Science Fact Versus Fiction In Star Wars: Relax And Enjoy The Entertainment

It’s a month since the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and for pedants there’s much to find wrong with the Star Wars movies. Laser beams moving slower than 300,000 kilometres per second, and that sort of thing.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

To be honest, I can live with those inaccuracies. Star Wars is a fantasy with spaceships instead of dragons, and isn’t supposed to be as scientifically accurate as, say, The Martian or 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But could more science be slipped into science fiction, including the Star Wars movies, without spoiling the fun? Let’s go off world and see if it could happen.

Dogfights In Outer Space

A staple of science fiction is combat between spacecraft flying through outer space. Unsurprisingly, these fights of fancy are often reminiscent of combat on Earth.

In Star Wars, the spacecraft fly around like fighter planes, with engines pushing them along the direction of travel and with speeds that appear to be hundreds of kilometres per hour.

But spacecraft orbiting just above our atmosphere travel at almost eight kilometres every single second (about 28,800kph). And because of the vacuum of space, they can orient themselves arbitrarily. If you want to slow your spaceship, just turn around, “fly backwards” and fire your engines.

What would combat between two orbiting spacecraft be like? Well, head on two spaceships would approach each other at almost 16 kilometres per second! Fast, but not exactly cinematic.

If the combatants wanted to execute turns (and had unlimited fuel), they would fire rockets at 90 degrees to the direction of travel. It would be circle work in outer space.

Executing a 180 degree turn would take some time at these speeds. Even if you executed a crushing 10G turn, it would take four minutes to turn around. Time enough for a snack and some social media updates. Perhaps that explains why movie directors prefer speeds and manoeuvres harking back to the Battle of Britain.

Spacecraft in the vacuum of space don’t fly around like aeroplanes.

Under Pressure

The 1979 movie Alien was famously advertised with the tagline “in space no one can hear you scream”.

Audible sound waves cannot travel through a vacuum, and yet many science fiction movies feature sound effects in the vacuum of space. This is particularly true for the more fantastical movies, such as Star Wars and Star Trek, whereas more realistic ones tend to avoid this.

One thing that science fiction gets partially right is explosive decompression. Atmospheric pressure is 101 kiloPascals or 14.7 pounds per square inch. Blow open the hatch to your spacecraft and you will briefly have a big force pushing you out the door. But the power of such forces is often grossly exaggerated.

In the Martian movie (spoiler alert), astronaut Mark Watney is propelled with vast force from air leaking out of a small hole in his space suit. If this was the way air pressure worked, slicing your bike tire open would launch you metres into the air. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen.

If a kilogram of air was expelled from an astronaut’s space suit at 200 kilometres per hour, an astronaut with a mass of 200 kilograms (that’s including the space suit) would be accelerated to just one kilometre per hour.

Mark Watney wouldn’t “get to fly around like Iron Man”, as he said in the movie, but would move at closer to a snail’s pace. Perhaps it is understandable that this is one of the relatively few areas where The Martian sacrifices scientific accuracy for drama.

Technobabble

It isn’t hard to find errors in the technical dialogue of science fiction movies. After the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter to complain that the latest Star Wars was using parsecs as units of time instead of distance.

This Star Wars error is decades old – it was Han Solo’s gaff in the original Star Wars – and I suspect the J J Abrams was deliberately trolling nerds by repeating it.

Technical dialogue in movies is often a series of scientific words thrown together to quickly convey something that feels technical. We need to invert the neutrino quantum metric scanner, or some such nonsense. That said, it’s served its purpose. When Han Solo says of the Millennium Falcon “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs”, the audience knows he’s bragging about his ship’s speed.

Real technical discussion often takes far longer and is far less accessible than movie dialogue. In the minute following the real-life Apollo 13 explosion in 1970, the astronauts exchanged these words with mission control:

55:55:20 Swigert: “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

55:55:28 Lousma: “This is Houston. Say again please.”

55:55:35 Lovell: “Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a main B bus undervolt.”

55:55:42 Lousma: “Roger. Main B undervolt.”

Houston, we’ve had a problem here. Wikimedia/NASA, CC BY2.73 MB (download)

Certainly one gets the sense that something is wrong, but this surprisingly calm exchange doesn’t convey the lethal gravity of the situation.

The 1995 movie of Apollo 13 portrays these events with a little more drama; the astronauts are not as calm and time is compressed.

Actor Bill Paxton’s line “We have a wicked shimmy up here” was added to the movie dialogue, which is not technical and further conveys to the audience that something is really amiss.

A more common compromise in science fiction movies is exposition. Mark Watney in the The Martian does a lot of thinking out loud that falls into this category:

If I want water, I’ll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately, I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn.

Would a real astronaut say this out loud? Perhaps not. But is it scientifically accurate? Well, yes it is.

Are we willing to accept such compromises when watching science fiction? I guess it depends on how captivating the movie is and how pedantic we are.

I can suspend my scientific disbelief when watching movies such as Star Wars: A New Hope. But don’t get me started on the midi-chlorians dialogue from the first of the Star Wars prequels The Phantom Menace.

The Conversation


Comments

    Sometimes adding reality can improve the dramatic effect. In the Battlestar Galactica reboot, they didnt have sound for the space battles, and it worked. Very well.

    Point being, theres not always a need to toss reality out the window. In the case of The Force Awakens though, its understandable, and perhaps necessary. Tinker with the Star Wars personality too much, you lose what makes them Star Wars, and taking those little science fantasy moments out would do that.

    The broad panoramas, the epic ships in space, things like the 12 parsecs comment from the original, the dogfights, those sorts of things are there to entertain, so just let them entertain. Despite being fallacy, they are also a big part of what makes the movies Star Wars.

    Maybe the Kessel Run is a trip that involves detours around black holes and other gravitational forces. Perhaps a fast/powerful ship can take a shorter route if it has the grunt to fly close to these dangers. Thus, a route under 12 parsecs in distance is a direct reflection of the ship's power and speed. No?

      Something that you'll learn in seeing defense against criticism in Star Wars and shows like it is that creative nerds will do anything to rationalize the irrational, justify the absurd, and fill all noticeable voids with... just about anything.

      It's really part of the process of enjoyment, for enthusiasts, I think.

      Yeah it's not an error.

      Say in chess, you could say you beat someone in ten minutes, or in 50 moves. Both are different ways of measuring the rate at which the outcome was achieved.

      A parsec is a massive distance, so a smuggler who can do the run in the smallest distance would probably stand to get the greatest profit due to spending less on fuel!

      From the Star Wars lore, I think the imperial ships are faster in a straight line, so being able to maneuver tighter around planets would help you outrun the other ships, which is what Obi-Wan and Luke were after!

      From WookiePedia

      "In a commentary track on the Star Wars Blu-ray release, George Lucas stated that ships in the Star Wars universe can't travel in straight lines while in hyperspace due to collisions with celestial objects. Thus, distance is an important factor in how quickly a ship can get from point A to point B. The Millennium Falcon's superior navigation computer allowed it to travel shorter distances between points and arrive faster."

      Back on topic, why are we discussing real physics in a movie about space wizards, laser swords and heaps of different aliens???
      When you make a movie that's trying to be realistic like Gravity, the Martian or Interstellar and screw up basic physics... that's flat out bad.
      When you make a completely fictional movie and a completely fictional universe, it doesn't matter that TIE fighter aerodynamics don't work.

      Last edited 21/01/16 2:54 pm

    This is why I LOVED Battlestar Galactica series, proper space battles with muted sound and intertia

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