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The Science of Dune

Dune (2021) and its 2024 sequel Dune: Part Two, based on Frank Herbert’s book of the same name, were huge hits at the box office, with one of its main draws being its elaborate worldbuilding, including the technologies the peoples in the universe use.

The Dune movies are set 20,000 years from now, primarily on a desert planet called Arrakis, which is historically inhabited by a people called the Fremen. The Fremen have been colonized and exploited for their “spice”, a natural resource found only on Arrakis that gives them blue eyes and the Spacing Guild the power to do long-distance space travel, making it an incredibly valuable resource akin to oil.

The movie follows Paul Atreides, the prince of the planet Caladan, as he travels to Arrakis after the Emperor puts the Atreides family in charge of the spice harvesting operations on Arrakis in place of the Harkonnens, a rival family who had been controlling Arrakis for hundreds of years.

Throughout the movie, we see many unique technologies used both by the Fremen and more generally like the thumper, shield, and windtrap which significantly influence the events in the movie. The interesting thing about these technologies is that though the movie is set 20,000 years in the future, they all resemble technologies we either already have or are currently developing.

One of the first pieces of technology that we see in Dune is the shield. It functions like an ordinary metal shield for the most part, but is holographic and completely collapsible. It blocks all fast-moving objects, including bullets and thrown knives, but lets slower objects move through it.

This shield is likely supposed to operate using some sort of electrical ‘force field’. This technology is very common in science fiction and has been for a while, making it seem ludicrous that force fields could become part of our reality in the near future. Despite this, a report by the UK House of Commons about the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) printed on February 20, 2007, discussed the Dstl’s previous development of “electric armour systems to defeat shape charge projectiles”, which sounds very similar to the shields used in Dune.

Later in the movie, Paul Atreides uses a ‘thumper’, a device that when started, emits a rhythmic thumping sound, to attract a sandworm. Sandworms are massive creatures that live underneath the desert of Arrakis and are attracted to rhythmic thumping noises, as they sound like living, walking organisms they can eat. When they hear rhythmic noises, they shoot up to the surface, swallowing everything above them whole, usually including whatever was making that sound.

Though this has historically worked as a hunting strategy for the sandworms, modern Fremen plant thumpers to call a nearby sandworm usually either as a decoy or to hitch a ride on wormback. This seemed very counterintuitive to many Dune fans at first: who would actively try to call a dangerous predator by imitating its prey? Would that even work? And even if it did, would it not be incredibly dangerous?

Danger aside, however, thumpers likely would have been effective. Frank Herbert likely got the idea of thumpers from gulls and lapwings. These birds, among others, hunt for worms by tapping the ground repeatedly (perhaps to imitate rainfall) to draw worms to the surface where they are consumed.

Not only would thumpers be effective, people would likely have used them. Hunters and wildlife photographers today often use tapes of injured prey or mimic the sound of an injured animal in order to draw out predators.

Perhaps the most important technology used in Dune are windtraps. Arrakis is very prominently a desert planet, and is also relatively highly populated despite receiving very little rainfall. The Fremen solved the issue of constant water shortages by inventing windtraps.

Windtraps are facilities that capture wind (as their name suggests), condense it, and extract all the water from it, which is then given to the Fremen. The water is potable and seemingly high-quality, though supply is not unlimited.

Like the other technologies discussed above, wind traps have been made a reality, this time by a company called SOURCE Global. The company’s ‘Hydropanels’ convert air into water using solar power. The ability to extract water from the atmosphere has been available for a while, but requires lots of electricity and atmospheric humidity, meaning that it is almost useless in the places it is most necessary.

Hydropanels, however, work in a variety of humidity conditions, including in the Arizona desert. Because they are solar-powered and off-grid, they do not require preexisting infrastructure, which is what we see in Dune: facilities in the middle of a desert without much other infrastructure. The water produced by Hydropanels is filtered and therefore potable, also like in Dune.

While the technologies in this movie seem far-flung and near-fantastical in nature, many of them either exist already or will exist in the very near future, giving Dune not just an engaging plot, but a relatively attainable one, too. Unfortunately, the attainability of these technologies also undermines the universe’s realism, as Dune is set so far in the future and yet seems so technologically similar to the present.

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