Often cited as the bestselling science fiction novel of all time, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune features a unique blend of technology and human drama that has stood the test of time. This complex universe, and its even more complex ideas on time, space, and human consciousness, resulted in five follow up novels by Herbert himself, 16 additional books co-authored by his son Brian Herbert and sci-fi veteran author Kevin J Anderson, a 1984 movie, a pair of early 2000s TV miniseries, and more recently the box office crushing 2021 epic film adaptation.
Hoping to find the overlap between science fact and science fiction, [something we Debriefers often like to do] as well as highlight the unique ideas explored by Herbert almost sixty years ago, The Debrief took a look at some of the critical technologies featured in the various Dune books and adaptations to see how close humanity is to recreate any of them.
These include the bug-like flying machines known as ornithopters, personal shields used in hand-to-hand combat, weapons of sound that only appear in the 1984 film, water-conserving survival suits, and a form of faster than light space travel known as “folding space” that is at the very heart of the entire Dune saga.
To assist in this effort, The Debrief reached out to Dr. Kevin Grazier, the staff scientist at Masten Space Systems. Grazier was previously a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Cassini/Huygens Mission to Saturn and its moon Titan and also spent time teaching at West Point.
Grazier has served as the science advisor to several TV series and feature films during his distinguished career, including the Peabody-Award-winning BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and the Academy-Award-winning GRAVITY.
Finally, Grazier is the editor of the anthology, The Science of Dune, and the co-author of the “Hollyweird Science” series of books that explore the depiction of science, scientists, and the culture of science in TV and film.
“While technology enabled the story of the original Dune novel, particularly faster-than-light (FTL) travel,” explained Grazier in an email to The Debrief, “the novel is not what would be called “hard” science fiction, and technology largely takes a back seat to the human drama.” Nonetheless, Grazier noted, “most of the technology from the original book makes its way into the 1984 film: [as well as the 2021 adaptation].”
Can Ornithopters Be Built?
At the center of the Dune story is a desert planet named Arrakis, primarily because it is the only place in Herbert’s universe one can find the spice “mélange.”
Unfortunately for those hoping to mine this psychoactive substance that [among other semi-mystical elements] is the key to the faster-than-light travel keeping the multi-planet “Imperium” together, Arrakis is inhabited by massive sandworms that devour pretty much anything moving on the planet’s sandy surface. As a result, the book’s main characters primarily traverse Arrakis in flying machines known as ornithopters that flap their wings like giant birds, house flies, or even dragonflies.
“The one bit of Herbert’s technology that was treated the most unevenly [in the 1984 film] was the ornithopters,” Grazier told The Debrief. “They were ubiquitous in the book and made only a perfunctory cameo in the 1984 film.”
This, Grazier notes, was primarily for budgetary reasons and not a creative choice made by Lynch. However, he adds, “with almost 40 years of technical innovations (and 25 Moore’s Law doublings), Denis Villeneuve could afford to bring all of Herbert’s science and tech to the big screen—even the ornithopters—with the same scale and grandeur as he depicted Arrakis and the shai hulud [the sandworms].”
Featured much more prominently in the recent film adaptation, The Embry Riddle Aeronautical University decided to ask whether or not a vehicle like this could actually be constructed and flown.
“Aeronautical engineers have nearly perfected the design of fixed-wings structure,” a post on the university’s site explains, “but with a flapping wing, the wing is no longer fixed and is in a constant state of stress.”
“This state of constant, high magnitude stress leads to a very short fatigue life for the structure,” the post concludes.
Despite these limiting factors, the ERAU post also notes that “we have successfully built multiple ornithopters.” Examples cited include a vehicle built by engineers at Harvard University known as the RoboBee, a second created at University of Toronto’s Aerospace Project, and an untold number of less public efforts by what the ERAU post describes as “governments/military programs all over the world.”
By all accounts, building a vehicle similar to the ones featured in Dune seems more or less technically feasible, but due to the design’s inherent limitations, the ERAU post concludes that “the attempt [by the Toronto team] to build a commercially available ornithopter was dropped, and there is little research in manned ornithopters.”
Can We Make Personal Shields like in Dune?
Another device envisioned by Herbert is a personal shield used in hand-to-hand combat. Considering that the book was released two years before the premiere of the original Star Trek television show, the similarity in concept between the personal shields of Dune and those used to protect spacecraft in Gene Roddenberry’s fictional universe is hard to miss. Nonetheless, these devices are used throughout Herbert’s book, as well as all of the on-screen adaptations, leading The Debrief to try to find out if such a device is even possible to design.
To start, the fictional science behind these shields is something Herbert called a Holzman Effect, which the author himself described as “the negative repelling effect of a shield generator.” In real science, there is no such force. In fact, a 2020 post on Medium asking how such a force field might be constructed noted that “of the four forces of the universe — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear force — none seem to allow for the existence of a force field.”
