Bill Nye Explains the Scientific Feasibility of Lightsabers, Jurassic Park & More
By Dan Casey on June 14, 2013
Back in 2012 when Man of Steel was first flying into our collective consciousness, we posed the question of “how does Superman shave?” Recently, Gillette wanted to know the same thing, so they sought out the best and brightest from the fandom and scientific communities to find the answer. Theorizing that the Man of Steel whittles down his whiskers thanks to a mechanical engineering principle known as asperity, in which one substance can grind down another even if the former is more brittle than the latter, was none other than Bill Nye (the Science Guy) himself. We found ourselves wondering what his scientific explanations for other burning questions in fandom would be, so we turned to you guys for questions and had Bill answer them. So, prepare to chant “Bill! Bill! Bill!” and have all your creeping queries put to rest.
Nerdist: We’ve seen the Flash, he’s the fastest man alive. He can move through solid matter by vibrating his molecules. Is that something that’d be possible to do in real life?
Bill Nye: I’m pretty sure it depends on the matter; I’m pretty sure water is not especially suited to that. I’m open minded, but I believe the polarity of water’s molecules are just attracted to too many other things and you’d be, if I may, stuck.
N: You’d be stuck halfway through that brick wall?
BN: Maybe not even halfway; maybe only a fifth of the way.
N: Whoa, that’s even worse.
BN: Could be. I’ve seen it take a man’s leg off.
N: We’ll try to dissuade our readers from attempting something like that. Similarly, Star Trek Into Darkness recently hit theaters, and we see them teleporting all over the place; is it feasible to take someone apart at the molecular level and reassemble them on the other side? Would you be the same person?
BN: You got to look at the data. These people are beaming around all the time. Continually beaming around. They’re fine. If I may, open your eyes. There’s the evidence, clearly. As a guy who has not seen the new movie yet, I cannot help but hearken back to the original Star Trek series where there’s all kinds of trouble with the transporter. The captain gets divided in half, people disappear and have to wait for the next inter-phase. Aw, man, the (something I can’t hear) Web, it’s nothing but trouble. And Dr. McCoy, you may remember, is very concerned about beaming people around. So that conceit, as we say in comedy writing, and the idea that everybody speaks English, really saves a lot of time in the land – the quadrant – of Star Trek.
N: You can only boldly go so far if you start losing viewers because they don’t understand what’s going on.
BN: Pretty much, yeah. Yeah. But it’s just a great idea. It’s a huge – if you had to go in a shuttle craft to go up and down every time, you’d be in trouble. But, of course they did. There’s some shuttle crafting and that leads to trouble, the primitive people don’t recognize it. Are you morg or I morg, and it’s just an issue.
N: Staying in the realm of Star Trek, the idea of warp speed is a pretty common trope in sci-fi. Hitting warp speed, faster-than-light travel. Perennial question: Is that possible, is that a technology we could see in our lifetime? Could it come true or is that pure science fiction?
BN: Let me say that we absolutely cannot see it from here. As far as we know, in physics, that is not possible. However. A long time ago I was at a symposium with Carl Sagan and Kip Thorne, who’s an astrophysicist, and they talked about matter falling into black holes and ending up in another part of the universe at another time. So the problem as you may know with falling into a black hole is that you’d be stretched fantastically; you’d be killed by the gradient of gravity. Just the difference between the gravity of your heels and your head would rip you into spaghetti. You’d be “spaghetti-fied.” And so this would be troubling for most of us.
When my father was young, the Big Bang was discovered. Edwin Hubble and Matt Wilson in Altadena, outside of Sierra Madre, CA. Looking at the sky, measuring the stars, discovers that they’re all moving apart, in fact, everything is moving apart. Not apart from a place, just moving apart. Then, quite recently, people started speculating and speculating about how much gravity there is, how much mass there is in the observable universe, and they expected to observe the rate at which the universe is slowing down. But that’s not what they discovered, in long about 2004. They discovered the universe is expanding. And do you know why?
N: I don’t know why.
BN: Nobody knows why! There is a whole astrophysics-physics science that has yet to be understood. And people will say quite recently it’s dark energy and dark matter that’s causing this. But what is dark energy and dark matter? It’s matter you can’t see, it’s energy you can’t detect. “Oh, cool. So what is it?” We are poised to make another astonishing discovery in physics akin to Isaac Newton and the motion of particles and Albert Einstein and the speed of time. And who knows what the relationship of dark matter and dark energy is to us, beings that seem to be made of positive matter rather than anti-matter? There’s a whole world out there to be discovered. But, no; as of right now, no warp speed.
