A N I N T E R V I E W
W I T H
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jeanne Cavelos, author of the new unofficial book THE SCIENCE OF STAR WARS. There were a lot of interesting things to discuss concerning her book, so let's get into it!
TFN: When did you first see Star Wars? What was your impression of it?
Jeanne: I saw the first movie within the first week or so of its release, in May
1977. I was 17 years old, a junior in high school planning to go to
college and study astrophysics. I'd been fascinated with space travel
the possibility of alien life since I was very small. (I used to love
TREK, which came out when I was 6 years old. I didn't know the word
"Trek," so I thought the name of the show was STAR TRUCK. I kept
for the truck to show up.) I loved to think about the big issues
in science fiction, like, Will the universe keep expanding or will it
collapse at some point? Does alien life exist? Could we travel
other stars? What will we do when the sun burns out?
I was completely blown away by the opening shot of STAR WARS (now
NEW HOPE). As that huge star destroyer flew out of the screen after
Princess Leia's ship, I literally felt like I couldn't breathe. I had
never seen such a huge spaceship in my life. My heart was racing--I was
totally hooked. People who didn't see the movies back then don't have
same experience with it. The effects were so much ahead of what had
done up to then; it was an amazing experience. By the end of the
was even more excited. I had never visited such a bizarre,
awe-inspiring, fully realized universe. I wanted to live in that
far, far away." And so I went back and visited, many, many times, for
hours at a time.
Jeanne: I saw the first movie within the first week or so of its release, in May 1977. I was 17 years old, a junior in high school planning to go to college and study astrophysics. I'd been fascinated with space travel and the possibility of alien life since I was very small. (I used to love STAR TREK, which came out when I was 6 years old. I didn't know the word "Trek," so I thought the name of the show was STAR TRUCK. I kept waiting for the truck to show up.) I loved to think about the big issues raised in science fiction, like, Will the universe keep expanding or will it collapse at some point? Does alien life exist? Could we travel rapidly to other stars? What will we do when the sun burns out?
I was completely blown away by the opening shot of STAR WARS (now called A NEW HOPE). As that huge star destroyer flew out of the screen after Princess Leia's ship, I literally felt like I couldn't breathe. I had never seen such a huge spaceship in my life. My heart was racing--I was totally hooked. People who didn't see the movies back then don't have the same experience with it. The effects were so much ahead of what had been done up to then; it was an amazing experience. By the end of the movie, I was even more excited. I had never visited such a bizarre, exhilarating, awe-inspiring, fully realized universe. I wanted to live in that "galaxy far, far away." And so I went back and visited, many, many times, for two hours at a time.
TFN: What is the new book about?
Jeanne: THE SCIENCE OF STAR WARS explores the science underlying the four STAR WARS films. I take the latest scientific theories and research and use them to illuminate what we see in STAR WARS, to consider how likely the movies are. The book answers questions posed by the movie, such as, How might spaceships like the Millennium Falcon make the exhilarating jump into hyperspace? Could light sabers possibly be built, and if so, how would they work? How close are we to creating robots that look and act like R2-D2 and C-3PO? Might we access a "force" with our minds to move objects and communicate telepathically with each other?
The book has five chapters: planetary environments; aliens; droids; spaceships and weapons; and the Force. People can find an expanded table of contents and excerpts from the book on my site, http://www.sff.net/people/jcavelos.
TFN: How do you approach parts of Star Wars that are NOT scientifically accurate?
Jeanne: My purpose in writing the book was not to nitpick, but to scientifically explore the STAR WARS universe. So I limit the nitpicking in the book to one sidebar, where I let scientists in a variety of fields share the scientific inaccuracies that most got their goats. Outside that sidebar, I'll point out when the events shown in the movie are clearly impossible--or scientifically very unlikely--yet I'll go on to explore whether similar events might be possible, or whether scientists have any theories that might allow us to avoid this problem. I don't white-wash the flaws in the films, but I'm far, far more interested in exploring the possibilities inherent in the films than in nitpicking them.
TFN: Lucasfilm is now suing the publisher of another unauthorized book about Star Wars. Is this a concern for this title?
Jeanne: I was very careful in writing the book not to infringe on the Lucas copyrights in any way. I am a huge fan of the movies and don't want to take anything away from George Lucas that is rightfully his. There are certain guidelines for writing unauthorized books, and I followed them carefully. The lawyers at the publishing house, St. Martin's Press, also looked carefully over the text to make sure it didn't infringe in any way. So that shouldn't be a problem.
TFN: What is the most scientifically accurate thing in the films? What most sparks the imagination of scientist and engineers?
