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Feature: Materials World    Vol. 57, No. 5, pp. 12-18

The (Mostly Improbable) Materials Science
and Engineering of the Star Wars Universe


About the May 2005 Issue




The print and/or PDF versions of the article can be acquired via the TMS Document Center.



Constructing Lightsabers
George Lucas, right, executive producer and writer of the Star Wars movies, reviews a variety of handles for lightsabers.



Constructing the Deathstar
The Death Star under construction, quite literally, for Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.



General Grievous
A new villain introduced in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is General Grievous. He is described on the Star Wars web site as “a twisted melding of flesh and metal.”



The Wookies
Wookies, fur-covered warriors, are among the odd creatures that roam the Star Wars universe.




Episode IV: A New Hope* 1977
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 1980
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 1983
Episode I: The Phantom Menace 1999
Episode II: Attack of the Clones 2002
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith 2005

*Original title was simply Star Wars.



Anakin Skywalker, played by Hayden Christensen, has a lightsaber drawn and ready to battle in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.



Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), left, and Senator Amidala/Padme Naberie-Skywalker (Natalie Portman) right, in their futuristic world of tall metal buildings and commuter traffic in the sky.



Figure A

(a) A schematic drawing of a lightsaber during the plasmon-initiation process. (b) A schematic of the fully extended lightsaber. (c) Element 138 on the periodic table (filled 5g shell). (d) A three-dimensional schematic of lightsaber interior when weapon is off. (e) A schematic of the lightsaber cross section.












All movie images by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Questions? Contact
2005 The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society

Star Wars


A new universe was unveiled. It was a place teeming with odd life forms, where metallic space vehicles sped above the landscape, where humans, robots, and everything in between coexisted—sometimes harmoniously, and where classic battles of good versus evil were choreographed against the dramatic backdrop of outer space. It was also a universe of futuristic beings who could fly faster than the speed of light, and yet worked metals using ancient methods. It was a place where vehicles defied gravity in inexplicable ways, and planet-hopping people were unaffected by changing atmospheres. If examined too closely, the Star Wars universe was often an exciting world of bad science.


Just for fun, JOM invited readers to consider one of two problems: imagine they were assigned to project manage either the construction of a Death Star or lightsaber, and then write a brief summary of how they would tackle the problem. The task was daunting, and the creativity of TMS members astounding. In all contributions, the views expressed are those of the individuals and not the organization that employs them.


Date: Year 21 of the Glorious Galactic
Empire, etc., etc.
To: Gol Dragen, Program Manager, Imperial Science Foundation.
From: MAT-2NM, Design Droid, Imperial Corps of Engineers.
Subject: Materials Issues in ‘Death Star’ PRD.

As you are aware, the current working design for the “Death Star” excess planetary removal device (PRD) differs substantially from the original engineering concept. Working under the Faster, Better, Cheaper paradigm, our engineers suggested that the optimal PRD harnesses a pre-existing asteroid or moonlet, accelerates it to near light speed (NLS), and collides it with the planet in question. This design was lauded for its all-natural approach to planetary removal.

We are informed, however, that intervention at the highest Imperial levels requires a design change from a natural to an artificial moonlet in order to “demonstrate the Empire’s technological superiority.” Further, this PRD is not a single-use device, but houses a multi-use accelerated antiproton beam (AAB), as well as a military base, commerce arcade, luxury resort, garbage compactor, and so on.

The Imperial Science Foundation has requested that the engineering team identify the highest-priority materials-related issue in the PRD design, in order to target research grant funding at Alderaan universities.

While construction of such a large object would appear problematic, in fact hull and interior structure designs are straightforward. With the appropriate use of gravity generators, we can limit structural forces to well within tolerance for the usual carbon-fiber composite materials. Self-gravity is not an issue in an object of this density, nor is the hull pressure differential (about one standard atmosphere).

