the concept that instead of lightsabers, they are using plasma swords.
The Star Wars documentary that aired on the History Channel, Star Wars Tech, is the source for the scientific information included in this article. It is a very interesting look at whether or not the technology of Star Wars is scientifically valid. If you can’t find the DVD of this show, it has been posted on YouTube in three parts (first part here). The lightsaber discussion is in the second part, about nine minutes in. The scientists in this show put forth the idea that perhaps they are using the fourth state of matter to create the lightsaber. The states of matter (if you recall from science class) are solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Plasma is the state of matter that makes up the sun, stars, lightning bolts and fluorescent lights. Plasma can be contained within an electrical or magnetic field. If a cylindrical tube with such a field could be created, the tube could then be filled with plasma. The plasma blades would bounce off each other because their respective magnetic fields would repel. The blades would also brightly, giving off light so you could technically call them “light”sabers. One of the scientists in the documentary states that it would take a “building full of equipment” to create something that looked like a lightsaber. She then also mentions that miniaturization is a trend of the future, so it could be possible in time; just look at how smart phones have shrunk over only a few years. The only real point of contention that I saw in the documentary was the problem with heat. In order to cut through anything, the plasma would need to be two hundred million degrees. A little too hard to hold on to without burning yourself in the process!
I feel as if I would be remiss if I did not at least mention in passing a topic that periodically springs up not only in The Old Republic discussions, but also amongst general Star Wars fans. This topic is, of course, the black lightsaber, also referred to as the darksaber. If you subscribe to the plasma sword theory, then a black lightsaber is more than probable. Many different elements and compounds emit different colors when converted into plasma. That is assuming that all the physical laws here on Earth are the same as there, and that the elemental makeup of their galaxy is the same as ours. On the other hand, the followers of the laser beam theory have the most problem with the concept of black lightsabers. Their camp says that black can’t be a color because black is the absence of light. Seems to me the Sith should use black lightsabers exclusively. “Black is the absence of light” sounds like a catchy recruitment slogan to me. Getting back on topic, they claim that black is not a color that a beam of light can possess; even white is plausible, given that white is all colors of light. The Pro-Black Lightsaber camp black lightsaber proponents counter that a black lightsaber might use a black crystal, like onyx or perhaps obsidian, to create the black color. I remember hearing on an episode of TOROcast, where someone (I think it was Kpants but I could be mistaken) suggested that the black lightsaber blade is really a black hole contained within an energy field. As insane as that sounds, it may be possible with a particle accelerator. We have one on Earth right now that creates tiny black holes so that scientists can study their effects. Perhaps you could create an energy shield, then fill it with black holes, either multiple or a single big one. When the darksaber was turned off, the black hole that it created would “dissipate.” I am not a scientist, so I am not sure if that’s what happens when they are studying these miniature black holes, but I hope that they do dissipate. I do not want to think that there are rogue black holes roaming around that are still active from their experiments. The scientific community has stated on several occasions that we are safe from any such an occurrence. The
In the end, we have to remember one integral point about all this. Star Wars is a work of fiction. It always has been, and always will be. As much as we would like to have our own personal lightsabers (mine would have a yellow blade, by the way), it is about as likely as hyperspace travel is for us right now. Lightsabers are in the setting because they look cool, they are cool and they feel like a good fit. Lucas, in a featurette on the Original Trilogy DVD set on lightsabers, stated that he wanted a warrior culture that exemplified honor and chivalry when he created the Jedi. At that point, he goes on, he says that he needed a weapon that distinguished them from the blaster-wielding public. So he made them swords, and to give them that futuristic edge he made it a laser sword. That way, it could reflect the blaster bolts that were shot at them, making the lightsaber a defensive weapon. Lucas always envisioned that the Jedi would not be in a situation to fight, and in a perfect galaxy would not have to fight. The Star Wars galaxy is far from perfect however, so the Jedi needed to defend himself and others. In this light, the lightsaber reflects all of these aspects of defense, honor, and elegance for a more civilized age.
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