Later in that same post, the author arrived at the idea of using superheated plasma, the most common state of matter in the universe, to create a shield around whatever it is you are trying to protect, be it a person, a spaceship, a city, or even an entire planet.
“A sheet of plasma heated to high temperature and power will vaporize objects with which it comes into contact,” the post explains. “And not only can it help stop bullets and everyday matter, but we already have evidence that plasma can stop radiation as well.”
Famed scientist Michio Kaku made a similar observation back in 2008 when he penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal looking into, among other sci-fi ideas, force fields.
In that article, Kaku proposed a three-layer force field concept for a spaceship, including an outer layer of superheated plasma, a middle layer of thousands of lasers designed to vaporize any objects that make it through the plasma layer, and finally, a carbon nanotube layer only an atom thick that he says offers more strength than steel.
Of course, the idea of putting such a shield around a spaceship or even a planet may be theoretically feasible for Kaku and others. Still, as of November 2021, no one has publicly proposed a scientifically viable concept for the personal shields used by the fighters in Dune.
Side note: Dune’s personal shields are said to repel fast-moving objects, while slower moving objects can penetrate their protective layer. Oddly, this is not dissimilar to how the angle and velocity of objects colliding with the Earth’s atmosphere determines whether or not they will slip through safely or bounce back into space. Given the dawn of human space exploration that was unfolding all around Herbert when he was penning the original Dune novels, is it possible that this atmospheric effect influenced the concept of his world’s personal shields?
Are Sound Weapons Real?
In the 1984 film adaptation, the hero Paul Atreides teaches the Fremen of Arrakis how to use a device referred to as a “weirding module,” which amplifies sound to create a destructive wave that can blast through both bone and stone. Surprisingly for fans of that film (yes, we exist), this technology was not in the original novel but was added by the film’s director David Lynch.
“The one bit of tech in the films that was created from whole cloth, and which appeared in the 1984 film, were the weirding modules,” Grazier told The Debrief, “a form of sonic directed energy weapons that appeared nowhere else.”
“Frank Herbert created a Duniverse in which readers could buy into the notion that civilization had fallen into feudalism where the primary mode of warfare was hand-to-hand combat,” added Grazier, “and that included a form of martial arts called the Weirding Way. Director David Lynch candidly said that he didn’t want his film to be “Kung Fu on sand dunes,” thus was born the weirding module sonic weapons.”
This novel solution employed by Lynch made for a unique weapon that some feel was one of the stand out elements of the original film. However, as Grazier also told The Debrief, “fans of the books found [Lynch’s redefinition of The Weirding Way] to be a weird decision.”
In the real world, sound weapons exist, even if they are not used in the same way or produce the same results as Lynch’s redesigned weirding modules.
For instance, as regular readers of The Debrief are likely aware, the United States has reported numerous cases of foreign diplomats and service personnel becoming sick when stationed overseas. Often termed “Havana Syndrome,” due to early reports of the phenomena afflicting diplomats serving in the Cuban capital, most estimates peg ultrasonic weapons as the likeliest source of these debilitating attacks. Of course, these proposed sonic weapons don’t shatter stone walls or blast people into bits like the weirding modules featured in the 1984 film. However, if they are indeed the origin of the debilitating symptoms still being reported by diplomatic personnel, they are highly effective weapons.
Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs), more commonly known as “Sound Cannons,” have been employed by police and military forces in crowd control situations. These devices emit “very loud sounds over long distances” but fall short of damaging physical material like Lynch’s weirding modules. However, in September 2021, the Academy of Doctors of Audiology posted a letter on their website decrying the use of sound cannons for the actual types of permanent damage they may indeed inflict.
“Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) may be used as close range sonic weapons against U.S. citizens as a form of non-lethal crowd control and dispersion,” the post states. “These sonic weapons are capable of inflicting severe, debilitating, permanent harm on U.S. citizens in the form of irreversible hearing loss, tinnitus, vestibular dysfunction, and barotrauma.”
Separately, a 2018 scientific paper looked into the concept of using ultrasonic vibrations to crush granite, but even that study noted how “the new technique of using ultrasonic vibration to break hard rock is still in the experimental stage.” That same paper does, however, note with more optimism that the nascent technology “has significant potential for improving the efficiency of hard rock crushing.”
Given the current application of ultrasound for overt crowd control, its possible use in covert actions against overseas diplomats, and the relatively new research into using ultrasonic waves to crush rocks, it may simply be a matter of time before someone constructs a weapon that combines all these technologies into one device. Now that will be weird.
A Real-Life Stillsuit?