The AAB design, however, poses significant problems. Negatively charged antiprotons will be generated in a high-energy cyclotron, selectively refined from the myriad of resulting particles, contained in a magnetic storage vessel, and ultimately deployed by accelerating to NLS in an equatorial accelerator before being beamed at the planetary target. Each of these steps requires generation of a stable, sustained magnetic field several orders of magnitude larger than previously obtained. Superconducting coils will generate these fields; however, at these levels any resistivity in the coils will couple to the external field and impart huge stresses—up to a terapascal. No known material can sustain these loads. Thus, research must focus on superconductors of very high critical current and extreme microstructural perfection to avoid any field-coupling effects.

Incidentally, because of this containment design, the PRD will contain areas of very high magnetic field, rendering any ferromagnetic materials a danger. Not only must the PRD design avoid such materials, but they also must be prevented from entering the PRD from outside. Quartz watches and many droids (including myself) will not function; credit cards will be erased; jewelry, particularly piercings, will become hazardous to the wearer; and many orthodontic and orthopedic devices will be contraindicated. Our safety engineers recommend signage to this effect at all PRD entrances.

Elizabeth Holm
Materials and Process Modeling Department
Sandia National Laboratories

Gary N. McGovney
High Integrity Software Systems
Sandia National Laboratories


Given that I was tasked with leading the construction of a Death Star, I would first search the literature to see if somebody else has already done it. Often times, you think you have come up with an original idea only to find out that somebody has already published it. I would do more than an Internet search that is so common today and delve into the local library. However, on-line sources do have their merits. For example, I found an article in the TMS Document Center on one ring to rule them all. I wish I could get the composition and heat treatment for that ring and this Death Star project would be a breeze. I might even finish several other projects I have been working on.

After searching the literature I would also have to check the local, state, federal, and possibly United Nations statutes to see if there are any regulations against building a Death Star. Often times these regulations dictate how and if ever you can finish a project. Then I would assemble a team of materials and manufacturing experts. These experts would have to cover the gamut of engineering disciplines and viewpoints. We would have people from industry, academia, and even national laboratories. I don’t know who we can get to cover antimatter engines and hyperdrives, but maybe the “experts” in nanotechnology would know. We will have to mine either the moon or several asteroids to get the raw materials to make the approximately 19 billion tons of finished product. That is of course if the Internet source I found is correct. Just thinking about the associated Gantt chart is making my head spin.

As far as building a lightsaber, it has already been done by the folks at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The code name for it is the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS). The real problem is miniaturizing it to something that you can hold in your hand. The lightsaber project is not a high priority since the expected cost of miniaturization is 100 times that of the full-size version. In the mean time, I think ORNL is going to use the SNS for science instead of battling intergalactic empires determined to take over the galaxy.

James C. Foley
Materials Science and Technology Division
Los Alamos National Laboratory


Admiral Jimrob, head of the Imperial Logistics Command’s Special Projects Directorate, looked up at the frail-looking individual who had entered his office. “He is not nearly as imposing as his reputation suggests,” Jimrob thought as he stood to greet his visitor. The other members of Jimrob’s staff also rose from their positions around the conference table and greeted the Imperial Governor of the Outland Regions. “Grand Moff Tarkin, thank you for coming. I understand that you had some questions about our assessment of this project’s feasibility? I cannot see how any rational individual could question our conclusions.”

Jimrob managed to keep his voice bereft of any hint of the contempt he felt; it seemed as if the only job of Imperial functionaries was to cook up pet projects that mired his staff in mountains of assessment. Most of these proposals were absurd, but this one was completely insane! A battle station the size of a moon! Jimrob suppressed a laugh as he recalled his staff’s first reaction to the analysis request; it was a credit to their professionalism that the final report was as rigorous as any they had issued. The logistical implications of this concept were huge and were exhaustively detailed in the report: entire asteroid belts would have to be consumed just to provide enough battle steel for its construction, new materials would have to be developed for some applications, and the smelting and metal processing facilities of half the Empire would be required to dedicate their entire output. Long-term operational considerations were even greater. The consumables required to support the station’s staff, troops, and fighter complements were massive . . . but it was the energy requirements that were this project’s greatest hurdle. The power required to move this station, energize its systems, and fire its main weapon had to come from somewhere . . . and the Imperial economy and infrastructure could not support it. There wasn’t a shipyard in space capable of handling this project . . . and the fool wanted this done in secret!

