NEW YORK — How do lightsabers work? Do droids have rights? Would Kylo Ren's weapon slice off his wrists during combat? These are just some of the scientific questions that "Star Wars" and science experts aimed to answer Saturday (Oct. 8) here at New York Comic Con.
The event, called "Star Wars: The Science Awakens," featured seven panelists whose expertise included astrophysics, biology, psychology, filmmaking and general "Star Wars" nerdiness.
The panel enlightened Space.com about many aspects of the universe "a long time ago" — and here are seven questions answered we found particularly noteworthy. ['Star Wars' X-Wing Soars Near Edge of Space in Awesome Video]
Do lightsabers make sense scientifically?
Charles Liu, an astrophysicist at The City University of New York College of Staten Island, said the main issue with lightsabers is how much energy would be required. His explanation assumed lightsabers would be made of plasma.
"If you build plasma up to a high enough energy, they [lightsabers] actually can have a physical reaction with one another," Liu said. "So if you could contain superpowerful plasma in these magnetic bottles, or something, and they knock against one another, they might actually be able to release noise and a physical resistance."
"The problem is, if you have that much power and ability to confine that much plasma, you don't want to leave it in a stick — you want to blast and level a city with it," he added.
With today's technology, it would not be possible to get that much power into such a small, portable package, said Christopher Mahon, a writer at science/sci-fi website Outerplaces.com. It'd need about 100 times the power density of a cellphone, which isn't currently possible, he said.
"And look what happened when Samsung tried to make a slightly more powerful battery," Liu joked, referring to the company's recently recalled Note 7 smartphone. (Hint: They exploded.)
A lightsaber could be a beam of plasma shaped like a donut, circling in on itself and maybe controlled by some sort of black hole in the handle with adjustable strength, the panelists said. But even then, the plasma would give off way more excess radiation, spraying the surroundings with light and particles, unless it was somehow siphoned off into some other dimension, they said.
The group also discussed whether the Force was necessary for someone to operate a lightsaber, which would help explain any nonscientific functioning of the weapon. But Han Solo uses a lightsaber, and his connection to the Force is unclear, psychologist and "Talking Comics" podcast host Mara Wood pointed out. Ultimately, it's probably that the Force makes people better lightsaber users but isn't crucial to the weapon's function. [Is a Real Lightsaber Possible? Science Offers a New Hope]
Would Kylo Ren's lightsaber slice up his arms?
Eliot Sirota, a visual-effects artist and filmmaker, recalled when the internet freaked out over the first "The Force Awakens" trailer because it featured two short mini-beams coming out of the sides of villain Kylo Ren's lightsaber.
As it turns out, the design is more practical than one might expect, assuming lightsabers themselves actually worked. Sirota cited weapons expert Steve Huff, who had been on this same panel in the past.
Huff tested the design: He built a foam model of Kylo Ren's weapon and put chalk on the blades, covering every part of the light beams' surface to reflect how every edge is a cutting edge. Then, he tested the model out with a German longsword fighting style that featured similarly shaped swords. When he went through a series of movements from that fighting style, he didn't get any chalk on the wrists of his black gloves, indicating he wouldn't have cut his body.
Therefore, people with the Force who were well trained, like Jedi and Kylo Ren, would likely have nothing to fear from their own weapon, he said.
"That's also some security about somebody else just picking up your weapon, because they turn their hand slightly, and the hand goes to the floor," added Travis Langley, editor and lead writer of the book "Star Wars Psychology: Dark Side of the Mind" (Sterling, 2015).
Do droids have rights?
Droids, like Luke Skywalker's companions R2D2 and C3PO, are beloved characters in the "Star Wars" movies, but most characters seem to treat them with complete disregard. It's unclear what rights droids have in "Star Wars" society, the panelists noted, if they have any at all.
"I'm a droid-rights advocate," Sirota said. "They're just disposable … [Scavengers] go out and just find them in the sand, and fix them up, sort of, and sell them off like a garage sale."
That behavior can seem jarring to audiences because the droids seem to be sentient, or they at least simulate sentience. After all, they seem to come up with original thoughts, meeting an artificial intelligence criterion called the Lovelace test, Mahon said. The Lovelace test evaluates whether an artificial being has creativity, and is an alternative to the Turing test (which evaluates whether it can pass as human). Moreover, the droids of the "Star Wars" universe have personalities that are more complex than anyone would probably program (such as C3PO's strange, complaining nature).
The characters in "Star Wars" seem to diverge in how they treat droids, the panelists noted: Skywalker family members seem to treat them well, but otherwise, they're pretty much viewed as machines.
"In the galaxy at large, these are tools," Sirota said. "These are microwave ovens, essentially." [Makers of 'Star Wars' BB-8 Droid Toy Promise Hidden Tricks]
A major exception, the panelists added, is cyborgs — characters who are part human and part machine, who seem to be treated as fully human. But where do you draw the line?
"Darth Vader is probably the perfect example of that," Langley said — he's transformed by and reliant on cybernetic implants, which could account for some of the drastic changes to his personality over the course of his storyline.
And perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to find that the ethical concerns in the "Star Wars" universe can be different from those facing humans on Earth. This is, after all, a civilization that relies on cloned human soldiers.
"There may be some ethical differences in the 'Star Wars' universe, given that we discuss the sentience of droids and it doesn't seem to be a topic [there]," said Monique Renee, who dresses in costume as part of the 501st and Rebel Legions and is studying zoology, biology and paleontology. "Cloning people might just be something they do there that we might not."
How would travel through hyperspace work?
The panelists' response to hyperspace is to cite string theory, a real-world framework that attempts to describe physics in terms of tiny, vibrating one-dimensional strings which exist in many more dimensions than we can sense. Essentially, if something like the string-theory universe were real, Mahon said, ships could travel largely through other dimensions — mostly outside of known space-time, but still leaving a "mass shadow," like a ghost, in their wakes).
"People are trying to develop a theory that explains our physics, here — not with four dimensions but with 10," Liu said. An 11-dimensional structure would tie them all together, he added — and by moving outside of our usual dimensions " you can literally jump back into any point in space-time," he said.
That might even explain the widely varying times it takes people to get around in the "Star Wars" universe, Liu added. For some string theories, the universe isn't uniform in all dimensions, so it could take longer to get to certain locations than to others.
Do planet-destroying lasers make sense?
"NO," Liu declared, the superweapons do not make sense.
"First of all, if you hit a planet with an energy beam — and this is true for Red Matter in the 'Star Trek' reboot also — you don't wind up with a planet going KABOOM! like that … What happens instead is, you get a rupture, but then gravity pulls everything back down again." ['Watch WIRED Smash an Epic LEGO Star Destroyer & Trek Alum Explain 'Star Wars']
Moreover, under the universal laws of physics, it would not be possible to funnel a star's energy into a planet without it immediately turning into a star itself, the panelists said.
If a planet were somehow vaporized, it would ultimately mess with the orbits of other planets in the system, Liu added. For instance, if Earth were turned to rubble, it would eventually become a ring system around the sun and, in turn, slowly change Mars' and Venus' orbits a bit. Saturn's rings, for instance, are held in place by shepherd moons that keep the rings from deviating.
Would destroying the Death Star ruin the economy?
An audience member brought up a theory, discussed by The Film Theorists on YouTube: that the destruction of the Death Star superweapon would be devastating to the galactic economy. The panelists, however, doubted that would be the case.
"A couple of astronomers and NASA technicians have said 'Star Wars' is the land of infinite fuel, because all the starships can go pretty much anywhere," Mahon said. "If you're dealing with star systems with thousands of planets across a galaxy, the resources are just incalculable. And the Galactic Empire loves superweapons; that's one of their big things. So they probably have the logistics system in place to make it happen."
"The Empire as a government doesn't care about how everyone else is doing; they just take what they want," Sirota added. "Let's just go to a planet and strip-mine it and take all their resources, and — 'Oh, sorry guys, see you later; we're going to go build a Star Destroyer.'" [Photos: 'Star Wars and the Power of Costume' Exhibition]
Is "Star Wars" science fiction or fantasy?
Janey Tracey, managing editor of Outerplaces.com, said this question puts "Star Wars" fans in a bind: It's either fantasy, or you have to accept midi-chlorians as real (the widely disliked biological explanation for the Force given in the series' prequel movies). Part of the reason people disliked that narrative turn, the panelists said, was that viewers didn't feel the need to understand the science behind the Force to appreciate the movies' storylines.
"'Star Wars' is really apart from something like 'Star Trek,' for me, because you look at 'Star Trek,' and the science is just so important to the fans and the creators," Renee said. "[In] 'Star Wars,' the science is more of a framework to hang the story off of. It really wasn't quite as important. It's there; it's just meant to explain what's going on, and you suspend your disbelief and just go with it."
That discussion raised another question: "Why has their science advanced so little in 1,000 years?" Langley asked. The panelists speculated that the dark days of the universe could have stalled technological development, as in Earth's Middle Ages, or perhaps the existence of the Force itself made technology irrelevant. After all, when the Force was weak, the technological Empire rose. [10 Real Alien Worlds That Resemble 'Star Wars' Planets]
"Star Wars" "could be science fiction, science fantasy, real — it just isn't necessarily human," Liu said later in the panel. "The fact that they look human is utterly coincidental if they're that far away and it's that long ago."
Ultimately, though, "Star Wars" is based on a traditional "hero's journey" narrative — the heroic quests that come up again and again in mythology around the world. Series' creator George Lucas purposely followed that format, the panelists said, and it's part of the reason the movies resonate so immediately with an audience (and also why people thought "The Force Awakens" ripped off "A New Hope"; both films hewed to that narrative.) "Star Trek," on the other hand, focuses on humanity's overall journey into the future.
"'Star Wars' is the hero's journey," Sirota said. "'Star Trek' is the human journey."