May the Fourth Be With You: The Science of Star Wars

By Jen A. Miller | Published

Who hasn’t thought of how to make a lightsaber, how tall is Chewbacca, really, and why are droids so charming? Here’s what our researchers say about the science behind Star Wars.

Why Do We Think BB-8 is So Cute?

Jeremy Bos is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and faculty advisor to the Robotics Systems Enterprise.

When I first saw BB-8, it reminded me of a pet. Why do we feel this way about droids like BB-8 and R2D2?

Jeremy Bos (JB): They’re designed to evoke an emotion from a storytelling sense. While they weren’t created by Jim Henson’s Muppet Factory, there’s a lot of ties between George Lucas, Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who voiced Yoda. They worked on each other’s movies, so Lucas had a professional relationship with people who had a long history of being involved in storytelling and sound design, as well as things that are both non-verbal and visual.

This is a perfect example of why the arts and humanities are needed as the rate of technological change accelerates. These disciplines help us make sense of the world.

"And having a pet is a very human thing. It’s part of our social behavior that when something is somewhat like us, or has intelligence, then we want to interact with it."Jeremy Bos

How is it different than what we feel about a more human-like droid, like C3PO?

JB: I’m sure you’ve heard of the uncanny valley — where, as robots become more and more human or human-like, and we see them as a mimicry, then we actually become repulsed by it. I don’t think we’re repulsed by C3PO, but we don’t feel the same way about him as BB-8 or R2D2.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in sandy locations and know what sand can do to a phone. How does something like a droid continue to work in a desert, like we see in “The Force Awakens” opening scene?

JB: You can go back to “A New Hope” in the original Star Wars trilogy, and C3PO is complaining about sand in his joints. But if you look at the construction of BB-8, there are no openings except for where tools come out, and those are completely sealed. Gravel may be a little bit more difficult. If gravel pieces are the size of the gap between BB-8’s rolling body and its head, they’re going to get stuck in there. 

man kneeling next to a yellow and black robot
Jeremy Bos is the faculty advisor for the Robotics Systems Enterprise.

Relative to robotics, the design of BB-8 is ideal because it’s an omnidirectional wheel. It can move in any direction where most robots have what are called non-holonomic constraints. They’re like cars, which can only move along the direction of its wheels. Those constraints limit the robot’s motion, but BB-8 can move in any direction.

R2D2 and C3PO are no spring chickens by the time we get to “The Last Jedi,” so how have they survived so long?

JB: We don’t know how to do that here now. Batteries don’t last that long. Electronics don’t last that long. One thing we have made that has lasted nearly as long are the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, which were launched in 1977. Those are much simpler than R2D2 and C3PO and they use nuclear sources.

How Does General Leia Survive in Space?

Carolyn A. Duncan is an assistant professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology.

I always assumed that if you get sucked into space, your body is ripped apart. What really happens?

Carolyn Duncan (CD): It’s not a complete explosion. In space there is no atmospheric pressure, so everything can’t stay in the body. If your lungs are full, that’s where you get into trouble because that air needs to escape somewhere.

Contrary to popular belief, when General Leia is in space in “The Last Jedi,” she didn’t freeze out there because space isn’t cold. You can be exposed to unfiltered radiation but it’s really a void. It’s a vacuum we’re talking about.

How long could a person survive in space?

CD: Typically, you’re going to die within about 15 seconds. The skin is strong enough to keep a lot of yourself together, but your skin will still start to bubble within 10 to 15 seconds. As for how Leia’s skin does not bubble that quickly, that’s where the Force has to come in — whatever the Force is, it’s pushing particles on her to keep atmospheric pressure on her.

Though you may never be as strong as a wookiee, you can still try in the SDC gym.   

Why is there gender backlash in this genre?

Patricia Sotirin is the director of CCM (Communication, Culture and Media) and a professor of communication in the Department of Humanities. She’s also one of the leads on the ADVANCE project to help build an inclusive culture on campus.

Why has there been such a virulent backlash to the new Star Wars movies, especially from a specific segment of male fans?

Patricia Sotirin (PS): The first trilogy was popular with an established fan base that identified with themes of fighting, conquest and, of course, masculinity. With the new characters and a new narrative direction in the Star Wars series, there’s a backlash in response to that shift. Anytime you compound differences like a woman and an ethnic or racial minority in a traditionally male leading role you see some of that backlash. 

"It’s a masculine — literally an imperial — narrative. So when you start introducing characters that are not only women, but bring a different sensibility to the story arc, it’s going to be a big change."Patricia Sotirin

We’ve seen a lot of success of minority- and women-led movies since the new Star Wars movies debuted, movies that overcame the same kind of animosity to become smash hits: “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel.” Is this the future?

