As Star Wars: The Force Awakens—the latest installment in the Star Wars saga—prepares to take us back to a galaxy far, far away, few could be more excited than the hordes of scientists and engineers whom the film series inspired.
“I think there’s a lot of scientists who would say that these movies gave [them] the mental attitude that maybe it can be done,” says Elizabeth Holm, a materials scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. “They kept me thinking outside the current—the ‘now’—and toward the future.”
In turn, scientists have turned their gaze toward the movie universe itself, analyzing Star Wars across practically all scientific disciplines, from plasma physics to psychology and everything in between. It’s not only a labor of love; it’s the galaxy’s greatest teaching tool.
“If you can take some aspect of [a movie] and find some legitimate science in it, there’s this twist—this a-ha!,” says Jim Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota who has championed pop culture–savvy science communication. “It’s a way to make contact.”
In time for the latest movie, we run through some of the best, newest, and most unexpected ways that Star Wars has snuck its way into the scientific literature—as a resource for teaching, as inspiration, and as a way to advise characters from a faraway galaxy through the events of long, long ago.
How to Blow Up the Death Star
Not only has the Death Star fascinated economists and policy analysts, who have found it to be a wasteful boondoggle of galactic proportions; the complexity and destructive force of the Empire's "ultimate weapon" also darkly fascinates scientists and engineers.
Walker applied real-world techniques to the notoriously explosion-prone Death Star, as an example for his civil engineering students of analyzing flaws in big engineering projects. After obtaining its plans from an official technical manual, he and his colleagues gave themselves the equivalent of four days—the amount of time the Rebel Alliance had with the plans—to test two different flaw-finding techniques.
One, a film-appropriate holdover from the 1970s, itemized the flaws of each system component, down to the last superlaser tributary beam shaft. The other, more modern approach visualized the station as a more abstract branching network, defining vulnerabilities as especially connected or critically placed hubs.
The two analyses, which will be published in Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, offer mixed results. The 1970s-era techniques not only failed to find the film’s exploit — a thermal exhaust port no larger than a womp rat — but also took the equivalent of ten days to complete, much too long to save the film’s rebel stronghold of Yavin 4.
The more modern analysis, however, rapidly identified the thermal exhaust port along with other flaws, including the Death Star’s poorly secured artificial gravity system and lack of biowarfare defenses.
The rebels’ best move, according to the study? “You could have R2-D2 log into the Imperial network and upload a computer virus,” says Walker, “but then you’d end up with Independence Day—which is nowhere near as good as Star Wars.”
Healthcare in a Galaxy Far, Far Away
The Skywalkers, in particular, get close attention: Luke, for his remarkably advanced robotic arm, and his father Anakin, who arguably has cinema’s most iconic respiratory ailment.
Ronan Berg and Ronni Plovsing, physicians at Denmark’s University Hospital Rigshospitalet, have used the Sith lord’s distinctive rattle to help teach medical students how to diagnose respiratory illnesses, given that Vader appears to have them all.
Their peer-reviewed study, a scene-by-scene breakdown of Vader’s breathing habits, attributes Vader’s pulmonary problems to breathing in the hot gas and volcanic particles on Mustafar, where he lost a climactic duel to Obi Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith. The scalding gases left his lungs chronically inflamed, with tissue thickened and stiffened by scarring.
According to Berg, the findings point to the suit being an unorthodox, wearable pressurized hyperbaric chamber, designed to force air into his lungs. But even though the suit also seems to help with Vader’s skin burns, it wouldn’t be Berg’s preference. “My first choice of treatment would be lung transplantation,” he says, especially since organ donation should have been easy for the totalitarian Empire.
“It can’t be that difficult to get a useful pair of lungs for the second-in-command,” he adds.
Getting Inside Darth Vader’s Head
But the ailments of the Star Wars universe aren’t just physical. In recent years, psychiatrists have turned to the cast of Star Wars in an effort to better explain the hallmarks of mental illness to medical students and the broader public.
“These are archetypal characters that everybody can relate to,” says Ryan C.W. Hall, a forensic psychiatrist at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. “All of us have suffering and adversity. We’d like to hope that we do as well as these characters—that we rise and overcome.”
