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4 Science Mistakes Star Wars: Episode VII Needs to Fix

Star Wars Mistakes 3x3

Sound in space. Improbable laser guns. Questionable faster-than-light travel. While much of Star Wars doesn’t hold up to scientific rigor, for the most part, it doesn’t have to. Star Wars is science fantasy, and as long as a scientific faux pas doesn’t detract from the work, it’s acceptable.

But sometimes, science mistakes do take away from the work, or otherwise prevent the work from being as good as it can be. Here are four science mistakes that Star Wars has made in the past that Episode VII can either address or avoid.

Mistake 4: Every World Has “Earth” Gravity

If you were to base yourself on Star Wars movies – because why wouldn’t you base your assumptions about astronomy on science fiction? – you’d think that every world in the universe has similar gravity. That cannot be further from the truth.

In our Solar System alone, planets and moons have wildly differing gravities, from Mars’ one-third of Earth’s gravity to Ganymede’s (the largest moon in the Solar System) one-sixth of Earth’s gravity. Even Venus, called Earth’s sister planet due to their similarities in size, gravity, and composition, has about 10 percent weaker gravity than the Earth. While that may not seem appreciable, remember that we’re comparing sister planets, and that that change in gravity equates to about 10 to 20 pounds of weight difference for most people.

But regardless of whether the Star Wars characters are on the planet Tatooine or the Forest Moon of Endor, they move as though there is no meaningful difference in gravity. This isn’t impossible, strictly speaking. A world’s gravity is determined by its size and density. Despite it being a smaller planet, Mercury’s gravity is about equal to Mars’ because it is denser.


Still, while it isn’t impossible that all the worlds we visit in Star Wars movies have similar gravity, it’s both improbable and boring. We’ve already discussed Star Wars‘ single-biome worlds at length, but the truth is that having worlds with multiple biomes would not improve the movies in any way. However, one thing that could improve them is having worlds with differing gravities.

We can argue any number of sociopolitical, evolutionary, or practical reasons for why the movies only depict worlds with similar gravities. But why? Given budget hasn’t been a concern for Star Wars since the original trilogy, why not put in the effort to make a scene or two take place on a world with different gravity?

Sure, we can argue that Star Wars humans only colonized worlds with similar gravities. Our bodies evolved to be adjusted to the gravity of our homeworld – astronauts who return from an extended sojourn in the International Space Station experience adverse physiological effects, including loss of bone density. But the rate of bone loss is only about one percent per month – in zero gravity – so a quick visit to a low-gravity world should have no long-lasting adverse effects.

The various alien races seen in the movies even suggest that some come from worlds with differing gravities. The tall, slender, and fragile-looking aliens seem to come from lower-gravity planets, and the squat, bulky aliens suggest a stronger gravity origin. Star Wars is all about the fantasy of science fiction – wouldn’t a low-gravity lightsaber duel be fantastical?

Mistake 3: Space Fighters Use Aerial Flight Dynamics & Tactics

I won’t argue over the fact that many Star Wars space vehicles seem designed for atmospheric flight – most do enter atmospheres at some point or another. However, even a vehicle designed for atmospheric flight will not behave the same way in space as it does in air.

Fighter craft in Star Wars visibly bank, or roll, as they turn in space. Why? Airplanes roll when the pilots move the little flaps at the end of their wings (called ailerons). The ailerons on either wing move in opposite directions, decreasing the lift force on one wing and increasing it on the other. One wing raises, the other dips, the aircraft rolls, and the unequal forces being applied to the wings causes a torque which rotates the plane. All of these forces are a result of air resistance. Without air, there is no lift or drag force, and ailerons would have no effect whatsoever.

The dynamics of atmospheric flight are complex due to all these forces. But space flight is so much simpler. The only forces you really need to account for are those issuing from your spacecraft. Thrusters placed around the vessel will impart momentum in any given direction, and there are no appreciable drag forces in space to affect that momentum.

So why do Star Wars spacecraft bank? Because it looks good.

But we can do better. We can be more imaginative with our use of the real dynamics of space flight. Imagine an X-wing chasing down a TIE fighter, when that TIE fighter suddenly spins on its axis and begins firing back at the X-wing while continuing along on its initial direction. Not only is this possible, but there’s almost no reason for this to not be a normal occurrence – space is huge, and the risk of getting shot down by the enemy is far greater than the risk of crashing into something while flying in reverse.

