William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

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Star Wars and Star Trek, as mangled by astronomy textbook writers

Here's a discussion question I noticed while casually flipping through my astronomy textbook. Much of the time when these writers reference sci-fi of any kind, they mangle it. It's kind of ironic, because they usually want to point out the scientific inconsistencies in the sci-fi, but they themselves get the continuity details wrong.

"In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the starship Enterprise flies on a trajectory that passes close to the Sun's surface. What features should a real spaceship have to survive such a flight? Why?"

- Universe, 8th Edition (R. Freedman, W. Kaufmann) p.431

Hold it right there. That wasn't the Enterprise. Couldn't have been: The original was destroyed in Star Trek III and the replacement (Enterprise-A) wasn't christened until the very end of Star Trek IV. The former senior officers of the Enterprise (ie: Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the gang) were in fact flying a Klingon Bird of Prey.

While we're at it, here's another bit, from another textbook, that also grinds my gears:

* * *

Movie Madness: Star Wars

It's "a long time ago" in someone's far-off galaxy, and the political situation is turning ugly.

The premise of Star Wars, a cinematic space opera that, like relatives, just keeps on returning, is that a galaxy-wide republic has been hijacked and converted to an autocratic, evil empire by despots in grey flannel suits. This may sound vaguely reminiscent of the story of Rome, but unlike what happened to that ancient civilization this political shift has encouraged a serious rebellion, a war among the stars. The rebels are led by Princess Leia (you can tell she's a princess 'cause her hair is done up like twin danish pastries), and her strategy is to take out the empire headquarters - an enormous, spherical spacecraft known to its friends as "the Death Star." The Death Star packs weaponry that can explode a planet in seconds (calculate, if you will, the energy required to do that!). On the other hand, the rebels have "the force" on their side - a mystical ability to change the odds of every situation based on moral merit and self-discipline.

Most of Star Wars is battle of the sort that's familiar to any movie fan, except that the bad guys wear brittle, white plastic suits and fly spacecraft that look like box kites. But Star Wars offers some interesting peeks into life as it might be elsewhere in the cosmos. The rebels have their base of operations on a large planet's moon, a not impossible scenario since hefty moons could be habitable. Luke Skywalker, the young hero, hails from a world circling a close double star. Not a problem - research has shown that planetary orbits around double stars could be stable.

There are peculiar anachronisms in Star Wars, however. The Death Star is obviously extremely hi-tech, and yet the principals occasionally face off using souped-up swords. Everyone jets around in spacecraft that are somehow capable of exceeding speed-of-light travel by jumping into hyperspace, and yet we often see aliens saddled up onto giant, dinosaur-like creatures - much as in The Flintstones.

All that can be forgiven. But Star Wars's biggest leap is the fact that dozens of alien races are all living contemporaneously (although it's clear that the human types are in charge). In the movie's famous cantina scene, which takes place in the wretched port city of Mos Eisely, aliens of all shapes and colors get together to do business and get drunk. As we discuss in Chapter 13, the chances that any two intelligent species (let alone dozens) appear on the galactic scene within 100,000 years of one another is quite small. If there are other societies out there, they will either be far behind us or enormously beyond our level. We won't be sharing dance music and booze with them in a seedy extraterrestrial dive.

And besides that, why does a republic have a princess, anyhow?

- Life in the Universe, 1st edition (J. Bennett, S. Shostak, B. Jakosky) p.248

* * *

Well, I can answer that one: She's not the princess of the Republic / Empire, she's the princess of Alderaan, which happened to be a constitutional monarchy that was a member of the Republic as a whole.

Also, the Death Star was not the "headquarters" of the Empire. Far from it - part of the reason that the Emperor sent Vader there was to keep an eye on Grand Moff Tarkin, who could easily have broken away and rallied the Imperial forces to himself, wielding such a weapon as he did. (This is alluded to in the Star Wars Radio Dramatization.) The actual capital of the Republic / Empire was of course Coruscant, though this was not established until the Zhan novels came out.

And by the way, the Emperor and Vader have the Force on their side too - just the Dark Side instead of the Light Side. The Force is actually morally neutral.

So, science authors, when you're going to contrast science with science-fiction, please get your facts straight. It doesn't undermine the science to get the continuity mixed up, but getting it right would show that you understand and respect the work, which will help get your arguments over because you won't be unnecessarily rankling the feathers of fans of the work along the way.
Tags: astronomy, life, science, science-fiction, textbooks, writing

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