Debates about whether Star Wars is science fiction or fantasy have been raging on in geek communities since the film’s first screening in 1977. Variations on “It takes place ‘a long time ago’ and sci-fi is supposed to be futuristic” or “the Jedi are basically wizards who just happen to be in space” tend to dominate the fantasy camp.
It’s a pedantic debate that I’ve never felt all that emotionally invested in, until I came across Patrick Johnson’s new book The Physics of Star Wars, in which the physicist breaks down the Star Wars franchise into its constituent parts, and offers scientific explanations, grounded in reality, for just about every detail you might otherwise roll your eyes at. For all its far-fetched goofiness, half-baked mysticism, and overall unbelievability, it’s shocking how easy Johnson makes it look to rationalize and legitimize the force, pod racers, and those weird blue shields the Gungans use in Episode I.
Star Wars, whatever else it may be, is grounded in scientific possibility—if just barely.
Johnson’s explanations range from the humdrum details of what kind of galaxy the films most likely take place in (almost definitely a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way), to more heady questions like whether the stories actually unfold in a parallel universe, or whether they may have taken place before the Big Bang. He also manages to explain away the seeming foolishness in Han Solo’s boast that he made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (a unit of measurement, not time).
One example of the lengths Johnson is willing to go involves squaring the circle of Luke and Leia’s age gap. Despite being revealed to be twins in Return of the Jedi, Luke and Leia were described as 20 and 18 years old respectively early on, most notably in the official Star Wars novelization. Rather than chalk this up to error, or suggesting those numbers were rough estimates for the ages of two 19-year-old siblings, Johnson takes the numbers as fact and uses Einstein’s theory of special relativity to explain the gap. If we accept, as physicists do, that time passes differently depending on motion, we can accept that Leia, who has travelled from planet to planet at lightspeed for much of her life, would experience time at a slower rate than Luke, who was roughly stationary for his entire life on Tatooine.
This is the kind of devoted over-analysis that defines any great fandom, and it makes The Physics of Star Wars a compulsive pleasure to read (or a droning bore if you’re not into physics or Star Wars).
VICE reached Johnson on the phone to talk fandom, space wizardry, and picking apart a classic—and the name Jar Jar Binks didn’t come up a single time!
VICE: You give a huge amount of benefit of the doubt to these films. It's almost like anything you could put on the screen will be possible and explainable. Not probable, but possible.
Patrick Johnson: One of the main purposes of writing this book is not to say, “this is definitively how the Star Wars universe works,” because the Star Wars universe obviously is fictional. But you can use these things to inspire conversations about real science and real physics that I think can be very interesting. Just because we haven't discovered how to do this or that or whatever, as long as the laws of physics don’t say "this is inherently impossible," why not try to think about the ways that it could become possible? When you talk to scientists at NASA or research facilities that are doing cutting edge research, a lot of them talk about how they got into it because they watched Star Trek as a kid, or Star Wars, or read science fiction novels.
What I try to do in this book is say there is a fundamental speed limit to the universe, as far as we know—the speed of light—and nothing can travel through space faster than that. But, although we've never measured a wormhole or detected a wormhole, it is something that is possible to have in our universe, and if we work on the assumption that this is possible, and all theories indicate that it is possible, then that is a way to travel from one point in our universe to another point in our universe, such that the distance between those two points is significantly huge, and the amount of time it takes is small, comparatively to trying to go there directly. So why not say "maybe a hyperdrive is able to create a wormhole that just connects whatever two points you want to go through"?
Were you ready to write off a lot of this stuff as nonsense, or did you expect that it would all be so explainable?
I do feel like I chose things that would inspire what I thought would be interesting conversations. And something like the force being a thing that actually allows telekinesis, and control of thoughts, and being able to jump super high, I will be honest, I don't think that is going to be a thing that is ever possible. But I think it can be an interesting conversation to say, "how would this work in our universe, and what would be the consequences of this?"
I think it's probably fair to say that midi-chlorians (microscopic organisms that channel the force and “speak” its will to Star Wars characters) are an almost universally hated addition to the mythos in the prequels, but they do seem to come in handy for your purposes. How do you feel about them?
For the purposes of writing this book very specifically, I think they were able to inspire an interesting conversation, because the idea of parasites able to control what we think and feel, and completely change things that we think we are doing consciously but are actually being controlled by gut bacteria, or a parasite living inside of our body, that I think is a very interesting, very real thing that happens in our universe. Saying that maybe there could be a little bacterium—it's not exactly bacteria in Star Wars—but a small microscopic thing that is able to unlock this ability in people or other alien species, there is real life science that could justify that.
As far as me as a Star Wars fan, I think it's a little bit more exciting when it's just the force and not worrying about why exactly this exists, which I know sounds a bit counterintuitive since I wrote a book saying, "here are ways to explain that."
There are so many Star Wars movies, novels, comics, video games, everything. And Disney has rewritten what counts as canon. How did you decide what you could and couldn't include in the book?
I struggled with this, because there's so much out there, and I'll be honest, I have not read every Star Wars book and seen every Star Wars TV show—I have seen all the movies. What I did was I took the movies as definitely canon. And then I said if there's a thing that I need outside of the movies to have the conversation, I will try to go to canon sources when possible, and then if there just isn't a canon source that can get me where I need to go, there's almost certainly a non-canon source that can get me there.
I try not to have what I'm saying hinge on those things. For instance, the radius of Naboo shows up in the section where I'm talking about "can you travel through the planet's core if it's water from surface to surface?" I find that, guess what? Naboo can't be as big as they say it is, because the core would be solid ice, or they have to be using "through the core" colloquially to mean, "you go super deep and then around the core, and then come out on the other side." You're not literally going through the centre of the planet. Or maybe it's not water. Maybe it's some other material that doesn't turn to solid at super high pressures.
Newer cuts of A New Hope have thrown into question whether Han Solo is a cold blooded killer in his first on-screen appearance. As a physicist, who do you think shot first?
The physicist in me would say I need to go to the primary source material and would say obviously Han shot first. Obviously Han shot first. If I go to the newer editions, if you go through how fast blasters travel, there's no way he could have dodged that. From a physics standpoint, your reaction time is long enough that that would have just hit him in the face. Unless he's got force powers, which has never been alluded to in the movies, so that is a benefit of the doubt I wouldn't give him.
So definitely, Han shot first.
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