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Science and the Original Star Wars Trilogy - part 3

Star Wars: Episode V:
The Empire Strikes Back

by Michael A. Dexter



Early in The Empire Strikes Back, Han said that he was leaving the Rebel base, because he had to pay Jabba the Hutt who had put out a contract on him. Clearly, some time had passed after the events in A New Hope where Han was given lots of money for his role in saving Princess Leia. Since it had been clearly established that you could get from just-about anywhere in the galaxy to anywhere else in the galaxy in just a few hours, why didn’t Han simply take a few hours’ time to zip over to Tatooine and pay Jabba right after the award ceremony in A New Hope? How hard could it have been to make a quick trip to Tatooine, given how easy it is to get around in the Star Wars galaxy?

Darth Vader, upon seeing the report about a base on Hoth, exclaimed: “The Rebels are there, and I’m sure Skywalker is with them!” Wait a minute. Later, when speaking with the Emperor, Vader expressed surprise and doubt that the “young Rebel” who destroyed the Death Star was his own son. Is Skywalker such a common name that it never occurred to Vader that there might be a connection?

Plot Holes

How did the wampa freeze Luke into the ceiling of its cave? To do that, the wampa would have had to hold Luke’s feet to the ceiling while somehow spraying liquid water onto them. The water would then freeze, holding Luke in place. So, where did the wampa get the water to do this, and how did it spray it onto Luke’s feet? If the wampa had an unusually capacious bladder and was a male, a possible solution presents itself, but I think we’ll just move along now.

When Luke left Hoth and headed for Dagobah, did he bother to inform anyone of his plans? Presumably, one does not learn to be a Jedi overnight, so he must have been planning to spend some time there. Surely, his friends would begin to worry after a few weeks or months of not hearing from him? The considerate thing to do would have been to drop them a line, at the very least.

Planetary Ecology

How is it that Hoth, like Tatooine, had a breathable atmosphere? Like Tatooine, it didn’t appear to have any plant life. Regardless, an ecosystem cannot possibly survive if it consists only of heterotrophs (animals, fungi, etc.); there must be autotrophs (plants, algae, certain bacteria) that can directly harvest energy to make food. Plants harvest solar energy; some bacteria can harvest geothermal energy. The point is this: an ecosystem depends absolutely on autotrophs harvesting energy and using it to make the food that everything else in the ecosystem depends upon.

So where were the autotrophs on Hoth (and Tatooine) that would not only provide the food for everything else in the ecosystem, but the very air they breathe?

Han said of Hoth: “There isn’t enough life on this ice cube to fill a space cruiser.” So what were the wampas eating? They were clearly endotherms, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to function in sub-freezing temperatures, and they were definitely carnivores. But endotherms (warm-blooded animals) require a lot of food to keep their body temperatures up, especially in cold climates. So where the heck were the herds of prey animals that the wampas must have been dining on? (For an ecosystem of endothermic animals, the prey must outweigh the predators by something like 100 to 1 or more – usually more like 1,000 to 1 – else the predators will gobble up all the prey, and then starve.) And what the heck were the prey animals eating, since Hoth didn’t seem to have any plant life?

Bespin, where Lando oversaw Cloud City, also had a breathable atmosphere, oddly enough. That seems highly unlikely, given that as a gas giant, it surely had no plant life. Also, it’s unlikely that a gas giant would be orbiting close-enough to its parent star for its upper atmosphere to be warm-enough for humans to feel comfortable. Again, there’s that pesky problem of the planet evaporating over time. But then, Bespin clearly wasn’t made of the same stuff that Jupiter and Saturn are, or it wouldn’t have so much free oxygen in its atmosphere.

Han, Leia, and Chewbacca spent some time hiding in a cave on an asteroid, waiting for the Imperials to go away. Leia saw something strange, so they went outside to check it out, wearing breath masks but not space suits. Suddenly, mynocks attacked! Oh no! Wait a minute.

How come this asteroid had an atmosphere about as dense as the Earth’s? The asteroid was not nearly big enough to have a gravitational field strong-enough for it to hang onto an atmosphere that dense. Come to think of it, that asteroid had a lot of gravity for a rocky body that was only a few hundred miles in diameter at most. When Han shot that mynock, it fell at exactly the rate such a thing would have fallen in Earth’s gravity. That asteroid had a lot more gravity than it should have! Han, Chewie, and Leia should have died of explosive decompression within moments of stepping out of the Millennium Falcon, breath-masks or not. Okay, they were actually inside a giant space slug – maybe that (somehow) explains the atmosphere. In that case, shouldn’t they have been more suspicious? You’d think that Han, at least, would have known that asteroids don’t have dense atmospheres.

What did that giant space slug live on anyway? You can’t possibly convince me that spacecraft happen by every few days with tasty morsels inside! If the ecologies of Tatooine and Hoth made no sense, the ecology of this asteroid field made even less! What did that slug eat? How did it breathe? Where did it come from? For that matter, where did the mynocks come from?