“A stillsuit is a full-body suit worn by the Fremen (and others) on the hostile desert planet Arrakis,” Grazier explained. “The stillsuit keeps the wearer cool and processes sweat, urine, and feces, to reclaim drinkable water such that the wearer ‘doesn’t lose more than a thimbleful of water’ each day.”
Grazier further explained how “in the introduction of The Science of Dune, I wrote that, by design or accident, Herbert provided just the barest of hints on how the technology of the Duniverse functioned.” Grazier believes this approach helped greatly reduce potential criticism of the author’s outlandish ideas, whether intentional or not.
For example, he notes that “the stillsuit is one of the few instances where Herbert describes the workings of the technology that inhabits his world and, in so doing, he creates the kinds of contradictions that, today, would get him dragged on Twitter the day after the film’s release.”
This overall lack of stillsuit viability is highlighted in another post on the ERAU website, where the outfit’s three main component technologies and their respective feasibility is analyzed.
First, according to Herbert, the suit possesses the ability to recapture moisture lost through sweat, urine, and other bodily functions. Such technology, the ERAU post explains, does already exist, but with some critical limitations, namely the size of equipment needed to recapture and filter the wastewater and return it to drinkability.
“[The] space shuttle Endeavour [carried] two refrigerator-sized racks packed with a distiller and an assortment of filters designed to process astronauts’ urine and sweat into clean drinking water,” the post explains. “This right here is the first metaphorical nail in the coffin for our beloved stillsuits because there is simply no way to cram two refrigerator-sized racks of technology into a suit that somebody could wear.”
However, the post’s author concedes, the progression of human technology has repeatedly demonstrated that given enough time, things like computers can and often do shrink from room-sized machines down to tiny processors like those found inside your phone.
Unfortunately, this same size issue makes the second function of the stillsuit, salt reclamation, also out of the reach of current human tech. That’s mainly because the only truly effective means to achieve this salt reclamation is via reverse osmosis. And like the water reclamation and filtration process, proven methods of reverse osmosis involve massive pieces of equipment that would be impossible to replicate at such a small scale.
The final touted benefit of the stillsuit is the ability to keep its wearer cool in the hot desert sun. Exactly how this is accomplished is left unexplained by Herbert. Modern-day space suits used by human astronauts often include built-in cooling systems. Still, those require sizable powered refrigeration systems and toxic chemicals that don’t seem to be present in the novel, much less in the compact sizes needed.
Ultimately, it appears that the technology for each of the features of the stillsuit exists, but as of 2021, limitations on size place assembling one of these magical desert survival outfits well outside of humanity’s current capabilities.
Can We Actually Fold Space like in Dune?
To maintain its authority across star systems, the Imperium employs guild navigators. These almost superhuman beings use the spice to navigate the massive ‘heighliner” spaceships. Herbert calls this hybrid of technology and consciousness “folding space.”
“We know Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity that there is a “fabric to the space-time continuum: one that is non-uniform and will bend or stretch in the presence of a gravitational field,” Grazier explained to The Debrief. “I just view the folding of space [in Dune] to achieve FTL travel as a practical application of General Relativity.”
The Debrief has covered a wide array of advanced propulsion concepts throughout the last year, including things like Warp Drives that often rely on the Einsteinian principles of Special Relativity to travel at faster than light speeds. As of 2021, those concepts are all still theoretical, but unlike the method used by the navigators of Dune, none require a mind-matter connection to steer their advanced FTL drives.
Combining more esoteric and unproven concepts like Remote Viewing (using one’s mind to theoretically view a distant location) with the real world science of quantum superposition (the unique ability of sub-atomic particles to exist in two places at once) may be generations away from any practical application, if at all. It more likely may indeed require some ‘magical’ ingredient like Herbert’s spice to actually function. Conversely, given that space, time and consciousness are mysteries that at least some scientists feel may all be interlinked, it is still a slight possibility that the human mind may end up being a pivotal component to conquering the universe after all. Either that or Herbert was just talking about shrooms.
The Spice Must Flow…
To truly achieve a better understanding of the technology and science touched on by Frank Herbert, as well as those who have adapted his work, The Science of Dune is beyond required reading. Throughout that book, which Grazier edited, each of the technologies discussed here, plus many, many more, are broken down by actual scientists and engineers, offering the reader all sorts of compelling insights into how real or unreal those ideas may or may not be.
In the end, at least as far as Grazier is concerned, it isn’t the science or technology of Dune that matters as much as the human drama that is the book’s proper focus. And, he adds, regardless of the viability of any of the man’s proposed technologies, it is the everyday choices made by Frank Herbert during his lifetime that has left us all with the gift of his words, as well as his vision.
“He tried his hand at writing pulp fiction,” said Grazier, “decided he enjoyed it and ended up writing a science fiction and literary masterpiece.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction