A planetary physicist reveals how the science in ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ actually holds up


  • Scientists who love Star Wars say the movies are science fantasy, not science fiction.
  • That distinction means the audience is immersed in an alternate universe where not all forces act the way they do on Earth.
  • But there are a few very believable ways the franchise employs technology and physics to craft a credible story.

You might assume that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which is still set in a “galaxy far, far away,” would have little to do with the physics life on Earth.

But a high-profile physicist disagrees.

Kevin Grazier is a planetary physicist who designed the software NASA used to explore Saturn on its Cassini mission. Grazier, a computer science professor at West Point, also made sure the cinematic science was sound in films like “Gravity” and the TV series “Battlestar Galactica.”

He acknowledges that you have to suspend a good deal of scientific disbelief to get on board with some parts of “The Last Jedi.”

The idea that a lightsaber that can cut, melt, and burn through just about anything, and the notion that Jedis can use a force to project themselves into distant battlegrounds are both pretty far-fetched. For a devoted Star Wars fan like Grazier, that’s okay.

“Does it matter if that science is inaccurate? No,” he told Business Insider.

But there are a few surprising ways that some of the franchise’s boldest ideas are grounded in not-so-far-off scientific principles and technology.

Here are four of the coolest ways that the characters in Star Wars are (almost) like us.

Robots like C-3PO and BB-8 are plausible future helpers.


The way the Star Wars crew employs artificial intelligence is not so far from reality.

“In the not too distant future we will probably have droids that are as smart as C-3PO and BB-8” Grazier said.

Currently, Google’s AI is doing okay at a handful of languages – whereas C-3PO is fluent in over 6,000. But researchers are betting that Google’s AI is going to get much smarter in the coming years – in 2014, it was estimated to have an IQ around 26.5, but by 2016, Google AI had nearly doubled its smarts to an IQ of 47.3.That’s still not as sharp as an average six-year-old, but it’s an impressive leap.

Last week, scientists at NASA announced they’d successfully employed Google’s machine learning to track down two new planets.

Meanwhile, a robot named Sophia managed to become the first AI of its kind granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia earlier this year. Sophia still sounds very robotic, but it can converse without pre-programmed responses – a potential first step towards more robot helpers for humans.

Moving at warp speed is a possibility that can’t be ruled out.


Is it possible to travel faster than the speed of light like the valiant Rebellion fighters do?

Grazier said there’s scientific evidence that other dimensions could exist beyond our familiar four dimensions of space and time. That’s a potential reality that quantum physicists wrestle with every day.If the multiverse does exist, it’s possible that alternate universes and dimensions don’t share the physical laws of our own.

That idea is ripe for exploration in a fictional series like “Star Wars,” since we don’t have definitive answers to properly refute it. Grazier said the question marks about the laws of quantum physics are big enough that “you can sell this as a way to travel faster than light.”

‘The Force’ may actually be with you.

Christopher Polk / Getty Images

The forces we experience on Earth may not operate like the powerful, people-projecting, weapon-deflecting one in “Star Wars” – but force fields do happen here.

“If there’s a magnetic field and a charged particle passes through it, it will experience a force,” Grazier said. “That’s a real-life force field.”

But channeling enough force to project a hologram to a distant battle is, of course, unrealistic.

“It’s the degree, amount, rate, that makes it impossible,” Grazier said.

Still, some force fields on Earth are nearly as mysterious as those in the movies.

A report in The New York Times about the US government’s efforts to investigate potential UFO sightings described an incident in which pilots saw something bizarre on their screens in flight.

“They’re seeing an object that seems to have a force field – as they describe it – around it, that’s hovering before it suddenly disappears out of the sky as soon as they think they’re getting a radar lock on it,” Times Reporter Helene Cooper said on The Daily podcast.

The first rule of space: Avoid the vacuum.

ESA/Getty Images

Physicist Stephen Cass, a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum, co-authored the book “Hollyweird Science” with Grazier. Cass told Business Insider that the characters in “Star Wars” share an important habit with astronauts from Earth: everybody avoids going outside.

“This is actually quite legit,” Cass said.

Real-life humans can’t survive in the low-density, low-pressure environment of outer space, which is essentially a vacuum. “Star Wars” characters like former Princess (now-General) Leia steer clear, too.

Cass said “astromechs” exist in the “Star Wars” universe because robotic mechanics for spaceships help people avoid the logistical headache of suiting up and heading out into the elements.

“It’s just a pain in the ass, and its better to have a robot do that job,” Cass said.

Who knew the producers of a $220 million dollar blockbuster were so pragmatic?