Strange Physics and Astronomy

Ever noticed those interesting flaps on the wings of the Rebels’ snowspeeders? Presumably, they were maneuvering flaps that functioned on the same basis that ailerons do. Ever noticed that they weren’t raised and lowered consistently with how the speeders actually turned?

The Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive was non-functional when it left Hoth to escape the Imperial attack, yet the running fight between the Falcon and the Imperials took them from the Hoth system to the Anoat system. Without hyperdrive, it should have taken centuries or even millennia to travel between star systems! Then they somehow got to the Bespin system without hyperdrive. You can’t chalk it up to stars being unusually close together in the Star Wars galaxy, because if stars were close-enough that a sublight trip between star systems took less than several months’ time, there would surely be enough gravitational interaction between neighboring stars to prevent planets from having stable orbits.

No asteroid field even remotely as dense as the one we saw in this movie could possibly exist for any length of time! The asteroids would quickly be drawn together by their own gravitational attraction. Yet, many of the asteroids had clearly-visible craters on their surfaces, implying that they were fairly old. So this asteroid field had evidently existed for some time. No way!

Cloud City must have weighed millions of tons at the very least. They would have had to expend a vast amount of energy to keep it floating in the clouds. Wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense to just build it in orbit?

Military Incompetence

The Imperial task force: Darth Vader’s command ship, the Executor was surrounded by a whole bunch of lesser stardestroyers, apparently acting as escort. It would appear that the Imperials learned their lesson from the Death Star disaster and realized that important ships should be escorted. Good for them! If only they showed such competence in other areas!

When the Imperial task force arrived at Hoth and deployed so that “nothing gets off the surface,” the Rebels managed to disable a stardestroyer almost immediately with their ion cannon. Did the idiot in command of that stardestroyer not have his shields up? Why not? Surely it must have occurred to him that the Rebels would have had defenses in addition to the planetary shield?

Okay, so the Rebels managed to get one ship away from Hoth, using the element of surprise. Had the Imperials been competent, the Rebels wouldn’t have gotten any more ships off Hoth though. Consider: the Imperials had maybe a dozen stardestroyers at hand, and probably thousands of fighters. All they had to do was set up a constant barrage of the shield, directed at two targets – the shield generator and the ion cannon. The Rebels would not have been able to lower the shield for any more ships to escape, because the shield generator and ion cannon would have been destroyed immediately. Meanwhile, the Imperials would be free to put together and launch a ground assault to capture the hapless Rebel base.

The Imperial ground assault was spearheaded by slow, lumbering AT-ATs. That’s supposed to stand for “All-Terrain Armoured Transports,” if I recall correctly. All-terrain? Who were they trying to kid? How well would those things perform in a swamp, or in a dense forest? Never mind that they could literally be defeated by tripping them! And imagine what would happen if one of there were to step on a mine. The hover-tanks in The Phantom Menace made a lot more sense.

Those AT-ATs were something like 20 meters tall, it seems, and we saw Rebel snowspeeders flying above them. So, the Rebels’ planetary shield must have been at least 20 or so meters up, and it was probably much higher. In other words, fighter craft could operate under it. So, how come the Imperials didn’t take advantage of their overwhelming aerial superiority and send in about a thousand TIE fighters and bombers to wipe out the Rebel defenses? The battle would have been over in 30 seconds. The ground forces would simply have come in to mop up. We know that TIE fighters could operate in an atmosphere, because we saw them doing just that later in the movie.

The AT-ATs’ guns were clearly designed to fire at targets to the front, and were clearly incapable of firing to the sides, much less to the rear. (Pretty poor design, that!) So, were the Rebel pilots suicidal or just stupid? They kept attacking the AT-ATs from just above ground level and from the front! If Luke had the slightest grasp of elementary tactics, he’d have had his pilots attacking from the sides, above, and perhaps behind; he would not have had his pilots flying right into the Imperials’ guns! Luke’s comment that “that armor’s too strong for blasters” was belied moments later when, after Wedge immobilized one of the walkers, it was quickly destroyed by shooting at its “neck”. So, you’d think the Rebels would have realized that the walkers could be easily destroyed by simply flying up above them where the guns couldn’t shoot at them and targeting the neck regions.

Why were the Rebels using those wimpy snowspeeders in the first place? They had X-wings and Y-wings, for crying out loud! Maybe the walkers were immune to blaster fire, but I’d bet a few proton torpedoes would have done the trick!

As the Millennium Falcon was fleeing Hoth, it was pursued by three stardestroyers and two of them actually collided (a glancing blow). How could the helm operators of those vessels have been so monumentally unobservant? Besides, you’d think with all that sophisticated technology, the ships’ computers would automatically sound a collision alert and/or initiate evasive action.

