Top Ten Highlights from Our 'Science of Star Wars' SDCC Panel

Monday, 13 July 2015 - 3:26PM
NASA
Monday, 13 July 2015 - 3:26PM
Top Ten Highlights from Our 'Science of Star Wars' SDCC Panel
Thank you to everyone who came to our panel at SDCC! We had a ton of fun, as panelists Fon Davis (production designer, Star Wars prequel movies) Emily Manor-Chapman (NASA mission planner), Kieran Dickson (editor, Outer Places), Travis Langley (editor, Star Wars Psychology), Eliot Sirota (VFX artist), and Steve Huff (fight choreographer), had a lively discussion of the science behind Star Wars, moderated by Jenna Busch (Legion of Leia). From lightsabers to force fields to the Stormtroopers' terrible aim, here are the highlights from our Science of Star Wars panel:

Highlights from Our Science of Star Wars Panel at SDCC


The Psychology of Star Wars


Travis Langley, "superherologist" and author of the upcoming book Star Wars Psychology: The Dark Side of the Mind, discussed the psychology behind the franchise, including the influence of Joseph Campbell's comparative mythology on George Lucas. Luke's journey is very much the hero's journey discussed in Campbell's work, and according to Langley, he ultimately prevails because he "has greater hope":

Opening quote
"I think one of the ultimate lessons from Star Wars psychologically is: 'Look past the surface.' The damsel in distress may be the only character who hits every target she ever aims at... Who are the deadliest killers? The teddy bears. Luke wins because he has greater hope and looks past the surface. He sees a light in Vader's darkness... Star Wars is telling us to go deeper and see someone's lighter qualities, or maybe their darker qualities, but go deeper."
Closing quote


How close are we to any of the ships in Star Wars?


Emily Manor-Chapman, a NASA engineer on the upcoming Europa mission, broke all of our hearts and said that we're "pretty far off" from a real-life X-Wing:

Opening quote
"If you look at airplanes and fighter jets, I think you definitely see connections with X-Wings, but taking a fighter jet that we have now and making it work in space, I think we're pretty far from that... Obviously in space we don't have air, so we don't have aerodynamics. So getting something to work like that is pretty far off for us."
Closing quote


Should we be nice to our toasters?


Moderator Jenna Busch asked how close we are to sentient droids like C-3PO, R2-D2, and (probably) BB-8, and whether she should "be really nice to [her] toaster."

Fon Davis, who worked on visual effects for all six Star Wars movies, said, "I think we're close, I hope we're not Skynet close," and shared a humorous false alarm:

Opening quote
"Weta, who did the programming for Lord of the Rings, they wrote a program called Massive, which was designed to do crowd scenes, and they ran one of the simulations, they had Orcs and humans [running towards each other], and a bunch of the humans ran the other way. And they actually thought they had created a real AI, and that these characters were scared to go into battle."
Closing quote


Sadly, it turns out it was just a malfunction in the algorithm, and Manor-Chapman echoed the recent sentiments of AI theorists by stating that we won't create a real-life R2-D2 until we understand where sentience comes from:

Emily "I think we're getting good at mimicking what we think is sentience in AI, but we still don't know how the human brain works, so... we can't really build one."

The magic of Industrial Light and Magic


Fon Davis described his experience filming his first explosion scene for the Star Wars films, in which a federation cruiser blows up inside the "Toilet Bowl ship," as the crew called it:

Opening quote
"My job on set was to turn on the lights before everything was blown up... The cameraman yells 'roll film' and the camera screams like a baby, the hydrogen camera is ripping through film. And it's screaming, and it gets even louder and he yells, 'Action!' And all we hear is this 'pop.' I'm like 'Oh, is that it?'... And everyone's like 'Yeah."... And then the next day you'd see it and it would be this beautiful four-stage fireball explosion with flames shooting out the windows... It was just mind-blowing to see how fast all of that happened in reality."
Closing quote


Real-life speeder bikes




Outer Places's Kieran Dickson discussed several real-life technologies that are currently in development and are directly inspired by Star Wars, including the U.S. military's acquisition of a real-life hoverbike:

"Just recently the U.S. military started helping fund the development of these speeder bikes... They're not necessarily going to be using them to blow people up, but it's the U.S. military, so you never know."

But in all seriousness, according to the party line at least, the military plans to use these real-life hoverbikes for first responders in emergencies, as well as the transport of supplies over difficult terrain.

Real-life force fields

 
In the same vein, Boeing recently filed a patent for honest-to-goodness force fieldsThe patent is mostly speculative at this point, but it demonstrates that Boeing is actually funneling money into making this sci-fi staple a reality.

Opening quote
"One of the biggest killers of soldiers is shock waves from explosions. So what they're hoping to do is take down the impact of those shock waves by kind of charging the air around a vehicle, and... disrupting the shock waves so it lessens the impact on the people in that vehicle."
Closing quote


Why are Stormtroopers such terrible shots?


Several theories were bandied about, including their clunky, seemingly impractical armor and the conspiracy theories that they sometimes missed on purpose. But Eliot put forth the theory that the problem stems from the fact that they're clones: "They're a photocopy of a photocopy and eventually, if you keep cloning the DNA, it's going to deteriorate." So it's possible that they were good shots at one time, but by the time we see them in the movies, they have degenerated into uncoordinated grunts. 

When will our lives become a space opera?


Manor-Chapman stated that while the Star Wars characters had their entire galaxy mapped out and were familiar with all of the surrounding planets they visited, we're still very much in the exploration phase. But that being said, we're starting to find exoplanets with two suns like Tatooine, planets that could hold life, like Europa and Enceladus, and the moon Mimas, which has a crater with a mountain in the middle of it and in certain photos looks like the Death Star.

Opening quote
"And in keeping with the theme of exploration, we're about to have our closest approach to Pluto in a few days. And it's possible that it will remind us of another planet in Star Wars or another favorite place from sci-fi."
Closing quote


An update on the Mission to Mars


Manor-Chapman told the panel that NASA has "laid out a road map of how they would like to get to Mars." But several factors need to be considered when planning such a daunting mission. According to Manor-Chapman, one of the most significant obstacles is the trade-off between the number of people that can go on the mission and the cost of the supplies necessary to keep those people alive (we don't want a Martian situation, now do we?):

Opening quote
"One of the big things whenever we want to send humans out into space is sending the supplies with them... You need to build the spaceship that will fit the crew, give them life support, and also carry all the supplies that they need. When we get to Mars, there's not going to be water there, there's not going to be food there, they have to take everything with them. And the bigger the spaceship gets, the bigger the rocket we need, the harder it is to get it off the Earth... Every pound we add to the spacecraft is going to cost $100,000 more to launch that spacecraft. So it really becomes this trade of what do you really want to send and what do you want to do with your mission."
Closing quote


That new lightsaber




Real-life lightsabers are all very well and good, but what about that crossguard lightsaber from the Force Awakens trailer? The panelists asked the room to take an informal vote on that controversial new lightsaber and the results were- surprisingly enough- controversial. The room was just about evenly split, which echoes the widespread concern that the new design is too unwieldy to be realistic within the rules of the Star Wars universe. But Star Wars fight choreographer Steve Huff said they were able to test out the new lightsaber with several different fighting styles in the studio, and were ultimately able to come up with a method that worked:

Opening quote
"Obviously, if you use it as a traditional lightsaber, it simply wouldn't work. But if you were to use it as a Medieval style longsword, it works absolutely fine."
Closing quote
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