Once you’ve reached your desired speed in space, there’s no need to keep your main thruster activated. With no drag forces, you’ll keep moving in your initial direction, leaving you free to rotate the “nose” of your ship in any direction. Imagine how many more shots a TIE Fighter can get in on a long, rebel capital ship when it’s weapons are pointed at the vessel throughout its entire strafing run. Moreover, once we kick the notions of water- and air-based battle formations and attack maneuvers out the door, we enter a spectacular world of truly three dimensional tactics – see Ender’s Game.

Getting the science of space flight correct allows for more imaginative use of tactics and avoids immersion-breaking questions like, “Why did Queen Amidala’s ship fly straight into the ring of Trade Federation ships around Naboo, when they could have just avoided the ring entirely?”

Mistake 2. Misused Jargon

“You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.”

It pains me to have to call out movie history’s most famous rogue on misuse of jargon, but I just have to remind myself that it’s the writers who are to blame, not Han Solo. A persec is not a unit of time, despite having the suffix “sec.” The word is shorthand for “the parallax of one arcsecond,” and before you exclaim “Aha! Arcsecond! So it is time!” let me clarify that seconds and minutes are also measures of angles. Specifically, one second of arc corresponds to 1/3,600 of a degree.

A parsec is a unit of distance equal to 3.26 light-years, or 19 trillion miles. Given the context, and clarified in the Star Wars Extended Universe, the Kessel Run is a well-known smuggling route in space. Someone who has never heard the term “parsec” before would think Han is boasting about the speed of his ship, suggesting that it was able to make the run faster than any other ship. But when we realize that a parsec is a unit of distance, any obvious meaning he was trying to convey becomes muddled. How can the ship complete the run in less distance?

Justifications have been made that Han was actually boasting about the ship’s computer being able to calculate a shorter path, but that meaning is neither intuitive nor likely George Lucas’ intent. In the novelization of A New Hope, published in 1976 and credited to George Lucas (though ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster), Han doesn’t say “parsecs.” Han says “standard time units.” While that sounds lame, it makes a lot more sense.

I would love to hear a character in Episode VII use the term parsec correctly. Better, if Han Solo does appear in the movie, I’d love to hear him correctly use the term and lampshade his previous misuse of it. “Ah, that’s just my way of testing how gullible someone is.”

Stating that Star Wars is science fantasy and not science fiction doesn’t make this error acceptable. If you’re going to use real words, then use them correctly, or you lose all credibility. Han’s sentence makes about as much sense as if he’d said, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 sandwiches.”

Mistake 1. Poorly Mixing Science with Fantasy

“His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form.”

Most people blame the terrible prequels for introducing midi-chlorians to Star Wars. In fact, Lucas conceived them as early as 1977 when creating guidelines for the Expanded Universe.

Midi-chlorians are sentient, microscopic life forms that live inside the cells of all living beings and allow their hosts to detect and manipulate the Force. But this is only if they are present in sufficient numbers, and a blood test can measure midi-chlorian count, allowing you to know whether your child is Jedi material or fit for the remedial class. There actually is some scientific basis for midi-chlorians. There are little organs in our cells called mitochondria that are believed to have originated as bacteria that were engulfed by our cells and evolved to exist symbiotically within them.

Here’s my issue with midi-chlorians – they serve no purpose. At all. The impression The Phantom Menace may leave with its audience is that midi-chlorians explain the Force somehow. They either are the Force, or create it, but the Expanded Universe clarifies that this isn’t the case. We have two things at play here: the Force, which is still a mystical power that pervades the universe, and midi-chlorians, which are organisms that allow people to use the Force.

So what do midi-chlorians add to the picture, here? They don’t explain the Force. They don’t have any appreciable impact upon the narrative other than serving as a convenient, quantifiable measure of Force potential. They just raise more questions while making the Force seem a little less fantastical.

The Force either needs to be explained with science, or it doesn’t. The original trilogy didn’t explain the Force, which firmly grounded Star Wars in the realm of fantasy. How does it work? What is it? Can I get Force powers? Not knowing the answers to these questions is what sparked our imagination. Retroactively implementing some quasi-scientific, partial explanation kills part of the mysticism. What we’re left with is something that neither holds up to the rigors of science nor feels quite as supernatural – in other words, bad sci-fi and bad fantasy.

Episode VII should neither mention midi-chlorians nor try to add any more scientific explanations to the Force. In fact, I would applaud J.J. Abrams if he had the audacity to retcon midi-chlorians out of the universe entirely.

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