- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

When “Star Wars” was released in 1977, director George Lucas never imagined he would influence a generation of scientists, says Tomi Landis, executive producer of “The Science of Stars Wars,” a three-part Discovery Networks television special.

“To him, these were the stories that he wanted to tell,” Mrs. Landis says. “The best science fiction inspires the imagination of the best scientists, no matter how old they are.”

Because works of science fiction often feature futuristic societies, the movies or books sometimes foreshadow upcoming innovations. The fictional realities can encourage scientists to think “outside the box” in their professional work.

If science fiction is good, it’s a logical extension of the world and has the likelihood of happening, says Jim Halperin, author of science-fiction novels “The Truth Machine” and “The First Immortal.”

In “The Truth Machine,” which was published in 1996, he described a fictitious drug that would “block blood vessel growth within tumors.” Although Mr. Halperin didn’t know it at the time, clinical trials for a drug called Endostatin, which performs the same function as the drug in his book, were being developed.

“It’s like if you give a monkey a typewriter forever, he’ll eventually write something that actually happens or the entire works of William Shakespeare,” Mr. Halperin says. “There aren’t that many original ideas anyway. They are all sort of composites of other ideas.”

The best science-fiction authors seldom try to predict the future, says David Brin, author of the novel “Earth,” which was published in 1989. It’s an indirect result of their creativity, he says. Before Web pages were popular, Mr. Brin portrayed them in his novel as a way to seek information.

“We try to explore possibilities or plausibilities,” Mr. Brin says. “When you do that, you’re trying to make drama.”

Among the narratives in the science-fiction genre, none has motivated scientists and scientists-to-be like “Star Wars,” Mrs. Landis says. The latest movie, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” arrives in theaters today.

“When my children watched ‘Star Wars,’ my son, Ryan, came up with an idea I thought was brilliant,” Mrs. Landis says. “He was only about 6 or 7 at the time. He said he wanted to invent a hovercraft that uses polluted air and spits out clean air. I told him if he could do that, he would be as famous as George Lucas.”

“The Science of Stars Wars” highlights inventions that can be related to the technology seen throughout Mr. Lucas’ movies, Mrs. Landis says. The series will re-air on the Discovery Channel at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Discovery HD Theater also will air the TV series at 8 p.m. May 28 and at 9 p.m. on the second, third and fourth Sundays in July. Discovery Networks is based in Silver Spring.

The first episode of the trilogy, “Man and Machines,” illustrates how robots increasingly are assisting human hands, Mrs. Landis says.

For example, the Sony Aibo Dog and the Japanese Banryu Companion Robot can react to human commands and movements, similar to “Star Wars” droids C-3PO and R2-D2, she says.

Another example is the work of James McLurkin, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer. He works with robots that operate in swarms, much like the battalions of droids that work together in “Star Wars” battle scenes.

The swarm members remain in constant communication with one another to identify the location of their opponents and complete their tasks in an efficient manner, Mrs. Landis says.

In addition, floating droids created at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, headquartered in Southwest, were directly inspired by the Hollywood blockbusters, she says. These personal satellite assistants aid astronauts in orbit by floating through the air and performing duties given by the astronauts.

Robonaut, another machine designed by NASA, stays outside the space shuttle on a permanent basis and completes detailed duties.

Even the names of some devices reflect influence from “Stars Wars,” Mrs. Landis says. For instance, SpaceX in El Segundo, Calif., has plans for launching the first private rocket, “The Falcon,” in 2005 and 2006. In Mr. Lucas’ adventures, pilot Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford, has a ship named the Millennium Falcon.

“Star Wars” isn’t the only science-fiction saga to impress scientists, says Jerry Darsch, director of the Department of Defense’s combat feeding program at Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

Several years ago, staff at the center gathered for Operation Brainstorm, which was sparked by “Starship Troopers,” the 1959 Robert A. Heinlein novel. The book highlights unique foods and ways to produce them that would help soldiers.

As a result, the meeting spurred many new creations, such as “first strike rations,” which are considerably lower in weight and size than the prior rations, Mr. Darsch says. The group developed a pocket sandwich in a variety of flavors that didn’t need to be frozen. It has a shelf life of two years. The products will be officially taken to the battlefield at the end of 2006.

Kitchen in a Carton is another development that arose from Operation Brainstorm, Mr. Darsch says. The device, which can be air-dropped, cooks a high-quality group meal without any fuel, electrical power or equipment. When the tab is pulled, water is released onto the heating unit in the package, causing a chemical reaction that creates heat to cook the food.

“All a war fighter has to do is pull a tab and have enough piping-hot food for 18 war fighters,” Mr. Darsch says. “Everything is in the box, soup to nuts, sanitary wipes and napkins.”

Among science-fiction writers, one of the most impressive may be 17th-century essayist Francis Bacon, says Tim Mack, president of the World Future Society in Bethesda.

Because Bacon’s book “New Atlantis,” published in 1627, generally foreshadowed fields such as cosmetic surgery and genetic engineering, it was arguably the first science-fiction novella, Mr. Mack says.

“You can talk all you want about new gadgets,” Mr. Mack says. “The real interesting issue is what changes those gadgets will bring to culture, politics and economics.”

Science fiction can illustrate the positive and negative consequences of technology, says Tom Lombardo, chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology and integrative studies at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Ariz. As a specialist in integrative studies about the future, he holds a doctorate in psychology.

“Science fiction talks about future societies, not just technology,” Mr. Lombardo says. “It’s not simply making a prediction, but commenting if it’s a good or bad thing.”

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