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Science and the Original Star Wars Trilogy - part 2

Star Wars: Episode IV:
A New Hope

by Michael A. Dexter



Consider the really neat opening sequence with Princess Leia’s starship, the Tantive IV, being pursued by that enormous Imperial cruiser.

In subsequent episodes, those big, wedge-shaped Imperial starships were called “Stardestroyers,” but in A New Hope, they were consistently referred to as “Imperial cruisers.” And those “Imperial cruisers” were fast! The Tantive IV was clearly built for speed (heck the thing was practically all engine!), yet Darth Vader’s cruiser was able to run it down nonetheless. Later, Han Solo bragged about how fast the Millennium Falcon was, but we saw Imperial cruisers run it down, too, and Han even admitted that he couldn’t outrun them in normal space. [Luke: “At the rate they’re gaining!?”]

So how come, though they were clearly the same ships, they were about as fast and maneuverable as slugs in the following movies?

Han Solo bragged to Luke and Ben that the Millennium Falcon made the “Kessel Run” in less than 12 parsecs. He did this to boast about the ship’s speed! But parsecs are a unit of distance, not speed! (One parsec = 3.26 light-years.) [Yes, I know that fans have invented an “explanation” for Han’s seeming goof, but within the context of the movie, his statement made no sense.] On the dvd commentary, George Lucas claimed that his intent was to demonstrate that Han wasn’t quite the hotshot pilot he was claiming to be, but I think George Lucas was rewriting history, frankly. Besides, it was made quite clear in The Empire Strikes Back that Han was every bit the hotshot pilot he claimed to be, so this “explanation” doesn’t wash.

Why didn’t Vader recognize Leia’s Force potential when he had her in his clutches? The Force seems to work rather differently in the prequels and the original trilogy, as best I can tell. In the original trilogy, it seems that one’s potential ability to use the Force is determined genetically, but that one’s actual strength in the Force is determined by training and experience. Thus, Vader was able to detect Luke’s strength in the Force even from some distance away, but couldn’t detect any such strength in Leia, who was standing right in front of him. It doesn’t seem to work that way in the prequels, since, in The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn seemed to recognize untrained Anakin’s strength in the Force right away.

How did the Death Star move? Every other ship we saw in the Star Wars universe had great big, glowing engines (even the TIE fighters, if you look carefully). But not the Death Star. So how did it get from place to place?

Plot Holes

It was hinted in A New Hope, and fairly clearly established in The Empire Strikes Back, that a ship cannot be tracked in hyperspace (unless you put a homing beacon on it, perhaps). So how did Darth Vader manage to catch Princess Leia’s ship at Tatooine? From Leia’s comments, the Tantive IV was apparently on its way to Alderaan when it was intercepted, and they hadn’t planned to go to Tatooine at all. (Boy! For an insignificant planet in the middle of nowhere, an awful lot seems to happen on and around Tatooine!) Slipping Obi-Wan a message via R2D2 was clearly an improvised strategy on her part.

Okay, maybe the original idea was to make a brief stop at Tatooine, find General Kenobi, then make tracks for Alderaan with the Death Star plans. That still doesn’t explain how Vader knew they’d be there and was able to ambush them. Certainly, he didn’t know Kenobi was on Tatooine, so he couldn’t have anticipated that they’d stop there to pick him up. So what made him think to set up a trap at Tatooine of all places? Maybe there’s a semi-rational explanation, but these sorts of things bug me.

The general consensus is that Luke was 17 at the time of A New Hope. Even if we’re generous and assume he was as old as 20, how is it that his twin sister was a senator, for crying out loud? Clearly, family connections play a big role in the politics of Alderaan!

Why did the Stormtroopers bother to wear armor? It didn’t seem to do them a bit of good, and when Luke and Han tried to blend in by putting on some Stormtrooper armour, they immediately started complaining about how much it restricted their vision. Did people sign up for the Imperial Armed Forces for the snazzy but otherwise useless uniforms? Heck, in Return of the Jedi an entire legion of Stormtroopers was humiliated by a bunch of Teddy bears armed with sticks and rocks! So much for the utility of Stormtrooper body armor. All it seemed to do was restrict your vision and mobility.

Speaking of Stormtroopers, “only Imperial Stormtroopers are this precise,” Obi-Wan told Luke as they examined a shot-up Jawa Sandcrawler on Tatooine. What was Obi-Wan smoking? We saw later in the movie that a whole squad of Stormtroopers couldn’t manage to hit Luke when he was standing still about 50 feet away from them, still in shock over witnessing Obi-Wan’s “death” at Vader’s hands. If there’s anything that’s clear in this movie, it’s that your average Stormtrooper couldn’t hit the broad side of a bantha at 2 paces.

So, Jedi Knights and Sith fight with lightsabers? Granted, the lightsaber is just-about the coolest weapon ever conceived of, but wouldn’t it be wise to at least carry around a backup weapon to be used against targets that sre farther away than arm’s length? Oh, right, Jedi use the Force only for defense, never for attack. Sure. Ever notice that whenever a Jedi and Sith confronted each other in one of these movies, it was typically the Jedi who attacked?