Jimrob’s collar suddenly seemed to be too tight, and as he reached up to loosen it the pressure suddenly increased. His staff looked on in horror as he tried to gasp for air, flailed about frantically, and then collapsed in a lifeless heap. Tarkin turned his gaze upon the rest of the staff and said, “I trust that you are now more motivated to find solutions to these problems; the Emperor has authorized the project and will not tolerate failure.” With that, he strode out, accompanied by the black-armored figure that had unobtrusively entered the room behind him.

Michael Vinarcik
Ford Motor Company


Master Obi-Wan Kenobi described a lightsaber as “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” Contrary to what the name might imply to the uninitiated, the deadly blade of a lightsaber is not actually made up of pure light. By consulting with official records (the recently released DVD trilogy), we see that a lightsaber blade performs feats that no mere beam of light is capable of: parrying similar blades, casting shadows, and stopping in mid-air a short distance from its source (Figure A).

Lightsaber blades actually have solid metal cores. This central part of the formidable weapon is made of a single element, metachlorium (Me), number 138 on the periodic table, whose discovery shattered all materials records for melting point and cohesive energy. An energy cell powers three pumping lasers that are focused onto a coupling crystal at the base of the blade core, allowing a unique electromagnetic frequency to travel along the blade core as surface plasmons. Waste heat causes the blade core to rapidly expand by a factor of four or more, until it reaches its full size.

Magnetic suspension (which produces the weapon’s characteristic hum) physically isolates the Me rod, containing the intense surface oscillations safely on the blade exterior. Some electromagnetic energy escapes as light in a color corresponding to coupling frequency, but the core contains almost all of it until coupled to another object, at which time plasmon energy and blade heat enables it to slice through steel like a knife through butter.

Joseph F. AuBuchon and Joel Hollingsworth
Graduate Student Researchers
Materials Science and Engineering Program
University of California, San Diego


We’ve got some serious workforce issues with the Death Star project, Boss. I mean, the last crew we had out isn’t really . . . available . . . or alive, for that matter. So we’re going to need a whole new crop of workers, and our pipeline has some significant problems.

Don’t blame me; it was your decision to cut the research programs. First it was the nanotech program, then the iojoining, and just last year the last program in multifunctional foams ended. I know you didn’t predict it, but when you didn’t fund the R&D, it diminished the entire field, top to bottom. I mean, nobody teaches old-fashioned structural photonics anymore, and none of the students complain because they don’t see a future in it. And that’s just one example; I’ve got hundreds of ‘em.

The upshot is that now we have this big project with no workforce. Do you have any idea how hard it is to weld an ion baffler on a fanblade? Or to eliminate cross currents in the shape-memory core of a solar sailer? A project this size—we’re going to need welders, coatings specialists, structural composite designers, multifunctional shield consultants, photonic engineers—and we don’t have them. No, today it’s all attotech, and cloning, and increasing the video bandwidth of those little holograms. Not an engineer who can work with a self-healing ion core in sight. Back in my day, you could make a good living welding ion bafflers. But you tell it to the youth of today, and they won’t believe you.

Toni Marechaux
National Academies Board on Manufacturing and Engineering and Design


Launching a structure the size of a moon would be a prohibitive prospect. Therefore, this project will require space-based manufacturing. In addition, from a design perspective, mass reduction is critical to enable the structure to navigate the galaxies without undue gravitational attraction to other heavenly bodies.

