Star Wars: The return of improbable science
Staying true to the sense of wonder evoked by its predecessors, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is preoccupied with space travel, planetary destruction, and robotic adventures.
However, as a story rooted in scientific and technological warfare, The Force Awakens has left scientists on Earth skeptical of the film’s interpretation of physics. In particular, the movie’s starring robot and super-weapon have been subject to the most concerns about improbability.
One has only to watch the trailer for The Force Awakens to fall instantly in love with the film’s new robotic sidekick, BB-8. An adorable, spherical droid with a dome-shaped head, BB-8 also is fascinating from a scientific perspective. To achieve high speeds, BB-8 rolls its body forward while keeping its head upright. The actual mechanics of this droid are completely plausible, as many dedicated fans have already built working replicas. Though BB-8 could roll on a wood floor with relative ease, its travels on more rugged terrain—such as the sands of Jakku—would be significantly more difficult than the film suggests.
Picture yourself riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. The wheels are able to move forward because there is enough traction between the wheel and the ground. Now imagine that you have driven onto a sandy beach. Pedaling this bicycle suddenly becomes much more difficult. The wheels on a bicycle require rotational friction to turn. Sand creates significantly less friction than solid ground, resulting in the tendency for objects to slide rather than roll.
“BB-8, a smooth rolling metal spherical ball, would have skidded uncontrollably on sand,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, said on Twitter. Unfortunately, the new fan-favorite would not have been much help in escaping from the sand-covered planet of Jakku.
The film’s heroes, however, are not alone in defying the laws of physics. The new assortment of villains, known collectively as the First Order, has built a planet-destroying weapon with some crucial flaws. The name of this weapon—Starkiller Base—is quite appropriate: it absorbs the energy of the nearest star to power its enormous gun, which is used to obliterate several planets at once. Unfortunately for the First Order, the laws of thermodynamics common to the known universe would pose a major threat to the safety of those onboard the base.
Assuming that the consumed star was even 10 percent the size of our sun, Starkiller base would have more than enough energy to decimate the five planets that meet their ill-fate in the film. However, the law of conservation of energy states that energy cannot simply disappear. In converting the matter of the sun into usable power, much of the excess energy would be converted into thermal energy. This is a vast amount of heat, capable of evaporating everything on the surface of the base. For such a disaster to be prevented, the base would need to have an immense cooling system to handle the heat. Perhaps this is why the First Order chose an icy planet as the base of operations for its super-weapon. The villainous faction’s disregard for the laws of nature has a high cost, culminating in the loss of countless innocent lives.
Though the Star Wars films may have moments of major scientific implausibility, these do not diminish the sense of wonder and awe they evoke. Films like The Force Awakens fuel the desire to achieve what seems impossible. Such an impulse can lead to great innovations in the world—and, perhaps one day, in galaxies far, far away.