Jedi powers? Lightsabers? Space battles? Let's see how grounded in reality the Star Wars franchise is. Join us, you must.
The Star Wars franchise owes its existence to George Lucas's two great loves: pulp science fiction serials and World War II movies. The former gave us fanciful concepts like magical space wizards with laser swords while the latter grounded all those cosmic mind powers with a gritty sort of real-world sensibility. Luke Skywalker is one-part lensman, one-part Battle of the Bulge. But when it comes to the grand galactic opera that is Star Wars, which parent's genes are dominant: the sci-fi silliness or the military reality?
Power of the People
Let's begin at the small scale: the people. The more impressive powers of Jedi Knights obviously have no basis in known science, with their ability to sense entire planetary populations being blown into space particles from across the galaxy, but their behavior and philosophies are patterned after very real people ranging from Buddhist monks to Japanese samurai. As for their lightsabers — well, science still hasn't figured out how to cause energy to arc back on itself at the length of a sword, slice through sheet metal like butter, and take a coherent enough form to allow for exciting sword duels all at once. But it's working on it.
The Clone Wars don't seem entirely impossible, either. The science of cloning has come a long way since Dolly the Sheep 20 years ago, and the prospect of creating an entire army from a single elite warrior isn't out of the question sometime within the next century. The real issue is the energy cost. Those fancy clone breweries seem like they would require a whole lot of electricity, especially with the Kaminoans' love of stark white illumination. Then again, Star Wars posits you could create a laser capable of blowing up an entire planet in a single shot, so a bit of excess uplighting is no big deal in the grand scheme of things.
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Space Flight and Death Stars
Oh, yes, the Death Star. How much energy would it take to instantly detonate an entire planet? According to astrophysicists, vaporizing an Earth-sized world would require roughly all the energy the sun outputs over the course of a day. The Death Star, however, clocks in at about 1/9000 the diameter of the sun, which means its volume and mass are an infinitesimal fraction of that. The sun is a gigantic dense ball whose entire mass is dedicated to creating and emitting nuclear radiation, whereas the Death Star is a mostly hollow sphere filled with hangar bays, garbage chutes, and adorable little robots. There is no known science that could cause such a relatively tiny space station's reactor to generate a day's worth of the energy blasted into space by the sun in an instant.
The Starkiller Base from The Force Awakens, however, actually does fumble toward something approaching functional theoretical science. In concept, it works somewhat like a Dyson Sphere, a construct designed to envelop and collect the entire energy output of a star. Starkiller Base isn't quite that, and it uses this concept to an improbable effect — somehow draining the energy from a star instead of simply absorbing its output—but it's all a lot more workable than the Death Star. Assuming, that is, you could somehow find a way to move an object with the size and mass of a small planet at faster-than-light speeds. According to Einstein's math, that would require vastly more energy than simply blowing a planet to pieces.
And just how does hyperspace travel work in Star Wars, anyway? Don't look to the films for any explanations. Faster than Light (FTL) travel in the Star Wars universe doesn't appear to obey any consistent internal logic or rules besides the laws of dramatic necessity: Traveling across the galaxy takes exactly as long as the plot requires it to. Han Solo says the Millennium Falcon can "make point-five past the speed of light," which suggests it can fly at 1.5 times the speed of light. That's about a billion miles per hour, which sounds fast until you consider the Milky Way galaxy is 1 quintillion miles across. So assuming that galaxy far, far away is about the same size as ours, that's about a million years to cross from one side to the other.
The Falcon's trip from Tattooine in the Outer Rim to a core world like Alderaan would span, at a minimum, a third of the galaxy. That's a trip of about three billion hours rather than the hour or two shown in the movie. Obi-Wan would have been a bit late getting help to Princess Leia, but at least Luke would have plenty of time to practice with his dad's lightsaber. Then again, Starkiller base can somehow fire a beam of energy capable of reaching out across the galaxy to annihilate multiple planets at once in a matter of moments, and that beam can simultaneously be seen in the sky of planets situated in completely different star systems. So maybe the Star Wars galaxy is just extraordinarily tiny.
Luke's lightsaber may not have much to basis in real-life science, but at least his piloting checks out. After all, Lucas based Star Wars' dogfights on World War II movies, and most of the space battles in the films hew to that tradition... with the addition of energy screens to deflect incoming laser blasts, of course. Small fighters face off against one another head-to-head because they're too small and fast for capital ship gun batteries to track, which means they excel at in-close maneuvers around the bad guys' planetoid-sized space weapons. Snub fighters have energy deflector screens capable of diffusing a few shots from other one-man craft, but tend to buckle when they take a hit from a larger gun emplacement — which is internally logical, as a cannon running off the same power grid as a laser capable of melting a planet in a single hit would pack considerably more punch than one running off the outer space equivalent of a V8 engine.
The capital ship engagements themselves are somewhat less-than-convincing. Those behemoths tend to cluster up into a tiny amount of space like they're part of some 19th-century naval battle. Modern warfare takes place at great distances, and battles in space should be spread even further apart than that. After all, there's no atmospheric friction to slow down torpedoes or diffuse energy blasts; once you send something flying through space, it's going to maintain that velocity more or less forever until it hits something.
Then again, Star Wars combat tends to betray what Mr. Spock refers to as "two-dimensional thinking," with ships engaging one another along the same plane of space, all oriented in the same direction. Space doesn't have a surface, unlike the ocean, so why not fan out and attack from all imaginable angles? This becomes especially goofy when you see planetary "blockades" that consist of a few large vessels in a cluster or spread out in a ring, somehow attempting to prevent all traffic onto and off of an entire world. Or when an entire wing of bomber ships slowly creeps toward a target in a tight formation, begging to be taken out one by one. Space is big and mostly empty, which may not make for visually interesting filmmaking, but certainly makes for more survivable space combat tactics.
But, like hyperspace travel, combat in Star Wars has less to do with satisfying the rules of science and is more about telling exciting stories in an interesting way. And there’s no scientific law for that. Sometimes, you’ve just got to wing it.
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