This Is When 'Star Wars' Took Place, According to Physics

Tuesday, 07 November 2017 - 10:37AM
Star Wars
Tuesday, 07 November 2017 - 10:37AM
This Is When 'Star Wars' Took Place, According to Physics
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Image credit: YouTube
For over 40 years now, fans have been entranced by the simple story framing the beginning of every Star Wars movie.

The assurance that these events really did happen "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" serves to indicate that the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Rey, and Darth Vader are a mix of both old and new fantasy sci-fi concepts.

Naturally, there's no reason for any of us to doubt that Star Wars did actually happen—the size and scope of the universe suggests that anything's possible, so we might as well believe that the Death Star really did exist once upon a time. But when exactly is "A Long Time Ago"?

Patrick Johnson of Georgetown University believes he has the answer.

In his new book, The Physics of Star Wars: The Science Behind a Galaxy Far, Far Away, Johnson endeavors to answer a variety of questions about how Star Wars might have played out—including when this all went down.

While Star Wars may have taken place "A long time ago" in terms of the age of human civilization, the historical events they chronicle took place relatively recently in terms of the age of the universe.

The movies show off hundreds of species of aliens, strewn across countless inhabited planets. These didn't form overnight—it would have taken around 5 billion years for the Star Wars galaxy to form, and for all of its stars and planets to take shape.

In fact, some planets seen in the movies may still be fairly young—the volcanic planet of Mustafar, as seen in Revenge of the Sith and Rogue One, might not always be such a big, bubbling mass of lava and ash. Many planets, including our own (and even the big moon that orbits our home world) undergo an awkward lava phase when they're relatively young, as they burn up a lot of their pent-up energy as heat bursts out of the planet's core.

This is actually a key step in a planet forming an atmosphere, as gas that's released from the volcanic eruptions swirl around the planet afterwards—although the air generally isn't as breathable as it appears in Episode III.

Similarly, the ice planet of Hoth could simply orbit its sun at a great distance, but it also has an oxygen rich atmosphere and native tauntauns and wampas, which suggest that the remote hunk of rock might simply be an Earth-like planet that is going through an ice age. Our own home world has had several periods of cold freeze over its history, so it's not too far of a stretch to assume that, a few million years later, the ruins of AT-AT walkers might be covered in grass and flowers.

Then there's the time it takes for life to evolve to be complex enough for Star Wars to occur—it takes a long time for Rodians to evolve far enough to be able to hold blasters.

Humans took around 3 billion years to evolve from single-celled organisms to our current state, but Johnson notes that we might have been either slower or faster than the average. There's an element of chance involved in single-celled organisms developing into something more complicated, and the timing of some big leaps in evolution will depend on how quickly certain milestones are achieved.

All in all, for Star Wars to have occurred, the Big Bang would have needed to start off the universe, the galaxy would have needed to form, and all the star systems and planets—both old and new—would have needed time to mature. Then, it would have been another long wait for life to develop to the point of sentience before Jedi, Sith, smugglers and pirates could all start whizzing around the stars at light speed.

Adding all of these delays up, and leaving some wiggle room, Johnson estimates that Star Wars probably happened around 9 billion years after the Big Bang.

At present, scientists estimate that we're living around 14 billion years after the Big Bang, so in the general scheme of things, Star Wars isn't all that ancient of an event.

This, of course, is only true of the assumption that Star Wars didn't take place before the Big Bang, or happened in another, adjacent universe, in which case the math is all a garbled mess.

Still, it's nice to finally put a date on the history of the Skywalker family tree—if only so that we know when to buy Luke a birthday card.

Science and Star Wars: still a winning combination.

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This Is When 'Star Wars' Took Place, According to Physics