Let me get this straight: Yoda and Obi-Wan hid Luke on Tatooine, the one planet in the Universe that Darth Vader knows best. Yeah, that makes sense! They didn’t even bother to give him a different name, like Lance Weedwhacker or something. And because Tatooine is a small, sparsely-populated planet, it’s easy to find people there, as Darth Maul commented in The Phantom Menace. To top it off, they “hid” Luke by having Vader’s own stepbrother adopt him! Why didn’t they just make Luke wear a t-shirt saying “I’m Anakin Skywalker’s son” everywhere he went? It would have been simpler.

Planetary Ecology

How is it that Tatooine had a breathable atmosphere? From space, it didn’t appear to have any large bodies of water, nor did it have any visible patches of green that would indicate extensive vegetation. So where did all the oxygen come from?

Oxygen is a highly reactive element. Here on Earth, living creatures take advantage of that fact and use it to drive their metabolic processes. Because of its highly reactive nature, molecular oxygen would quickly disappear from a planet’s atmosphere (on geological timescales, anyway) unless there was some mechanism to constantly replenish it. Here on Earth, that mechanism is photosynthesis by plants and algae.

But Tatooine didn’t seem to have any plant life, to speak of. So how come it had an oxygen-rich atmosphere? It is, to say the least, highly unlikely. Most of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere is produced by algae in the oceans, but Tatooine didn’t appear to have any oceans. Nor can I recall seeing a single plant of any sort anywhere on Tatooine. Certainly, Tatooine didn’t have any large rainforests to provide oxygen for its residents. So how come it had breathable air?

Strange Physics and Astronomy

Grand Moff Tarkin had the Death Star blow Alderaan to bits to set an example for the rest of the galaxy. This might be a good way to instill fear, but it would hardly be a good way to convince people that the Galactic Empire was a benevolent entity, worthy of their loyalty. How would it be possible for the Death Star to destroy an entire planet?

Assuming Alderaan was the same mass and density as the Earth, the Death Star would have had to generate a minimum of about 2.4 x 1032 joules of energy to overcome Alderaan’s gravitational field and so destroy it. If any less energy were used, even if the planet broke apart, its gravity would cause the pieces to fall back together. We could clearly see that this did not happen. For comparison, this is about as much energy as the Sun generates in a week! As Einstein taught us (E=mc2), matter can be converted to energy. The Death Star would have had to convert about 2.5 trillion (2.5 x 1012) tons of matter into energy to generate the power necessary to destroy Alderaan. Somehow, I doubt they had that much spare matter available, much less the means to convert it to energy so efficiently. That would probably have been close to or perhaps even in excess of the mass of the Death Star itself!

While we’re on the subject, what was the mysterious flaming ring that extended outward from Alderaan as the planet was destroyed? It looked cool and all, but I can think of no possible explanation for its existence. The Death Star created another such ring as it was destroyed – again, for no apparent reason.

Yavin was a gas giant planet similar to Jupiter in our solar system. The Rebels’ secret base was located on a forested moon of that planet. If Yavin was about the size of Jupiter, it could indeed have had an Earth-sized satellite. There’s nothing impossible about that. It’s unlikely that a gas giant like Yavin would be found so close to its parent star though because, being made mostly of hydrogen and helium, a gas giant would not be expected to survive in such a warm environment. It would essentially evaporate over time. Apparently, Yavin was made of different substances than the gas giants in our solar system.

Military Incompetence

In the opening scene, could the Rebel troopers defending the Tantive IV from invading Stormtroopers have been any more pathetic? Imperial Stormtroopers seem to be the second-worst shots in the universe, but the Rebel troopers were even worse! Each side fired about 1,000 shots for every one that actually managed to hit something! The Stormtroopers were coming in through a single small opening and the Rebel troopers were lined up all along the corridor facing that opening, using bulkheads for cover. Had the Rebel troopers been remotely competent, not one Stormtrooper would have lived long-enough to take two steps past the opening. A squad of U.S. Marines armed with M-16s would probably have mown down the Stormtroopers without taking a single casualty.

So, the Imperials spent zillions of credits to build a moon-sized space station that could blow up entire planets. From a military perspective, that sounds like a hideous waste of resources, given that you could build literally tens of thousands, if not millions of warships with that kind of money and materials – but I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense as a means of instilling terror.

Even so, what’s the first rule of naval warfare? That’s right: the more important the vessel, the more heavily it’s escorted! If the Imperial Navy was being run by anyone even remotely competent, the Death Star wouldn’t go anywhere without a whole fleet of stardestroyers (or “cruisers,” whatever) running interference.