One concept is to parasitize Earth’s moon. The moon contains potentially valuable mineral resources that can be utilized for construction. So, let’s assume that we set up a manufacturing facility on the moon. I would envision a truss-structure comprised of composite tubes as making up the backbone. These could be produced by a continuous extrusion process that utilizes carbon nanotubes, delivered to the moon, embedded in a magnesium matrix derived from deposits on the moon. To cover the structure, a magnesium skin, again utilizing the moon’s resources, would be produced by a powder-rolling operation. This would provide a lightweight structure resistant to attack by the atomic oxygen in the atmosphere.

Coating the surface of the skin would be titanium dioxide nanoparticles, also obtained using the resources of the moon, in the form of Graetzel cells. These would provide solar power maintenance of internal life support systems. Pulse power for weaponry could be supplied from fusion reactions utilizing the helium in the solar wind.

Warren Hunt
Technical Department


From my own experience with lasers, the more powerful ones are also much bigger. A key question is how much laser power is needed? Also, what laser wavelength would be preferred to allow maximum coupling to body parts and assorted weapons that are anticipated?

After knowing the power and wavelength, an optimum laser system (crystal or ionized gas) must be identified. A decision must be made between continuous wave or pulsed operation mode. A pulsed mode would allow higher operation power with a lower cooling requirement. This would help in portability. If the invention of a new laser system is required to achieve the optimum wavelength, for example, a long research period may be needed to select and optimize the output power.

If an existing laser system could be used, the packaging of the system for optimum portability will be the next huge challenge. The key is to reduce the weight of the power supply or to figure out how to transmit the power without an umbilical from a base supply to the battlefield. This may be done by microwaves, perhaps. Also, the high power level would probably need a large cooling capacity, probably needing a gas-turbine-powered cooling fan.

In the end the toughest thing might be to get a volunteer to hold the saber that has a red hot handle and a small jet engine attached to the end; all the while keeping a microwave receiver dish pointed to the power supply that is sending a megawatt beam at him or her. Whew! Not my job, man.

Iver E. Anderson
Ames Laboratory
Iowa State University


I hate to break it to you, Boss, but it’s not the light that makes it a saber. The light is just a side effect of the optical reflection of the nanoparticles in the beam. If you use 2 nanometer particles, you get red, 5 nanometer, you get green. Now, we’ll have to use rare-earths for the particles, so we’ll need a good source, which means opening up the Mountain Pass Mine. Let me put a vox in to a buddy of mine at MegaMoly and see what we can do there.

There are a couple of interesting issues here that we’ll have to deal with up front. See, the capillary forces will keep most of the particles entrained in the magnetic field, but every time it’s used, you’ll lose about 5% of them. Even though the particles are relatively heavy, they’re moving very fast and some could be inhaled or ingested, so we’ll have to do an environmental impact statement. On the other hand, the lost particles will have to be replenished. That’ll be a steady market if we handle the IP right.

Power is going to be a problem, because as you know, we are still stuck with the energy density of a lithium ion battery. Even the hydrogen nano fuel cells don’t give us much of an advantage there, especially on worlds where they do moisture farming and you can’t legally use water for photoelectrolysis.

Finally, if you want some product differentiation, I think we should drop the phrase “light saber.” Like I said, light is kind of a misnomer (it’s a by-product, really) . . . and “saber” is so 20th century. I’m thinking MagBlade.™ Let me vox the marketing department and get their take.

Toni Marechaux
National Academies Board on Manufacturing and Engineering and Design


Model this new design from a flashlight except the light beam would be a high-energy plasma that operates in air and is contained by a magnetic field. All components operate from within the hilt of the saber.

The plasma has the ability to degrade the structure and mechanical properties of any material it contacts. The power source would be nuclear, albeit a small reactor; the by-products of the nuclear reaction is the plasma source. Obviously, proper disposal is required; otherwise, the garbage could become “mixed waste.”

Wayne Reitz
Reitz Consulting


What a great application for superplastic forming. We’ll just weld fine-grained titanium plates together, heat it from the sun with aluminized myler reflectors, and blow up a Death Star like a balloon.

