'Beginning to catch up with George Lucas'
'The Science of Star Wars'by Jeanne Cavelos
St. Martin's Press, $22.95
Review by L.D. Meagher
June 15, 1999
(CNN) -- Feel like brushing up on your planetary mechanics? Maybe you need a refresher course in theoretical exobiology. Or perhaps you'd like an update on the finer points of quantum physics. Then again, maybe you just want to know how Luke Skywalker's light saber works.
Jeanne Cavelos provides all that and more in "The Science of Star Wars," an intriguing examination of the scientific possibilities raised by the films of George Lucas. Cavelos is not only an astrophysicist, but also a hardcore "Star Wars" fan. Her fascination with the films fueled her interest in science.
Alas, as Cavelos pursued her studies, she learned that most of the fantastic elements of "Star Wars" -- interstellar travel, humanoid robots, alien life forms -- were considered impossibilities.
But more than 20 years later, advances in science make "Star Wars" seem a bit less impossible. As Cavelos puts it, "science is beginning to catch up with George Lucas."
The discovery of planets circling stars beyond our own, for example, increases the odds that there are other forms of intelligent life in our galaxy. Robotics, little more than a term coined by Isaac Asimov when the first "Star Wars" movie appeared in 1977 ("Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope"), is now a burgeoning industry.
And investigations into the fabric of space and time have yielded the suggestion that there could be an as-yet-undetected energy that connects everything in the universe -- a suggestion that sounds suspiciously like the Force.
Don't cry for Lucas
"The Science of Star Wars" is not an apologia for scientific blunders that litter the films. Indeed, Cavelos allows the scientists she interviewed to catalogue the various boo-boos Lucas made in telling his tales of "a galaxy far, far away."
Instead, the book "reverse engineers" the more spectacular elements of the saga. It takes the fantastic elements of the movies -- like faster-than-light travel -- and examines the current state of science to see if they're possible. More often than not the answer is "no." Or, more accurately, the answer is "not yet."
In the process, Cavelos delves into a wide range of scientific disciplines. Some of the material she covers is complex, but she manages to explain it in a way most people -- and especially "Star Wars" fans -- can easily understand. For instance, she takes a classic thought experiment, "Schrodinger's cat," and replaces the cat with Princess Leia. In the process, she makes it easier to comprehend the notion of "uncertainty" at the quantum level.
"The Science of Star Wars" is replete with examples like that one. Using the vocabulary of the films and a dash of humor, Cavelos manages to make some of the most mind-boggling notions of contemporary science understandable, interesting and even entertaining.
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