PS: I hope it is. These movies have been extremely successful, not only within specific communities, but across the board. They’re still the unicorn movies, but I think we’ll see more unicorns. It took 25 years after “The Joy Luck Club” for us to see another major movie with an all-Asian cast and storyline. Hollywood is really big on repeating success, so I don’t think we’re going to have to wait another couple of decades. In the Department of Humanities, we address the cultural struggle over popular culture and the kind of vehement backlash we’ve seen against changes in the Star Wars movies. We don't critique individual fan responses; we recognize the historical and expansive cultural battles going on over our popular representations. This is all part of our current cultural polarizations, so we all need to take some responsibility for responding, even if we only say “that’s not ok.”

man wearing a Community Culture Media shirt
Patricia Sotirin is the director of the Community, Culture and Media program. 

Would Plasma Work in Lightsabers?

Jeana L. Collins is a lecturer in chemical engineering and researcher in microfluidics and microfluidic devices.

Take a tour of the Microfabrication Facility.  

What exactly is plasma?

Jeana Collins (JC): Something that everybody knows is lightning. That’s plasma, and you can change the color of plasma based on what elements you introduce, which is how you could get different colored lightsabers. With just our normal air, which we use to make an oxygen plasma for bonding our microfluidics together, the plasma has a pinkish-purple color. Put more argon in there and it’s more of a purple color. There’s a reactive sputter deposition that I’ve done making a silicon nitride and we got red.

I read a paper about plasma as light sabers from the journal Electrochemical Society that I’m going to quote from: “Lightsabers are pretty complex devices but essentially boil down to a few key elements: a power source and emitter to create light, a crystal to focus the light into a blade, a blade containment field, and a negatively charged fissure. In the Star Wars galaxy, a lightsaber creates energy, focuses it and contains it.”

JC: That sounds like lightning.

If you were given a grant to build a lightsaber, what would you use?

JC: Utilizing something similar to the electricity of lighting is on the right track. But plasma would be difficult to contain. For everything we do in the lab generating plasma, we use a chamber. We want to bombard a surface with a specific type of atom, so we pull a vacuum and generate a plasma in that vacuum chamber. The open-air part is tricky.

This has me thinking about “Back to the Future” and the importance of lightning.

JC: Don’t all these sci-fi and fantasy things come together? I know some people don’t like Star Wars because it’s too much sorcery. My opinion is that it’s just science we don’t understand yet. We continue to make new discoveries and come up with new ideas all the time — and science fiction has inspired a lot in our modern lives.

Could a human outrun a Wookiee?

Steve Elmer is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology. Thomas Bye is a graduate student who will graduate this spring with an MS in kinesiology.

Before our chat, I sent you the story from Runner’s World magazine about why the best pro-marathoners are rarely over six feet tall. It made me think of Chewbacca.

Thomas Bye (TB): Chewie is approximately eight feet tall and 330 pounds so he’s a big guy. The tallest human was 8 feet 1 inch, but he needed braces to walk. Chewie isn’t going to be a long-distance runner. Having all that strength means he’s more of a power athlete like a discus or shotput thrower.

man on a stationary bike with a respirator mask and tubes
Understanding the human body during exercise is the focus of Steve Elmer’s lab. 

From watching the Star Wars movies and evaluating how Chewie walks, it’s pretty similar to a human. His stride length is about two feet longer than that of a human. For long distance walking, though, Wookiees have all that fur, so it would be a little bit harder for them to stay cool and not get overheated. Humans have a big advantage in being able to sweat. 

Steve Elmer (SE): Chewie really is built as a fighter. According to Han Solo, Chewie can pull a man’s arms out of their sockets.

TB: We also found out that Wookiees live in the trees, so they are more suited for climbing than a human. Chewie is also more likely to have the foot structure of an ape, which brings us to the Achilles tendon. Humans are built for distance and to follow herd animals like deer until the deer tire out. Having an Achilles tendon helps us produce a lot more energy during long distances, and we don’t get as tired during walking, as opposed to Chewie, who doesn’t necessarily have one or has a smaller one.

What about Ewoks?

TB: The height and weight of an Ewok is approximately 3 feet, 4 inches tall, and 110 pounds, with a body mass index (BMI) of 48. The normal BMI for a healthy human is 18 to 25. Ronnie Coleman, a well-known body builder, has a BMI of 42. So Ewoks are very dense, and we also know that they’re strong like Wookies because they can take down a human.

An Ewok’s stride length is only 2 feet where a human’s is 5 feet. They have to take a lot more steps, so even if they are moving their legs faster, they’re still not going to move very fast in general. We kind of saw this in "The Empire Strikes Back” — they have a little bit of an abnormal gait where their leg swings around their body.

I know you’ve taught Star Wars in your classroom. Why use pop culture in teaching?

"We try to use a combination of things to mix it up, whether it’s Darth Vader’s breathing, or how many concussions Batman has. It’s a great way to instill some humor and fun into the classroom."Steve Elmer

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.

Last Modified 1:20 p.m. May, 15 2019