Imagine using your lightsaber to cut through any door without your prox. Or how about sneaking in and out of Thomas Sweets after hours with your invisibility cloak? After reading a Harry Potter novel or watching a Star Wars movie, it’s easy to imagine how life would be different if we had some of the astounding technology that these worlds have. Many, if not most, of these technologies will never exist; trying to recreate them in the real world seems unfathomable, if not impossible.

However, this hasn’t stopped scientists from trying. Science fiction technologies that were once considered impractical or unfeasible have found new life in the scientific research community. New science is making it more and more likely that sci-fi technology will escape from the confines of fantasy and enter into the world of reality. Without further ado, here are some technologies that you might be seeing sooner than you think:

Lightsabers

Where it’s from

Star Wars

The (Real) Technology

Photon-photon “pseudomolecules”

The Science Behind It

First, some quick background. Normally, photons, the particles which make up light, don’t interact with each other in the same way that atoms in the periodic table do. Atoms interact with each other via electromagnetic forces. The positively-charged protons in one atom’s nucleus attract the negatively charged electrons of another atom. Electromagnetic forces allow atoms to bond together into molecules. Since photons don’t have charges, they can’t do that. However, scientists at the MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms have recently shown that, given the right conditions, photons can be forced into binding together. When photons enter any medium, some of their energy is given to the particles that make up that medium. However, when the light leaves the medium, it’s still the same light that entered it. Think about shining a flashlight through a glass of water. Using this principle, Physicists Mikhail Lukin and Vladan Valetic fired photons into a specially developed medium. When the photons give energy to the medium, they slow down, preventing other photons from giving their energy to the medium, just like waiting at a line to pay after you’ve entered a store. Thus, when two photons were fired into the medium at the same time, one of the photons had to ‘wait’ to excite atoms until the other had moved on. As a result, the photons pushed and pulled the other along, eventually exiting together like atoms in a molecule.

Is it possible?

While the results are exciting, it doesn’t mean we’ll be seeing Jedis in the near future. The experiment was the first of its kind, and many more questions have to be answered before lightsabers hit the market. For one, the interaction has only been shown to work in these specific circumstances. However, Lukin and Valetic are still optimistic that the results could be useful. The experiments could one day lead to advanced technological materials and more powerful computers.

Faster-Than-Light Space Travel

Where it’s from

Star Trek

The (Real) Technology

Alcubierre Drive.

The Science Behind It

Alcubierre

This one requires some background too. The basic problem with faster than light speed travel has to do with Albert Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Einstein found that as objects approach the speed of light, objects contract and time moves slower. Thus, to go faster than light would mean that time would have to move backward. However, physicist Miguel Alcubierre postulated in 1994 that it’s possible for a ship to move effectively faster than light by changing the shape of the space around the craft. Expanding space behind the spaceship and contracting the space in front of it would allow for a sort of “warp drive,” similar to the technology used in Star Trek. The spaceship itself would travel in a ‘bubble’ of normal space, while the space around it contorts. However, Alcubierre’s model requires that the spaceship would need to use a specific type of exotic material, one that has only been theorized. This would require a massive amount of energy, too much for any spacecraft to carry in the form of traditional fuels. A team of NASA engineers, led by physicist Harold White, is trying to determine whether or not this type of travel is possible. Their work aims to understand the fundamental physics behind Alcubierre drive as well as solve the host of problems that manipulating the laws of physics tends to produce. So far, they’ve developed a concept design that greatly reduced the amount of energy needed to warp spacetime.

Is it possible? 

This one’s a little bit more unclear. While the equations make this type of travel theoretically possible, the practicality of faster-than-light travel is questionable. As is always the case, many important questions remain unanswered. Before we try to manipulate space and time, we have to first understand them. Still, NASA has dedicated $50,000 to Dr. White’s experiments, and their discoveries may open the door to many future technologies.

Invisibility Cloak

Where it’s From

Harry Potter

The (Real) Technology

Optical Camouflage Technology

The Science Behind It

When light passes through any medium, it bends. Think about how objects look when you’re looking at them through a glass of water; that distortion comes from the refraction of light through the water. In 2006, scientists at Duke University decided to use this principle, as well as special, synthetically prepared materials, to create a device that made small, two-dimensional objects undetectable by a certain type of light called microwaves. This light would have normally bounced back from the objects, creating a sort of “shadow”. The cloaking device instead bent the light around the objects, making it invisible. However, the device only worked for one type of light. Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UT-Austin Andrea Alú claims to have invented a new type of cloak that works in a much less limited way. However, this is only one way that cloaking technology can work. Scientists at the University of Toronto are working on a more active type of camouflage. When light hits an object, some of it bounces back. This is how the object is ‘visible’. The Toronto scientists are working with another type of light called radio waves; instead of trying to bend the light, their device sends the opposite radio waves back. The two waves ‘cancel out’ and the object becomes invisible to radar wave detection. These two competing technologies have created a US-Canada invisibility cloak “arms race” – both technologies are viable; it’s just a question of which one works best in the end.

Is it possible?

Preliminary results from Duke and the University of Toronto have demonstrated that it is possible to make objects appear invisible in certain wavelengths of light. Much of the current focus is based on the military applications; cloaking devices can be used to shield military vehicles from detection. However, if Alú’s invention works as promised, then it’s possible, if not likely, that we’ll see James Potter’s famous cloak sooner than you might think.

About The Author

I'm Aditya, an Editor and Board Member of Innovation! I'm a junior in the Physics department, hoping to get certificates in engineering physics and applications of computing. In my spare time, I like long walks on the beach and playing 2048.