Eric M. Taleff
Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Texas at Austin

When Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith opens on May 19, Tom Rogers will be in the audience at midnight for the first viewing. He hopes for the best: an evening of epic entertainment combined with imaginative, yet plausible science and technology. But Rogers, who operates a web site called Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, is prepared for the worst: a special-effects showcase of illogical science.

If Revenge of the Sith conforms with the novelization by the same name that was released in April, it will feature some new technology, such as a “holonet” to display up-to-the-minute news and information, surgical droids who deliver babies, and General Grievous, a villain made of “armorplast-plated duranium” so strong it repels the fire of a laser cannon. Whether this stepped-up gadgetry will add some credibility to the Star Wars series remains to be seen. The movies were never considered to be hallmarks of scientific accuracy.

Revenge of the Sith is expected to be the last Star Wars movie, and thus Rogers’ only hope for a new episode that combines intergalactic adventures with sensible science. Maybe he will get what he wants. After all, it’s been proven again and again that in the Star Wars universe, anything is possible.


Each of the Stars Wars movies begins with a white-on-black, scrolling update to set the stage for the action to come. It’s no accident that the technique is reminiscent of serial adventures such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers that played in theaters in the 1930s through 1950s. Writer and Executive Producer George Lucas has said in interviews that he wanted to emulate those old-time dramas, complete with their monsters, heroes, and cliffhanger endings.

The first three movies (Episodes IV–VI) achieved that goal, and for that, Rogers, a movie buff, high-school physics teacher, and former mechanical engineer, was appreciative.

“There was a sense of excitement about the movie,” Rogers said. “The characters were really strong, the various strange beings they had were really interesting to look at. Overall, it was a good story, and good fun—not the kind of thing you take too seriously.”

"Within the science fiction arena you could go out and create a whole world with its own set of physics, but they should be consistent. "
Tom Rogers
Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics

The later movies strayed from their swashbuckling roots, though, and seemed to have lost some of the charm of the earlier episodes that “did not take themselves too seriously,” Rogers said. Somehow, that made the bad science less forgivable. For example, a pet peeve of his from The Phantom Menace is the bubble-like shields used by a somewhat primitive society.

The shield material acts as a force field around the underwater city of Otoh Gunga, keeping water out but allowing humans to walk through. The same shields were employed for protection in a later battle scene. On the Star Wars web site, the bubbles are described as “hydrostatic force-fields that contain breathable atmospheres for the city’s inhabitants. Though they are rigid enough to keep the water out, they can be breached by Gungans swimming to and from the city.”

Rogers’ question is this: “Why didn’t the droids just march up, stick their arms through the bubbles (in the battle scene) and drop grenades in?” He also questions why this same civilization was only advanced enough to use beasts of burden for transportation, but had access to high-tech shielding devices. His problem is not with imaginary technology, Rogers said—like Lucas, he is a fan of the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials—but with scenes that contradict one another. “Within the science fiction arena you could go out and create a whole world with its own set of physics, but they should be consistent,” he said.

Other instances of imaginative science and engineering in Star Wars movies include:

  • A droid factory where armies of robots were built to serve the empire. The factory, operated by robots, involved conveyor belts to move production along and numerous cauldrons of molten metal that was poured into forms to harden.
  • Cloud City, a floating mining colony that extracted Tibanna gas from the planet Bespin.
  • Carbon-freezing chambers for containment of the Tibanna gas. The carbon-freezing chambers were used to encase organic matter—such as good guys—and place them in hibernation.
  • Geonosians, insect-like creatures, some with wings, that spoke in clicks and lived in hives. In battle, they flew in starfighter vehicles with turret-mounted laser cannon. They were excellent at mechanical construction and operated droid foundries.
  • Gungans, creatures with ducklike bills for rooting out food and who build weapons out of viscous plasma material mined from Naboo’s oceans. The material is also an energy source. The Gungans developed technology that allows them to grow their buildings and vehicles.
  • And . . .


Essential to every traditional science fiction movie are futuristic weapons, and Star Wars honored the genre with two standouts: the lightsaber and Death Star.

