How to build a sci-fi planet from scratch

The success of Dune could be down to the imagined scientific principles that underpin this fictional universe
04 April 2022

Interview with 

Andy Howell, Las Cumbres Observatory


Sandy desert


Dune is a sci-fi masterclass where the inhabitants are able to use their technology to breathe and fight it out on the sandy planet that would otherwise remain desolate. Otis Kingsman reports… 

Otis - Most of the technology in the film is based around this fictional theory called the Holtzman effect. This in-universe discovery is described as relating to the repellant force of subatomic particles. Here with us to explain this a bit further is Andy Howell from the hit YouTube series Science vs Cinema. What exactly is this repellant force of subatomic particles?

Andy - It's a fictional construct to be able to justify all the fanciful cool technology they have in Dune, but there are parallels in real world physics. It's hard to put two charged particles together that have the same charge, but we can do it in the atomic nucleus because of the strong force. That's what allows protons to all really be stuck together in atoms. It's sort of efficient storytelling where you just say, ‘well, there was this real genius out there that figured out a bunch of cool stuff.”

Otis - Holtzman shields in the film are integrated into the armor of the soldiers and were designed to prevent fast moving objects like bullets and lasers from penetrating it. However it does allow slow moving objects like knives and more importantly, air to pass through unharmed. Andy, is this something we can replicate using our own current technology?

Andy - There's not a one to one parallel, but this is a clever way to justify having futuristic technology, but still having swords and not having bullets. But there are some things that are similar. There's a substance called oobleck and that's just basically mixing cornstarch and water. If you smack it hard, it becomes a solid, but if you touch it easily your fingers go right through. It's a liquid. I once filmed a TV show for national geographic where we mixed up a big vat of this stuff, and I got to effectively walk on water. As long as I was running, I could stay on the surface because it was a solid, but if I stopped I would sink down.

Otis - The shield is often displayed as a blue distortion, but this goo you're talking about is, if anything, probably closer to the 1984 Dune film adaptation where it's just blocks of see through jelly-like substances surrounding their bodies.

Andy - Sometimes we have shields on say a space station. Now, that's a physical shield layers of material that are offset from each other so that if a particle comes through really fast, almost like a bullet, but there's, you know, space debris out there, it'll get hit by the shield and break up. But you could have similar kinds of shielding for charged particles using just magnetic fields because charged particles bend in a magnetic field and spin around. So in some cases you want to shield electromagnetically and in some cases you want to do it physically. Of course, we have things like body armour as well, that can take away the kinetic energy of a fast moving projectile and spread that out over a bigger area.

Otis - Dune is supposedly set 20,000 years in our future. In your opinion, how believable and how scientifically accurate is the science of Dune on a scale of 1 to 10?

Andy - I don't know. 7 for believability. But I don't think you could condense it to one number because the goal of science fiction is not really to be accurate, it's to tell a really good story. I believe that in telling a really good story, what you need to do is make something that seems generally plausible and fits within the boundaries you've set of that universe. That's exactly what Dune has done here. They've taken some plausible sounding things and have some technology that makes the story really cool, but they give you a way to write it off. I think that's ideal storytelling.


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