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Can 'Star Wars' save science?

A $5 million exhibit aims to use "Star Wars" props and costumes into an educational tool for science and technology.
Richard Greif, of Wakefield, Mass., listens to recorded information in front of a "Yoda" puppet at the "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination" exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston.
Richard Greif, of Wakefield, Mass., listens to recorded information in front of a "Yoda" puppet at the "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination" exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston.Steven Senne / Ap
/ Source: Reuters

It's a "Star Wars" fan's dream — the first public display of props and costumes from all six films in the series, including a replica cockpit of Han Solo's asteroid-battered Millennium Falcon.

But the $5 million exhibit goes beyond entertainment and turns "Star Wars" into a educational tool for science and technology, fields in which U.S. dominance faces a challenge from a new generation of engineers in Asia.

"Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," opening on Thursday in Boston, was developed by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas's LucasFilm Ltd. and Boston's Museum of Science to give some scientific basis to the fantasy of the films.

Luke Skywalker's gravity-defying "Landspeeder" appears on stage in original form — accompanied by lessons in magnetic levitation and the powerful electromagnets that can hurtle high-speed "maglev" trains at speeds of up to 310 mph.

Rows of "Star Wars" androids and Anakin Skywalker's prosthetic right hand from Episode III — before his transformation into Darth Vader — are used to explain advances in robotic technology and modern medical prosthetics.

The cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, built to a blueprint provided by Lucas, is transformed into a high-tech planetarium with a recorded voice of Anthony Daniels, who played C-3PO, explaining the stars and how modern scientists view them.

Pressure to keep up with Asia
The museum's president and director, Ioannis Miaoulis, said he feared U.S. schools were failing to produce enough future engineers to meet competition from Asia, putting pressure on museums like his to play a more influential role.

"We are producing generations of people that have no understanding about how most of the things they interact with in their day-to-day life work," he said.

Backing Miaoulis' concern is data showing China producing the world's largest number of science and engineering graduates — at least five times as many as in the United States, where the number has fallen since the early 1980's.

"We used to be the leading country in engineering graduates, and now Asia has that role," said Miaoulis.

In another exhibit, children can choose sensors, select wheels and build their own android-like robots. About 80 props — from Princess Leia's white dress to Darth Vader's mask and R2-D2 -- sprawl over 10,000 square feet (930 sq meter) in the museum.

Some of the lessons, such as the exhibit on spaceships and floating vehicles that harness "maglev" technology, highlight areas in which the United States trails other nations.

Using a magnetic field and the principle of attraction and propulsion, engineless "maglev" trains hover just inches (cm) above their paths. Like the floating ships in "Star Wars," the trains can escape friction and move faster than conventional trains, relieving strains on airports and congested highways.

Shanghai operates a German-built one. Japan has its own version in the city of Nagoya and is moving aggressively to export the technology. The United States has yet to operate or develop a maglev train.

At the Boston exhibit, children can build their own, using magnets, pieces of wood and guided paths.

"We're using 'Star Wars' as a way to jump start the way people think about things in the real world," said Ed Rodley, an exhibit planner.