Science Book a Day Interviews Jeanne Cavelos

Jeanne-cavelosSpecial thanks to Jeanne Cavelos for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – 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

I am a writer, editor, scientist, and teacher. I began my professional life as an astrophysicist and mathematician, teaching astronomy at Michigan State University and Cornell University, and working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. – From Jeanne’s Homepage

Jeanne’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for The Science of Star Wars?

I had recently written The Science of the X-Files and had a great time researching that.  Star Wars had been (and still is) very dear to my heart, since I first saw the original movie in 1977 when I was seventeen.  About five years after that, I was working at NASA and had photos of Han Solo in the Millennium Falcon and Luke Skywalker on Tatooine hanging over my desk.  Co-workers would walk by and say, “What a great movie!  Too bad it’s scientifically impossible.”  That saddened me.  I knew the movie had scientific errors, but I didn’t want to believe that “a universe far, far away” was impossible.

When my agent and I discussed possible projects after The X-Files book, she mentioned the new Star Wars movie being planned (Episode I), and we both jumped to the idea of The Science of Star Wars.   This would be my chance to research the science in that  fascinating universe and see if any of the elements–the planets, aliens, robots, ships, weapons, or the Force–might be scientifically possible.

#2 – It’s been nearly 15 years since the book came out. How has it been received by scientists and geeks in that time?

The book received a lot of great reviews and comments when it was released, and was chosen by the New York Public Library for its recommended reading list.  One of the best things about writing a book like this is that I get to meet wonderful people who share my obsessions with science and science fiction.  At different speaking engagements and conventions, as well as online and via email, I’ve had the chance to meet teens inspired to go into science or engineering careers, scientists in various fields who share their latest research with me, and Star Wars fans who love geeking out over Jabba the Hutt or the twin suns of Tatooine.

#3 – Reviews talk about how you wrote ‘optimistically’ about the science involved with Star Wars, and how you focused on what might be possible and not dwell on the impossible. What was your philosophy in writing this book? 

It’s easy to poke scientific holes in almost any work of science fiction–especially SF movies.  In fact, it’s easy to poke scientific holes in almost any movie, whether it’s SF or not.  I know that some people enjoy finding errors or reading about them (I edited The Nitpicker’s Guide for Next Generation Trekkers when I worked as a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell), but I’m not one of them.  And to point out science errors in Star Wars seemed like shooting fish in a barrel.  I could have just written a very short book saying, “The whole thing is scientifically impossible,” echoing the sentiments of my colleagues at NASA, but that didn’t seem like it would be terribly interesting or engaging.   Also, those interested could find plenty of Star Wars science nits explained in depth on the Internet.

For me, it was much more interesting to explore what could be possible, and I felt that fans of the movies–who would make up the readership for the book–would much rather learn about the elements that could exist or the technology that could someday be created.

#4 – Have the developments in science made you reconsider or confirmed some of the ideas you wrote about in the book?

I wrote about the many planets in the Star Wars universe, and how the discovery of planets outside our solar system since the first Star Wars movie was released have supported George Lucas’s vision.  Only fifteen exoplanets had been discovered when I wrote the book.  Now, over 1700 such planets have been found.  They are being discovered and catalogued at an amazing rate. Just a week ago, NASA announced they’d discovered 715 new planets.  So that scientific progress only further supports the Star Wars universe.

When I wrote the book, I don’t believe any planets had been discovered orbiting binary stars, as Tatooine does.  But I interviewed astronomers and explained in the book several scenarios in which a planet could form a stable orbit in a binary star system.  Now, seventeen planetary systems with binary stars have been discovered, confirming the possibility of a planet like Tatooine.

Much of the progress in robotics shows that we are developing the capabilities necessary to build droids like R2D2 and C3PO.  Will we ever build robots exactly like them?  Maybe to satisfy fans, but other than that, they seem pretty impractical, which was my conclusion in the book.  But we could definitely build more practical versions that could do the things that Artoo and Threepio do.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

I’m currently at work on a near-future, science-fiction thriller about cloning and genetic manipulation called Fatal Spiral.  I find that genetically based SF is among the most unrealistic and inaccurate SF out there, and that it tends to focus on a couple narrow areas rather than looking at the bigger impact of such technology.  So I’m hoping my novel offers a fresh, compelling vision that will be scientifically accurate enough that scientists won’t be throwing it across the room.  I’ve still got a ways to go in the writing, though, so look for it in a couple of years.

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