N: I guess we’ll just have to settle for flying coach.
BN: Unless you throw money at the problem and then you can fly business or first class, but if it’s a short flight then it might be diminishing returns and then you get Southwest Airlines.
N: I just hope they’re not reading this interview.
BN: Well, they provide a great service. What’s not to love about Southwest Airlines?
N: That’s true, it just depends on what number you get after you check in.
BN: If you want to get a better number, hustle! And, it’s an hour flight. Deal. My dad was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for four years, and so I often reflect on what problem I think I might have.
N: On a bit of a lighter note, in Star Wars, lightsabers are the quintessential sci-fi weapon. Everyone wants one; they’re super cool. How feasible is that? Could you generate a non self-contained beam of light that was a certain length and shape and sustain it? Do you need something like an electromagnetic field? Is that even possible?
BN: Let me remind us that light is an electromagnetic field. Let’s start with that. I used to work for a company called Micro Encoder that exploited a fabulous invention in which you measure distances – are you familiar with machinist’s calipers?
N: Not off the top of my head, no.
BN: They’re for precisely measuring objects zero-to-six inches long.
BN: You can measure the diameter of a ball bearing to within a couple ten thousandths of an inch.
BN: Anyway, this company Micro Encoder manufactured these using nothing, if I can use the term, nothing but circuit boards. Circuit board technology is very mature. You can manufacture beautiful, precisely-made circuit boards very inexpensively in our world today. So, they can measure a few thousandths of an inch, or a few tenths of a fraction of a millimeter using a wave of electricity going this way and another wave of electricity going that way.
So, perhaps there is a technique by which you could cause light to destructively interfere with itself at a meter or meter and half away from your hand and this would be a lightsaber. And when this beam of self-destructive electromagnetic energy passed through matter, like that guy’s arm in the cantina on Tatooine, I presume it would take energy out of the saber, but by then, it appeared, they have some pretty nice battery packs.
We know nothing of this technology, but my experience with counter-rotating beams of laser light and laser gyros, and standing waves destructively-interfere with each other to allow you to properly measure distances, leads me to think that perhaps someone could come up with a destructively self-interfering lightsaber mobile thing. It’s so dramatic, the way they come out of the sheath or the handle, the hilt at way below sub-light speeds, which is very sexy and cool, but I’m not sure how that would work. But I’m no expert on lightsaber technology, I’ll tell you that.
N: Well, it’s good to know it’s not totally off the table yet.
BN: Yet is the optimum qualifier.
N: I think people would be willing to make certain cinematographic sacrifices for the sake of owning a lightsaber.
BN: Compare a lightsaber to a modern ballistic weapon, which is to say, a gun. To me, watching the trilogy with my ignorance, a gun looks pretty doggone effective. And this brings us by association to Stargate where they have handguns and lasers, a mixture of technology. They kept guns in Stargate because they are so effective.
N: Sometimes the old ways are the best.
BN: Hah, yeah, it was really great before antibiotics.
N: Break out the jar of leeches. So, Jurassic Park, there’s a fourth one on the way. There have been rumors swirling around. Everyone loves dinosaurs, everyone loves theme parks; Is it remotely possible that given the right set of tools and the right DNA….?
BN: It’s great science fiction, I’ll say that. Michael Crichton lost my respect later in life.
N: Was it because of Timeline?
BN: What was his global climate change hoax book? State of Fear. I lost respect for him there. But, with that said, ER was a great show, Andromeda Strain was great science fiction, and so was Jurassic Park. I’m not saying you could use frog DNA, I’m not sure that’s possible, but if you’re manipulating DNA on some crazy level, perhaps it is possible.
N: One last question for you. What would be inside your ideal burrito?
BN: Tomatoes, fresh vegetables. Tomatoes, avocados, some happy cheese. Moderation, you don’t want to end up with too much food. Fish, tilapia. A tilapia protein source might be good.
N: You don’t want the Chipotle effect where it’s bursting out the sides like an alien.
BN: Well it’s tough to eat. Those things originally were designed for people working on farms and they needed calories on the go. In the U.S. when people use the term “Farm Breakfast,” there’s a lot of calories there because picking cotton will wear you out. So, so many burritos, at least in the US, strike me as oversized. My preferred burrito is manageable.
See how Man of Steel shaves in theaters today and keep up with Bill Nye’s many scientific endeavors on his Twitter.