Why weren’t the designers of the Death Star publicly executed for incompetence as soon as they submitted their plans for consideration? The thing had a friggin’ hole in its side leading straight to the main reactor, so that a single proton torpedo could destroy the entire thing. This was not a minor design flaw! Clearly, somebody recognized that this was a potential problem, because it was stated that the opening to the reactor shaft was “ray shielded” to prevent an enemy from simply shooting a laser bolt into it. Furthermore, the trench leading to the reactor shaft was lined with turbolaser batteries that were clearly intended to discourage enemy fighters from approaching the shaft and firing at it. That’s the only possible reason for them to be there, since they clearly couldn’t be elevated enough to fire at targets out of the trench, and only fighters would be able to enter the trench to attack the reactor shaft.

In other words, the designers clearly knew that the Death Star could potentially be destroyed by an enemy fighter simply flying up to the reactor shaft and lobbing a torpedo down it – yet they didn’t correct this monumental design flaw! We saw in Return of the Jedi that they could have done so, yet they didn’t even take the elementary precaution of putting a baffle plate over the thing! World War II-era warships such as battleships often had thick, perforated steel plates called “baffle plates” in their smokestacks. The idea was that the perforated plates would allow smoke to escape while preventing enemy bombs or shells from entering the smokestacks and exploding inside the ships.

In the final battle of A New Hope, it’s really hard to figure out which side was more utterly incompetent. Since the Rebels ultimately won, I suppose we’ll have to award the boobie prize to the Imperials.

First of all, as mentioned earlier, had there been anyone remotely competent in the upper echelons of the Imperial Navy, the Death Star would have been accompanied by a whole fleet of stardestroyers, fast attack craft, and other escort vessels. No Rebel starship would have even gotten close to it.

Second, while the Imperials’ ultimate goal in this battle was to use the Death Star’s superlaser to blow up the moon and thus eradicate the Rebel headquarters and eliminate the Rebel leadership, no remotely competent military commander allows the enemy to attack his most important units when he doesn’t have to. So, the moment the Death Star dropped out of hyperspace, it should have launched about a zillion fighters and ground attack craft to assault the Rebel base, while maintaining a substantial reserve to act as CAP (Combat Air Patrol) to protect the Death Star should a Rebel craft somehow get past the initial attack wave and approach the Death Star. Against such an overwhelming force as the Death Star and its escorts could surely have fielded, the 30 or so Rebel fighters would have been obliterated in seconds, and the Death Star could then blow the moon up at its leisure, safe from retaliation.

If the Imperials had been even remotely competent, the Rebels wouldn’t have stood a chance. But if the Imperials were astonishingly inept militarily, the Rebels weren’t much better. Did they think that if they just buzzed around for awhile, letting the Imperials shoot down their ships one at a time, they’d eventually be able to sneak a ship up to the reactor shaft without the Imperials noticing? That seems to have been their general strategy, after all.

The Rebels were attacking the Death Star with some 30 ships, but for some idiotic reason, the Imperials didn’t bother to launch any fighters to oppose them, at least initially. One of the Rebel pilots claimed that the Death Star had only about 20 anti-fighter emplacements, at least in the vicinity of the target shaft. So the very first thing the Rebels should have done was mount an attack against the anti-fighter emplacements. First rule of military engagement: first, destroy the enemy’s ability to destroy you! True, the Imperial gunners didn’t seem capable of actually hitting anything, but it would have taken all of 30 seconds or so for the Rebels to eliminate all the gun emplacements had they made a concerted effort to do so. Then they could have attacked the target shaft with impunity, at least until Vader (apparently, the only Imperial present with more than 5 working brain cells) figured out what was going on and ordered a few TIE fighters to be launched.

Now, for some reason, the Rebels were too stupid to figure out that destroying the enemy anti-fighter batteries would be a good idea, but what’s really amazing is that they insisted on flying for miles down a narrow trench lined with anti-fighter batteries to attack the target shaft. Hello! Why not just fly straight to the target point, drop down, loose your torpedoes, then fly away to watch the resulting explosion? The Battle of Yavin would have lasted a grand total of 2 minutes had the Rebels shown the slightest ability to think clearly. The first minute and 30 seconds would have consisted of the Rebels clearing the anti-fighter batteries, then one of their craft could simply have dropped down in front of the target shaft, hovered there for awhile as the pilot took all the time he needed to ensure that he had a perfect shot, then finally loosed its torpedoes.

Don’t try to help or anything! Why did the Rebels put Luke – their least-experienced pilot – in charge of his flight group? Wouldn’t Biggs or Wedge have been a much more logical choice? Anyway, not once but twice we saw Luke and his flight group simply hang around and watch as Darth Vader shot down Rebel fighters that were attempting the Trench Run. Wouldn’t it have been a really good idea for Luke, Biggs, and Wedge to have swooped down and opened fire on Vader and his wingmen? At the very least, this would have distracted the Imperial fighters long-enough for the Rebel fighters to have gotten good shots at the reactor shaft.

In short, the Good Guys were unbelievably incompetent, and they succeeded only because the Bad Guys were even worse.

Back to the Intro
The Empire Strikes Back
The Return of the Jedi

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