The Science at Work in Star Wars

Warning: contains mild spoilers.

In any science or engineering lab, in any part of the world, there is one subject that is certain to have come up at some point over tea, coffee, or lunch: how do you build a lightsaber? It’s true: ask any of your friends in those fields and they will talk endlessly about how they think it can be built. (I personally subscribe to a plasma containment philosophy, while a friend thinks he has come up with a waveguided laser design – a true ‘light’ saber if you will). We are all, at our hearts, geeks and Star Wars fans.

It’s said that great science fiction has a basis in good science, but it is also true that good science can be inspired by great science fiction. At the heart of the Star Wars series lies a concept that owes as much to mysticism as science. I am, of course, referring to the Force. Disregarding The Phantom Menace’s ill-advised attempt to explain the Force (Midi-chlorians? Why?), can we explain any of its seemingly magical properties with good hard science?

The Force Awakens, the latest instalment of the Star Wars series (officially Episode VII) opens with a very striking demonstration of the Force when our villain, Kylo Ren, stops a blaster shot in mid-air. Those who have seen the original trilogy will be familiar with Darth Vader performing a similar feat. While Lord Vader may simply be wearing good armour with a high melting temperature or is very efficiently dissipating heat, Ren takes this to a new level. But how would you stop a blast in mid-air?

Plasma containment is something that we can do today with very powerful magnetic fields, suggesting that Ren could simply be exhibiting Magneto-like manifestations of power. But here’s the catch: when that magnetic field is released, the plasma would simply dissipate as it will no longer carry any forward momentum. Instead, we see the blaster shot continue forward as before.

The next possibility then, is that he stopped or slowed down time. For this to happen, Ren must create a large gravity well at the centre of the plasma, i.e. a great mass that is also too small for us to see. A quick calculation: assuming a time dilation factor of 30,000:1 and a distance of 1 m between the centre and where everyone’s standing – gives us a mass of roughly 6.7 x 1026 kg (about 100 times the mass of the Earth)! But this raises several important issues: 1) time would slow down less the further away you are, making for an odd scene for the Stormtroopers in the background: 2) the gravitational effect on the planet would be enormous; and 3) why would the First Order need to build a new ‘Death Star’ in the first place if Ren can simply create a black hole with his mind?

By now, I think I’ve angered enough general relativity experts with my loose interpretation of equations to safely say that perhaps there are some wonders in Star Wars that we don’t need to explain.

Science aside, The Force Awakens has managed to recapture the spirit of the original in a way that the prequel trilogy never could. From start to finish there is a sense of excitement, with the old cast lending presence without overshadowing our new heroes. Far from being mere carbon copies of Han, Luke, and Leia, the new trinity (Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron) add life to series, helping The Force Awakens escape the trash compactor that was the prequels (Episode III was almost ok … almost).

J.J. Abrams weaves a tale that says to the fans, this is for you and we’re going to do it right. Without revealing the plot, it’s enough to say that the film tips its hat to the original Star Wars, laying a solid foundation for the new trilogy. The film, simply put, is a good old-fashioned ride through the galaxy that captured the imagination of so many of our younger selves, and is well set to inspire the generation to come.

In the end, everything else aside, the feeling of childhood excitement as the trumpets blast off and the title scrolls across the stars is an experience in and of itself. For any fans of the saga, that alone is worth the ticket.

This article was originally published on the University of Cambridge website.

Featured image credit: aloha75/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.