This article possibly contains original research. (February 2019)
In speculative fiction, a force field, sometimes known as an energy shield, force shield, force bubble, defence shield or deflector shield, is a barrier made of things like energy, negative energy, dark energy, electromagnetic fields, gravitational fields, electric fields, quantum fields, plasma, particles, radiation, solid light, or pure force. It protects a person, area, or object from attacks or intrusions or even deflects energy attacks back at the attacker. This fictional technology is created as a field of energy without mass that acts as a wall, so that objects affected by the particular force relating to the field are unable to pass through the field and reach the other side, are deflected or destroyed. This concept has become a staple of many science-fiction works, so much that authors frequently do not even bother to explain or justify them to their readers, treating them almost as established fact and attributing whatever capabilities the plot requires.
The concept of a force field goes back at least as far as early 20th century. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that the first use of the term in science fiction appears to happen in 1931, in Spacehounds of IPC by E.E. 'Doc' Smith.
An early precursor of what is now called "force field" may be found in William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land (1912), where the Last Redoubt, the fortress of the remnants of a far-future humanity, is kept safe by "The Air Clog" generated by the burning "Earth-Current".
In Isaac Asimov's Foundation universe, personal shields have been developed by scientists specializing in the miniaturization of planet-based shields. As they are primarily used by Foundation Traders, most other inhabitants of the Galactic Empire do not know about this technology. In an unrelated short story Breeds There a Man...? by Asimov, scientists are working on a force field ("energy so channelled as to create a wall of matter-less inertia"), capable of protecting the population in case of a nuclear war. The force field demonstrated in the end is a solid hemisphere, apparently completely opaque and reflective from both sides. Asimov explores the force field concept again in the short story Not Final!.
The concept of force fields as a defensive measure from enemy attack or as a form of attack can be regularly found in modern video games as well as in film, such as in The War of the Worlds (1953, George Pál) and Independence Day.
The ability to create a force field has been a common superpower in comic books and associated media. While only a few characters have the explicit ability to create force fields (for example, the Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four and Violet Parr from The Incredibles), it has been emulated via other powers, such as Green Lantern's energy constructs, Jean Grey's telekinesis, and Magneto's manipulation of electromagnetic fields. Apart from this, its importance is also highlighted in Dr. Michio Kaku's books (such as Physics of the Impossible).
Science fiction and fantasy avenues suggest a number of potential uses of force fields
- A barrier allowing workers to function in areas exposed to the vacuum of space. The atmosphere inside would be habitable by humans, while at the same time allowing permissible objects to pass through the barrier
- A walkable surface between two points without the necessity of building a bridge.
- An emergency quarantine area to service those afflicted by harmful biological or chemical agents
- A fire extinguisher where oxygen is exhausted by the use of a space confined by a force field thereby starving the fire
- As a shield to protect against damage from natural forces or an enemy attack
- As a deflector to allow fast spaceships to traverse space without colliding with small particles or objects.
- A temporary habitable space in an area otherwise unsuitable for sustaining life
- As a security apparatus used to confine or contain a captive
The capabilities and functionality of force fields vary; in some works of fiction (such as in the Star Trek universe), energy shields can nullify or mitigate the effects of both energy and particle (e.g., phasers) and conventional weapons, as well as supernatural forces. In many fictional scenarios, the shields function primarily as a defensive measure against weapons fired from other spacecraft. Force fields in these stories also generally prevent transporting. There are generally two kinds of force fields postulated: one in which energy is projected as a flat plane from emitters around the edges of a spacecraft and another where energy surrounds a ship like a bubble.
In 2005, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts devised a way to protect from radiation by applying an electric field to spheres made of a thin, nonconductive material coated with a layer of gold with either positive or negative charges, which could be arranged to bend charged particles to protect from radiation.
In 2006, a University of Washington group in Seattle had been experimenting with using a bubble of charged plasma, contained by a fine mesh of superconducting wire, to surround a spacecraft. This would protect the spacecraft from interstellar radiation and some particles without needing physical shielding.
In 2008, Cosmos Magazine reported on research into creating an artificial replica of Earth's magnetic field around a spacecraft to protect astronauts from dangerous cosmic rays. British and Portuguese scientists used a mathematical simulation to prove that it would be possible to create a "mini-magnetosphere" bubble several hundred meters wide, possibly generated by a small unmanned vessel that could accompany a future manned mission to Mars.
In 2015, Boeing was granted a patent on a force field system designed to protect against shock waves generated by explosions. It is not intended to protect against projectiles, radiation, or energy weapons such as lasers. The field purportedly works by using a combination of lasers, electricity and microwaves to rapidly heat up the air creating a field of (ionised) superheated air-plasma which disrupts, or at least attenuates, the shock wave. As of March 2016, no working models are known to have been demonstrated.
Michio Kaku proposes a force field consisting of three layers. The first is a high-powered plasma window which would vaporize incoming objects, block radiation, and particles. The second layer would consist of thousands of laser beams arranged in a tight lattice configuration to vaporize any objects that managed to penetrate the plasma screen. The third layer is an invisible but stable sheet of material like carbon nanotubes, or graphene that is only one atom thick, and thus transparent, but stronger than steel to block possible debris from destroyed objects.
While sometimes an explicit power on their own, forcefields have also been attributed to other fictional abilities. Marvel Comics' Jean Grey is able to use her telekinesis to create a barrier of telekinetic energy that acts as a forcefield by repelling objects. Similarly, Magneto is able to use his magnetism to manipulate magnetic fields into acting as shields. The most common superpower link seen with forcefields is the power of invisibility. This is seen with Marvel Comics' Invisible Woman and Disney Pixar's Violet Parr.
Forcefields often vary in what they are made of, though are commonly made of energy. In the 2017 series The Gifted, Lauren Strucker has the ability to create shields by pushing molecules together. This results in her being able to construct forcefields out of air and water.
- "Force Field", an entry of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
- "Night Land by William Hope Hodgson" (free download). Quote: "... a great circle of light, which was set up by the Earth-Current, and burned within a transparent tube; or had that appearance. And it bounded the Pyramid for a clear mile upon every side, and burned for ever; and none of the monsters had power to pass across, because of what we did call The Air Clog that it did make, as an invisible Wall of mSafety"
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