Science fiction has always been a great source of inspiration for real life inventors, engineers, and scientists. Submarines and helicopters are straight out of Jules Verne stories; Leo Szilard conceived the nuclear reaction after reading H.G. Wells; Star Trek communicators are credited for inspiring Motorola’s first cell phone. Sadly, for all the kick-ass real world inventions that born on pages and screens don’t become reality. Some of the technologies most commonly employed to further sci-fi stories won’t ever be real. They will remain nothing more than plot devices.
Here’s the roll call of scientific disappointment.
Remember the first time you saw the Jetsons sit down for a family meal that consisted of steak and potato flavored capsules? While your favorite animated futurists were happy to pop their dinner in pill form, physics has other ideas for you, friend. Though breakthroughs in artificial flavorings might make it possible to replicate the taste of your favorite meats in pill (or jelly bean) form, calories almost by definition have to take up some pretty serious mass.
If you converted the 2000 calories per day most people need to eat to survive to its most condensed form (pure fat), your three square meals of the future would actually look like a pound and a half of Rosie the Robot’s Gourmet Lard Pills.
Point-to-Point Warp Drives
As it turns out, it’s actually more feasible to bend the entire universe than travel faster than the speed of light. Or at least that is the theoretical principal behind warp drives: folding space itself temporarily closes the distance between two given points and basically creating a massive shortcut. At least from a theoretical standpoint, the science behind a warp drive is actually pretty solid: In 1994, a Mexican physicist named Miguel Alcubierre calculated a warp drive that would use negative energy to expand space behind the ship and condense the space in front of it much like a surfer riding a wave.
Funnily enough the real problem wasn’t the moving, but the stopping; much like bugs go splat against your windshield when you’re hauling ass on the highway, space vessel tend to collect space dust, radiation, and subatomic particles as they are booking through black holes. According to the math behind the Alcubierre warp drive, once a ship makes it through a warp hole, it more of less comes to a complete stop. The stopping force is so sudden, all of the accumulated crap on the spaceship windshield comes flying off with enough velocity that it would act like intergalactic buckshot. Literally anything directly in front of a ship exiting warp speed, space station, other docked ships, even small planets would be cut to shreds.
While there are no fundamental laws of physics that implies human transportation is impossible, there is a 0.0% chance Scottie is beaming you anywhere in this lifetime or the next. Sure, there are scientists who have successfully “teleported” an atom a few meters. And while further experiments with entangled particles could lead to quantum internet, which is pretty fucking cool in its own right, light-speed wi-fi is not the same as beaming a human being through space.
Even if scientists were able to sort that quantum physics stuff out enough to move human sized objects, there is still the problem of the computing power needed to reassemble all seven octillion (that’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 for those keeping score) of your God given molecules in their proper order. Given the time it would take to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, you’d probably get to your final destination quicker taking the bus than using any theoretical transporter.
Even in the most theoretical sense, time travel looks mad bleak. All the biggest brains say that time travel, at least as our favorite sci-fi characters experience it, is pretty much only possible with the help of wormholes. Of course, the real hitch in that particular giddy-up is that as far as anyone knows, there are a grand total of zero actual wormholes in existence. Even then, according to the guy who invented the concept of wormholes (some frizzy haired guy named Albert), even if we eventually found out how to create them, it would be impossible for wormholes to take us back in time any further than the moment they were created, so travelling back in time is a big no-no.
However, if you’ve already given up on wormholes, and don’t mind taking a one-way trip to the future, time dilation might be the alternate form of time travel for you. Time dilation is a very real scientific phenomenon that ended up being a major plot point in the movie Interstellar in which gravity and velocity makes time pass slower relative to a more stationary object. The good news is the fact that clocks move slower on space stations proves time dilation is a very real and actual thing. All you need to do to get your real life Matthew McConaughey on is a giant black hole to provide the gravity needed and a spaceship that travels close to the speed of light, and what may seem like a quick jaunt around the globe for you, could be a decade or more on the Earth’s surface.
The wettest of all sci-fi nerd wet dreams, the Star Wars lightsaber is yet another bit of sci-fi tech the laws of science so cruelly deny us. What makes it all the more tragic is that scientists actually have a pretty good working theory on how to make a functioning lightsaber powerful enough to de-bone a Wampa: use magnetic fields to shape plasma into a concentrated beam. Simple enough, right?
Unfortunately, to generate the plasma and magnetic field needed to create an actual lightsaber, it would require roughly the same amount of energy needed to power the entire town of St. Augustine, FL. Of course, even if it were possible to produce that much energy with something the size of a lightsaber, there is no known substance durable enough to provide the insulation necessary to get close enough to hold it without disintegrating. Looks like the closest we will come to a real lightsaber is this pale imitation made from LEDs and a supercharged Bic lighter.