With the release of the next film in the epic ‘Star Wars’ series, one academic has shone a light on the research being undertaken by three EU-funded projects, taking inspiration from that Galaxy far, far away, beloved by millions.
In a recent article Professor Cartsen Welsch, Head of Physics at the University of Liverpool, UK, has outlined how the ‘Star Wars’ universe has inspired scientists to use more than the Force to push the boundaries of physics – and highlights the on-going research of three EU-funded projects.
From destroying the Death Star to destroying cancer
Prof Welsch first outlines the EU- funded OMA project that is using proton beams to target and destroy deep-seated cancer tumours, drawing a comparison with Luke Skywaker’s desperate but ultimately successful mission to destroy the Death Star in the very first ‘Star Wars’ film with a pair of proton torpedoes.
As OMA project coordinator, Prof Welsch, explained how proton beams are positively charged particles that are created when a hydrogen atom loses its electron in an ‘atom smasher’ such as a cyclotron. Protons are large particles that can penetrate tissue almost silently for a specific distance determined by their energy. They then deposit most of this energy at a specific location, so the target tumour is destroyed but the healthy tissue is spared. This exciting process is called the ‘Bragg Peak’ and is spearheading a rapidly growing method of treatment.
The project’s objective is to develop techniques needed to further improve control over the proton beam’s shape and quality as well as to monitor the dose delivered to the patient. With the UK being a world leader in proton beam therapy, the project has already had some major milestones through its outreach and dissemination work and published research.
From lightsabers to plasma accelerators
Lightsabers, the weapon of choice for both Jedi and Sith, are arguably the most famous weapon in film history but manufacturing a real one would be impossible according to the laws of physics. The problem with lightsabers is that there is no way to make light emanate from a source and then stop after a metre – light will go on to infinity unless it hits something.
However, there are other innovations using high-energy plasma-based accelerators. Prof Welsch highlights the on-going work of the Horizon 2020 EUPRAXIA project which aims to design the world’s first high-energy plasma-based accelerator with industry beam quality that will be stronger and more compact than current accelerators.
Specifically, the project will direct a laser through a plasma medium, creating a wave and forcing the electrons within the plasma to create a strong electric field. Oscillating between the transverse field of an electromagnetic wave and the longitudinal field of a plasma wave accelerates the electrons, creating a high-quality beam that will have a myriad of applications, such as imaging ultra-fast phenomena or testing innovative materials for industry.
Taking antimatter research to light-speed
Finally, Prof Welsch draws on exciting current research in antimatter, long-held in science-fiction as a substance used to propel a starship to faster-than-light speeds (the ‘Star Wars’ hyperdive, and the ‘Star Trek’ warp drive being the two most famous examples). In science-fiction, light-speed is achieved through the explosive reaction of matter and antimatter but in the real world, there is hardly any antimatter available in the universe.
But even if it can’t be counted on to take humanity to the stars, it can have other uses, such as in hospitals for patient imagining. Overall, the real excitement is that it has the potential to rewrite our assumptions about nature and the properties of space and time. Prof Welsch then describes the EU's AVA project, a training network which is working closely with CERN’s ELENA facility that will allow for exciting new experiments in antimatter research.
Physics of ‘Star Wars’
These exciting developments, including the on-going work of OMA, EUPRAXIA and AVA, were showcased at a conference held in Liverpool on 27 November entitled ‘Physics of Star Wars: Fact or Fiction?’ which was deemed a roaring success.
Explaining his approach, Prof Welsch explained, ‘I selected iconic scenes from the movies that everybody will immediately recognise, and used real world physics to explain what is possible and what is fiction (…) A short scene from ‘Star Wars’ was just the introduction, the appetizer, to make the participants curious, but then I linked what I had just shown in the film to ongoing research here in the department.’