The lightsaber had a glowing, humming light for a blade. The movies never explain what the blade is made of, but the databank describes it as “a shaft of pure energy about a meter long.” That energy can cut through anything, even metal, but not through the blade of another lightsaber.

In her book, The Science of Star Wars, Jeanne Cavelos tried to imagine what kind of energy would be contained in such a weapon. It could not be a laser for several reasons. For example, a laser beam would only be visible in air dense with dust, and the beam would travel in a straight line until it was absorbed, reflected, bent, or scattered by some obstruction.

Her alternative is plasma—a gas that has been heated to extremely high temperatures. Plasma can be powerful, but containing it to a particular shape and region, such as the confines of the lightsaber shaft, would pose some hurdles science has not yet overcome. And if they were, the handler would be in trouble. The high-powered plasma would burn the hands holding the weapon, Cavelos learned in her research.

“In that case, perhaps Luke would prefer to mail the saber . . . and activate it by remote control,” she wrote.

If he received such a package, villain Darth Vader’s response might be to train the lasers of the Death Star on Tatooine and eradicate Luke’s home planet. The Death Star, featured on the cover of this issue and in Star Wars episodes IV and VI, is a moon-sized metallic battle station. The structure can fire multiple laser beams that meet at the center of a circle, join together, and then head toward their target as one large beam. Cavelos had a basic problem with that concept: if laser beams are aimed at one another, they will not join, but will only cross paths and continue in a straight line.


Trying to analyze the weapons of a science fiction movie is like trying to figure out the Force. Some things have to be taken on faith. At least that’s how Alan Dean Foster sees it. Foster, a prolific science fiction writer, was hired before Star Wars was released in 1977 to ghostwrite a novel based on the movie. The novel, called Star Wars and credited to George Lucas, would be released at the same time as the movie to quench an anticipated appetite for more information.

In preparing to write the novel, Foster was shown the script, pre-production artwork, some short film clips, and the warehouse where the special effects were being developed by Lucas’s production company. Foster was impressed with the work of this unknown director and sensed that the movie in development could be something special.

"Nowadays a studio would probably have a scientist or a physics professor go over (the script)."
Alan Dean Foster
Star Wars

“You could tell right away that this was somebody, as opposed to the typical Hollywood producer, who had grown up with science fiction,” Foster said. He was particularly impressed with scenes involving space travel, which looked more real than any movie he’d seen before.

As he adapted the script into a novel, Foster added some technical detail and corrected what might be the most maligned flub that Star Wars critics seize on. In the first movie, while bragging about the speed of his Millennium Falcon ship, Han Solo said, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.” Because a parsec is a measure of distance, not time, the statement made little sense. In the book, Foster changed the line to say Solo’s ship “made the Kessel Run in 12 standard time units.”

Foster had no criticism of Lucas for including faulty science, though. “When you’re making a movie you barely have time to breathe,” he said. “Nowadays a studio would probably have a scientist or a physics professor go over (the script).”

The novel agreed with the movie that the Star Wars universe was mostly metallic, from its vehicles to weapons to creatures. The reason was not necessarily because all of the planets contained plentiful ore. Instead, “That was the material that was known at the time,” Foster said. “When you’re making a film for a general audience, it has to be something people can relate to.” For example, robots should be metallic because people are used to seeing metal robots, he said. “If you had a porcelain robot walking around, people could not imagine it.”

In the same vein, audiences expect space ships to make noise when they fly in a vacuum, and even more when they explode. Most movies, including the Star Wars series, give the audiences what they want. Movies meant to entertain the masses are granted such license, Foster believes. “When you’re writing for a nonspecialist audience you have to simplify things,” he said.

When he writes original science fiction, which is targeted to a more selected audience, Foster enjoys including new materials that can add a futuristic feel to his stories. “I had such a wonderful time with metallic glass when I found out about that,” he said. “I use ceramics a lot, or aerogels; I had fun with aerogels.”

