Monday 16 December 2019

Star Wars and The Rise of Accelerator Science

Science often follows art, and with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker soon to hit the big screen, Professor Carsten P Welsch, Head of Communication for The Cockcroft Institute and Head of Physics at the University of Liverpool, explores how some of the scientific fantasies in Star Wars are no longer so ‘out of this world’.

Photo: Professor Welsch with Kylo Ren, R2-D2, Rey, Darth Vader and Stormtrooper

Light Side vs Dark Side: Probing the most fundamental laws of nature
“A Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware anger, fear, aggression – the dark side are they.” 
Matter and antimatter are a mystery of the real world that is close to fantasy. To some extent they are very similar to the light side and the dark side in Star Wars. In our research, we use particle accelerators to produce antimatter in a laboratory environment and this allows us to probe the most fundamental laws of nature. Today there are almost 50,000 particle accelerators in operation worldwide, in a wide range of industrial and medical applications. Our research helps optimize these machines to the benefit of science and society.

From Death Star Destruction to Tumour Reduction 
“Use the Force, Luke.” 
In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker uses proton torpedoes to destroy the Death Star at a very specific weak point. 40 years on, we are now using ‘proton torpedoes’ in cancer therapy. Science fact has caught up with science fiction and we are using proton beams to target something hidden deep inside the body, which is very difficult to destroy.

Within our Optimisation of Medical Accelerators (OMA) project, we have been exploring ways to better control high energy proton beams to improve cancer treatment. This is an advanced treatment technology available in the UK at the Christie Hospital since 2018, ensuring destruction of a tumour hidden deep inside the body.

Our research targets the development of monitors that can sense the beam used for cancer treatment without touching it – not by using the Force, but by measuring precisely the beam halo surrounding the beam and correlating this information to the dose delivered to the patient.

Frozen in Time and Space
“They've encased him in carbonite. He should be quite well protected – if he survived the freezing process, that is.” 
When Han is frozen in carbonite at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, there is concern that he will not survive the extreme cold of the process - although he does, of course, get thawed out at the start of Return of the Jedi.

In the real world, very cold temperatures, close to absolute zero, are needed to create a vacuum pressure in a particle accelerator that is better than outer space. This ensures that the beam accelerated and stored in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or other particle accelerators does not hit any residual gas particles. Researchers from the Cockcroft Institute take advantage of such an excellent vacuum to measure the profile of the Large Hadron Collider beam without any background noise.

Mind over Antimatter
“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?”
Throughout the Star Wars series, the Jedi and Sith use the Force in a manner similar to telekinesis to hold and move things with their minds – most memorably when Yoda is attempting to teach Luke the ways of the Force in The Empire Strikes Back.

Electromagnetic fields are used in discovery science to trap particles so they can be studied. At CERN, antimatter experiments such as GBAR use ion traps to capture and store anti-hydrogen for fundamental studies and the Liverpool Group is strongly involved in the optimization of such experiments through the project AVA. The fields confine the antimatter particles within an ultrahigh vacuum chamber so that the antiparticles do not come into contact with normal matter – if they were to do so, they would annihilate instantly in a small burst of pure energy.

The Precision of Lightsabres
“This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
One of the defining and memorable things in Star Wars is the lightsabre, and although they wouldn’t be possible according to the laws of physics in the real world, there are already many exciting applications that are real, such as laser knives for high precision surgery controlled by robot arms and adaptive manufacturing using lasers for creating complex structures in metals.

We also use lasers in the EuPRAXIA project to realise extremely high electric fields and build particle accelerators that are up to 1,000 times smaller than current technology. This has huge potential to enable entirely new fundamental research and applications that benefit society.

Prof Carsten P Welsch is Head of Physics at Liverpool University and Head of Communication at the Cockcroft Institute. His research covers the development of novel beam instrumentation, as well as the design and optimization of particle accelerators.

The Cockcroft Institute is an international centre of excellence for accelerator science and technology in the UK, based on the campus of Daresbury Laboratory. To find out more about its work go to

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