The psychiatric literature is fascinated in particular with Anakin Skywalker, the tragically fallen Jedi who becomes Darth Vader.
In a 2011 letter to the editor in Psychiatry Research, a French team led by psychiatrist Eric Bui claimed that Anakin Skywalker displayed borderline personality disorder, a serious mental illness marked by difficult social interactions, impulsive behavior, and unstable moods.
If the diagnosis holds—it’s currently controversial—Skywalker is hardly unique among Earthlings. According to estimates from the National Institute of Mental Health, over three million U.S. adults share the diagnosis.
Bui notes, though, that “it is very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately diagnose a movie character. The point of our work was to provide an example that may be helpful in medical education.”
“As Obi-Wan put it," he adds, "‘only a Sith Lord [would] deal in absolutes.’”
The Mind’s Phantom Menaces
Vader isn’t the only Star Wars villain to fall under the microscope. Earlier this year, Hall and Susan Hatters Friedman of the University of Auckland published three sweeping papers that analyze a vast array of Star Wars heroes, villains, and supporting characters.
Jabba the Hutt, for instance, seems to display the signs of a clinical psychopath. The freewheeling Lando Calrissian might have a gambling addiction. And the original trilogy’s sweetly sad Obi Wan Kenobi could help illustrate the subtle signs of depression among the elderly.
But Hall emphasizes that Star Wars’ pedagogical value also comes from those who don’t have any diagnosable illness at all. Friedman and Hall found that Emperor Palpatine—the cruel, callous Sith Lord who rules the Galactic Empire—was mentally healthy, freely choosing to inflict cosmic harm.
Palpatine’s example is important, says Hall, since “when you look at awful things that happen, sometimes we too easily want to say that all problems are due to mental illness. But folks with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the actual ones perpetrating it.”
On a lighter note, the team also provisionally diagnosed Jar Jar Binks, the bumbling Gungan character in the prequels, with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—not the sort of manipulative tendencies outlined by the in-vogue “Darth Jar Jar” fan theory, which posits that Binks malevolently uses the Force as a co-conspirator of Palpatine.
Finding the Real Tatooine
Star Wars opens with Luke stuck on Tatooine, a barren desert planet rife with scum and villainy. But even this desolate outpost offers up unexpected beauty, in the form of a marvelous, alien double sunset.
Tatooine is an oddity called a circumbinary planet, and astronomers are on the hunt for real-world lookalikes.
Researchers find binary star systems fascinating because of their turbulent gravitational environments, which complicate how planets clump up from motes of interstellar dust.
They’re also surprisingly common—about half of all stars visible from Earth, according to Tennessee State University astronomer Matthew Muterspaugh—so quantifying their planets is crucial to astronomers’ guesses for the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.
In the mid-2000s, Muterspaugh and Maciej Konacki of the Polish Academy of Sciences held the biggest ever hunt for circumbinary planets. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Muterspaugh titled it The Attempt To Observe Outer-planets In Non-single-stellar Environments—TATOOINE, for short.
Konacki describes the acronym as “almost as impressive as the project itself,” which scanned binary stars’ light spectra for the telltale wobbles caused by an orbiting planet.
The cleverly contrived name seems to have gotten the thumbs-up from George Lucas himself. Muterspaugh even received a VIP tour of Skywalker Ranch, Lucasfilm’s bucolic headquarters. “It was awesome,” he says.
Though the initial results from TATOOINE haven’t yielded a positive ID, another exoplanet search from the Kepler Space Telescope has confirmed their existence. And Konacki is continuing his search for circumbinary planets with a new ground-based telescope network called Solaris, named for a classic Polish sci-fi novel.
The astronomers suspect that the universe holds worlds even more fantastical than the Skywalkers’ arid home planet — harboring a sense of wonder like the many Star Wars-savvy scientists before and after them.
“The universe is more interesting than Star Wars,” says Konacki. “There are things in the universe that are more surprising than what filmmakers can come up with.”
Follow Michael Greshko on Twitter.