Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Science of Star Wars: Clones, The Force and a Galaxy of Humanoids

Scientific American has a series of articles in this month's issue that focus on the science of the Star Wars universe, presumably as part of the lead up to the release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars . SciAm interviewed Jeanne Cavelos, author of The Science of Star Wars: An Astrophysicist's Independent Examination of Space Travel, Aliens, Planets, and Robots as Portrayed in the Star Wars Films and Books*, to get an update on how the science in the series has fared since her book was originally published in 1999.

Not surprisingly, she talks about cloning, of which she has an optimistic view:
We have cloned many different animals at this point—cats, dogs, sheep—and there is very little holding us back from cloning humans except ethics and law. It's entirely conceivable that we will see humans cloned for medical or reproductive purposes in the coming decades. The link between genes and behavior has also become much better understood in recent years, and like the Imperial armies in Star Wars, human clones could probably be genetically altered to be obedient and programmable. One area of Star Wars cloning technology that is not very realistic according to today's science is the limited amount of time the clones have to grow and learn. Nevertheless, cloning technology is something in Star Wars that we will be seeing more of soon.
And she also has an explanation for all those human-shaped aliens in that far far away galaxy:
It seems that the human species, or whatever its equivalent is in that faraway galaxy, either colonized all these worlds or was genetically "seeded" on many planets. This species became dominant somehow. It's unlikely though that one species could live on so many planets without some kind of respiratory assistance. Each atmosphere is a quirky mixture of ingredients found only on that planet; you wouldn't have the same mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide as we do.
That's a pretty similar idea to the ancient humanoids that seeded our own galaxy in the Star Trek universe. Her ideas about how The Force works are necessarily more speculative, since it's pretty much indistinguishable from magic.
The best chance we have of explaining The Force is through the midi-chlorians, which were introduced in the new trilogy. Lucas explains these midi-chlorians as organisms that live within our cells and allow us to feel The Force. The element that seems scientifically based here is the sensing of someone strong in The Force. You can compare this to creatures living in water that generate small electrical fields. Some fish generate these fields, and these can sense when other fish come into these fields as well as the strength of the field put out by the approaching fish.

Or maybe The Force is similar to magnetism. Birds sense magnetic fields with cells in their beaks and eyes, called cryptochromes. Birds may actually "see" the magnetic field, so you can imagine a similar kind of thing happening in Star Wars. If Darth Vader is standing in the next room, maybe you can see the emissions of The Force like a magnetic aura around him.

Read the whole interview for more on the science of robots, space travel, light sabers, exoplanets and aliens.

You can also read several excerpts from her book, The Science of Star Wars:
Related post: Star Wars and the Midi-Chlorian Menace
Image: Young clones in training from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones


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