Science v. Star Wars

The thing I love most about my job as an astronomer is that I get paid to think about the universe and teach others how it works.  When I'm not working, thoughts of our universe still occupy, say, 50% of my mind, while the other 50% is predominantly occupied by the Star Wars universe.  These two universes frequently cross paths and interact, which has often left me wondering if the upcoming sequels, and the Star Wars franchise in a broader sense, would benefit from adding a substantial amount of genuine science into their production.  I've thought about this a LOT and have generated a particularly strong opinion.  The shortest answer I can give is no - Star Wars would not benefit from incorporating science.  But just in case you're not okay with the short answer, I'll elaborate...

One of the things I've always loved about Star Wars is that it pulls us out of our lives and into a wondrous, new galaxy.  In my opinion, this has everything to do with the concept of the Force and the new worlds we visit in each episode.  Very little of the "genuine science" I mentioned before has been incorporated into the prequels and original trilogy (though this is something that could potentially change with J.J. Abrams writing and directing),  but each episode found just the right balance of the strange and the familiar when it came to how it incorporated science.  For the most part, we see scientific ideas indirectly in Star Wars.  Take, for instance, how we explore new worlds and encounter new lifeforms throughout both of the Star Wars trilogies.  In many ways, this type of discovery has a striking resemblance to the search for extra-solar planets (AKA exoplanets) that has taken hold of the astronomy community for the past 20 years.  This is more of an indirect connection between Star Wars and an active field of research in astronomy, but I find that indirect connections work nicely and generally don't scare anyone off.  It's when the explicit use of scientific terms (or shall I say jargon?) starts detracting from the story that I start to have a problem.

I can generally handle the quick mention of supernovae, light speed, and parsecs.  Such terms usually don't affect me either way, and that is most likely related to my familiarity with those ideas.  As a side note, A New Hope technically got the idea of parsecs wrong - a parsec is a unit of distance (not time!). So unless there is something going on here with multiple hyperspace routes of different distances going to the same place, my guess is the units were botched - but Attack of the Clones did okay with parsecs…we'll leave the misuse of scientific terms as a topic for another day, though.  Adding too much jargon really prevents me from getting wound up in the Star Wars universe and, ultimately leaves me confused, disinterested, and annoyed.  I watch Star Wars films and read the Expanded Universe novels to get lost in new and strange worlds - not to be lost in the technicalities from my world.  "How much is too much science?" is the real question here, and I can only offer a subjective answer.  For me, "too much" begins when the Star Wars story starts to revolve around science jargon instead of the Force.


This looks easy enough to build, right?

Aside: Another thing I always keep in mind is that Star Wars is really a cross between fantasy and science fiction (though I mostly view it as fantasy).  Yes, it has a way of getting its viewers interested in science and engineering (come on, didn't you want to try and build a lightsaber after watching A New Hope for the first time?!), and I certainly attribute much of my love for outer space to Star Wars, but Star Wars has never been about the science.  The excitement that Star Wars offers for science and engineering is a product of its setting and technology, not the explicit use of scientific terms.

The excitement that Star Wars offers for science and engineering is a product of its setting and technology, not the explicit use of scientific terms.

My aversion to including science in Star Wars grew at least tenfold after reading Fatal Alliance by Sean Williams.  I'll start by saying that I absolutely love the Old Republic era around the time of the Cold War, and Satele Shan is on my list of top 5 favorite Jedi from any era.  From its time setting to the character choices, I came in thinking Fatal Alliance was bound to be perfect.  As I read, I found that I was very... very wrong.  There were some issues I took with the writing - Fatal Alliance is over 400 pages, yet it drags like it is 800 pages - and the characters lacked any measurable development.  I found the most distracting and disappointing part, though, was the extreme overuse of scientific terms.  I won't divulge too many details, in case you're interested in reading it.  Attempting to mix black holes, poorly described planetary physics, nearly indestructible droids instilled with the blood of their creator (I mean, what?), and Force-sensitive cloning was too much.  I found myself lost in this mess of ideas instead of excited to find out what would happen next.  It's a fight to read, and Fatal Alliance is the perfect example of how science can massively mess up a story.


At least these 5 seconds of Star Trek: Into Darkness didn't include sound in space.

All this isn't to say that I don't enjoy or appreciate films that accurately depict science.   Remember the scene in Star Trek Into Darkness where Kirk and Khan are flying through the vacuum of space? I was beyond glad that J.J. Abrams chose to remove sound from space.  It's physically correct, and, more importantly, it fits in with the feel of Star Trek's genre of sci-fi mystery.  There are plenty of other films that include science and get the science right (i.e., 2001: A Space Odyssey, Firefly, Contact, and Gattaca), and I really do enjoy watching them.  I even get a good laugh when watching scientifically inaccurate films (i.e., Armageddon, The Core, and Volcano), though I'd never buy one.  The point here is - if you are going to use science, use it correctly.  If you're not going to pay attention to how the details work, you'll only confuse your audience and will be better suited to not include those details at all.

I've ultimately come to the conclusion that Star Wars and science don't have to be mutually exclusive, but great care has to be taken when trying to join them together.  We don't want to lose the wonder of a far, far away galaxy or exchange that wonder for confusion and poorly informed scientific statements.  So, it's my well considered opinion to stick with briefly mentioning scientific jargon and just move along…move along…


Move along... move along...