Describing the properties of such unique materials in a general-interest movie might prove more difficult than in a science fiction book aimed toward a niche audience, Foster said. “What you’d end up with is a scientific dissertation with long periods of exposition.” Not exactly the stuff blockbusters are made of.


Before she became a writer, Cavelos was an astrophysicist, working in the astronaut-training division of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She eventually figured out that science fiction appealed to her more than science fact, and she switched to writing and teaching. Her analytical skills are still evident in her Science of Star Wars book, and so is her love of the original three movies. Cavelos admits she was awed the first time she saw Star Wars—“The opening shot . . . when the star destroyer comes out of the screen, it was so huge . . . I literally could not breathe, I remember thinking if that ship does not end I’m not going to be able to breathe.”

In her book, which was written primarily about the first three movies, she did not set out to debunk the movies, Cavelos said, but rather expand on the imaginings of Lucas. She knows Lucas was only attempting to entertain and made no pretense of doing otherwise, and Cavelos is all the more intrigued that some fictional concepts he proposed have begun to take hold in reality. For example, the perpetually worried humanoid robot C3PO appears to have feelings in the movies.

"Movies and entertainment are a way that much of the general public gets much of its information. Misinformation can become common knowledge."
Joe Petricca
American Film Institute

“In science fiction before Star Wars, it was always a horrible thing if your robot had emotions; they would run amok and try to destroy you,” Cavelos said. Now, scientists in robotic labs such as at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are trying to develop robots with emotions. If robots are going to serve humans, she said, the ability to recognize, express, and sense emotions in others could help them better understand people’s needs.

Star Wars fantasy is also moving toward reality in astronomy. When the first movie was released, the common belief was that planets were very rare in the universe, Cavelos said. “We were like this miraculous rarity in the universe, our solar system. Now, of course, we’re finding planets all over the universe.”

In another prediction of progress, lifelike prosthetics were essential in the Star Wars universe, where limbs seemed to be chopped off and replaced regularly. Darth Vader, the villain of the first three movies, was built from a variety of prosthetic limbs and artificial organs. And Luke Skywalker was fitted with a prosthetic arm that could sense pain and wield a weapon with speed and grace.

When the script was written, prosthetic limbs were hard plastic monstrosities. “Now people with them can climb mountains and ride bicycles,” Cavelos said. Prosthetics are also being equipped with sensors to alert the wearer to heat and cold, so, for instance, if they pick up a cup of coffee, they will know it is hot. And perhaps if a lightsaber gets too close, they will know enough to back off.


It’s doubtful that, after watching Star Wars, many people believed that creatures from around a galaxy could gather in a pub, converse, and be unaffected by atmospheric changes. Or that they determined that gravity was the same on all planets. Or that they concluded that metal will always be the best construction material, anytime, anywhere.

"I would think if George Lucas went to a science guy in 1975 and said, ‘I want to do this movie, would you help me make it realistic?’ the scientist would have laughed himself silly and said ‘This is ridiculous, you’ll have to throw out your whole story."
Jeanne Cavelos
The Science of Star Wars

But the American Film Institute (AFI), which will honor George Lucas with a Life Achievement Award in June, is making efforts to bring better science to the big screen. In July, the AFI will host a screenwriting workshop geared for scientists and engineers. Few moviegoers will pay to sit through a two-hour science lesson, but an entertaining movie can include valid science, said Joe Petricca, a vice dean at the film school and an organizer of the screenwriting workshop.

“Movies and entertainment are a way that much of the general public gets much of its information. Misinformation can become common knowledge,” Petricca said.

For Cavelos, who saw the first two Star Wars episodes more than 100 times each, bad science does not necessarily make for bad movies. It would have been nice if some of the flaws were corrected, she said. But, Cavelos said, for a movie intended to tell a simple tale of space adventure, the challenge might have been too great.

“I would think if George Lucas went to a science guy in 1975 and said, ‘I want to do this movie, would you help me make it realistic?’ the scientist would have laughed himself silly and said ‘This is ridiculous, you’ll have to throw out your whole story.’”

Maureen Byko is managing editor of JOM.