Jeanne: That's a hard question to answer. But one clear example is the use of hyperspace to travel long distances. This is one of the top methods scientists now envision to travel rapidly from one star to another, or from one end of the galaxy to another. Hyperspace is an area outside the four-dimensional space-time of our experience, in additional dimensions. Scientists are now considering many ways of reaching hyperspace, and how it might serve as a "short cut" between one point and another, just as it does in the movies. Wormholes might be used to create hyperspace tunnels; or string theory might reveal ways to uncurl additional dimensions and use them for travel.
TFN: What is the impression of Star Wars in the scientific community? Star Trek seems to be the preferred fiction among them.
Jeanne: When STAR WARS first came out, most scientists considered it completely unscientific. I heard many of these arguments from my colleagues: We cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Life on Earth arose through such an unlikely combination of factors that the chance that all these factors exist on another planet to create alien life is vanishingly small. Sophisticated robots, when we can build them, will not act human and emotional, but will be logical. And the Force is pure fantasy.
Yet an amazing thing has happened. In the 22 years since the first STAR WARS movie came out, science has been catching up with George Lucas. Physicists have come up with theoretical methods of rapid space travel, as I mentioned earlier. Recent discoveries suggest alien planets and alien life are much more common than we previously believed. Many robotocists now think emotions may be a key component in creating intelligent robots. And a few scientists have theories that can incorporate the Force.
While many scientists still have this attitude that STAR WARS is not scientific, what I found in interviewing many scientists is a belief that a future involving many of the elements we see in the movies may well someday be possible.
TFN: Some people think it is too nitpicky to compare Star Wars and science since it is purely fantasy/fiction. What is your view on that?
Jeanne: In STAR WARS, George Lucas combined elements from many different sources and alchemized them into something completely new. Yet STAR WARS clearly has many science fictional elements in it. There are robots, space ships, aliens, lasers. So I think it's fair to examine whether those elements are presented in a realistic way. As I worked on the book and talked to fans, I ran into many of them who felt the science shouldn't be examined, particularly as relates to the Force. A few of them begged me to "leave it alone!" They were afraid that there *is* no science behind the STAR WARS films, and so don't want to see them destroyed by an in-depth examination. Yet this is not the case at all. These is a scientific basis behind much of what we see in the films. And there are even scientific theories that postulate a force similar to the Force! So don't be afraid.
TFN: What are you doing now and how has Star Wars affected your career?
Jeanne: Let me answer the second part first. STAR WARS fueled my interest in space travel and the possibility of alien life, and confirmed for me that I had chosen the right path--to study astrophysics. Later, though, as I worked in the field, teaching astronomy and working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA, I became frustrated when my colleagues did not find my interest in science fictional issues to be appropriate. (At NASA, I had a black & white photo of Han Solo firing the quad laser cannon in the pod of the FALCON over my desk. Many colleagues would comment on how they loved the movie, but in the next breath say how "silly" it was.) Exploring how one might reach "hyperspace" or under what conditions alien life might exist on other planets was not widely considered acceptable. (These days, such issues are believed much more possible and so are much more widely acceptable.)
So I felt I might belong more in science fiction. I went into a career in publishing and ran the science fiction/fantasy program at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where I worked for eight years. A few years ago, I decided I really wanted to focus on my own writing, so I left and moved to New Hampshire. This is my third book, and it really thrilled me to be able to combine my love of STAR WARS and my fascination with science, and to explore all those compelling questions raised by the movies. My next project is a trilogy of BABYLON 5 novels.
TFN: Will there be another "Science of" book about Episode I?
Jeanne: Although I haven't seen Episode 1 yet, I have learned a fair amount about it from various sources--including your site! So the book does include discussions of a number of scientific issues raised in THE PHANTOM MENACE.
If people want me to write another book about the new movie, though, I'd be happy to! Researching these fascinating issues--like could their be one force that simultaneously controls and connects the entire universe--is a wonderful experience. I can't imagine a better job than exploring the STAR WARS universe and getting paid for it!
TFN: There seems to be a distinct effort by Lucasfilm to make the ships and creatures more scientifically accurate. From what you've seen in the trailer and online, is this your impression?
Jeanne: Yes, I've felt that too. I don't think George Lucas has been terribly concerned with scientific accuracy at any point along the way. He has a vision and a story to tell, which is a fascinating blend of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology, and I believe that's his priority. But I think he has surrounded himself with people who are connected to science and concerned with it, and so when they design an alien, for example, it has a scientific basis to it that adds to its plausibility. I've noticed that in several cases.
TFN: Where will you be when Episode I comes out?
Jeanne: At the theater with the best screen and best sound within driving distance! And wearing my 22-year-old Han Solo T-shirt, which I've kept carefully in a box in my closet all this time.