When the Millennium Falcon made its “attack run” against the Imperial stardestroyer pursuing it, did no one on the stardestroyer’s bridge keep an eye on his tracking console? Perhaps we’re meant to believe that stardestroyers’ sensors had “blind spots” and that Han flew into a blind spot, hoping they’d assume he went to hyperspace while they couldn’t track him, instead of attaching to their hull as he did. That certainly seems like a better strategy than hoping no one on the stardestroyer’s bridge was watching the tracking console when you attached to their hull. You’d think Han would have mentioned the blind spot though, if that was his strategy.

Miscellaneous Stuff

After Luke “disarmed” the wampa on Hoth, he ran from the cave into the freezing cold without any shelter or communication devices. Worse, night was falling. Granted, Luke probably wasn’t thinking very clearly at this point, but wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense to have gone back into the cave? Maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to stay there, given the possibility that there were more wampas around, but it definitely would have been a good idea to go back and retrieve his survival and communications gear!

Han’s taun-taun died awfully fast, didn’t it? It went from looking pretty-much fine to falling over and dying within seconds. That’s not how endotherms succumb to hypothermia.

C-3PO claimed that the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field were 3,720 to 1. He was either a lousy statistician or a liar, because this statement makes no real sense.

There are a number of ways to calculate probabilities. One possibility is that C-3PO was referring to a database of studies regarding ships attempting to navigate asteroid fields. If, on average, only 1 out of 3,720 ships managed the feat, then 3PO’s claim would make some sense, but it would still be an almost completely useless “fact.” It would be useless information because it didn’t take into account such vitally-important factors as the density of the asteroid field, the size of the ship in question, the maneuverability of the ship in question, the strength of its shields, or the skill of its pilot. In short, 3PO’s quoted odds were utterly useless!

Look at it this way: suppose I want to know the odds that it will rain tomorrow. One way would be to get a database from the past 100 years or so for my location, count the total number of days it has rained during that time, and divide by the total number of days. Doing so, I might calculate a 10% probability that it will rain tomorrow. That would be a stupid way to do it, but it would give me some numbers with which to impress gullible friends.

Why is this a stupid way to calculate the probability of rain? Because I know very well that rain is more likely to fall at certain times of the year than others. A better way to calculate the odds of rain would be to see how many times out of the last century it has rained on the day of the year I’m interested in. That’s better, but still not very good.

Rain falls only under certain conditions. So, the best way to figure out the likelihood that it will rain tomorrow would be to look at the relevant conditions. What is the barometric pressure? Is it rising or falling? Do satellite images show any cloud masses moving in my direction? Doing it this way, I could much more accurately predict the probability that it will rain tomorrow than by utilizing either of the other methods.

C-3PO seems to have employed the first method when calculating the probability of successfully navigating an asteroid field. That is, he picked the stupid (and uninformative) method. His estimate was proven so much B.S. by the fact that a dozen or so stardestroyers entered the asteroid field, and all of them came out again (with one possible exception). If the odds of one ship doing it were only 1 in 3,720, the odds of 10 doing it were less than 1 in 500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (!).

So, C-3PO was full of it.

By the way, I know that Han was supposed to be a great pilot, but are we really supposed to believe that a freighter was faster and more maneuverable than state-of-the-art fighter craft?

Luke didn’t come across as too bright, did he? He landed on this strange planet called “Dagobah,” with instructions to find some guy named “Yoda.” He had a whole planet to search! Did he know what this Yoda looked like? No. Did he know whether this Yoda might be anywhere within a 1,000-mile radius? No. So what did he do the first time he encountered a local? He told him to bugger off! Granted, Luke hadn’t had the best day, but didn’t it occur to him that it might be a good idea to ask this strange frog-like creature if he had heard of somebody named “Yoda” before telling him to get lost?

Luke really seemed remarkably slow on the uptake sometimes. Even after this strange green guy started talking about how powerful a Jedi his (Luke’s) father had been, Luke still didn’t catch on that this was Yoda until Ben clued him in!

By the way, mastering the Force is apparently child’s play compared to the intricacies of basic grammar.

Why did Han need C-3PO to interpret what the Millennium Falcon’s computer was saying? Wouldn’t it have made sense to have long-ago programmed the ship’s computer to speak in whatever language he does? You know – for those times when the ship breaks down (which seems to happen quite frequently) and you don’t happen to have an interpreter droid on board.

Vader’s management style leaves something to be desired, it seems. Sure, he inspired fear, but one imagines that he didn’t inspire much loyalty. Perhaps Admiral Ozzel really was incompetent and therefore “deserved” to die, and perhaps Captain Needa was incompetent too. After all, Vader didn’t kill Piett; Luke and the Falcon ultimately escaped Vader’s clutches, but not because of anything Piett did wrong. Vader didn’t so much as give Piett a dirty look after the Falcon’s escape. So, Vader was apparently capable of recognizing competence. Still, how much initiative and imagination would your officers show if they were constantly worried that one slip-up would get them killed?

Granted, space is vast, but was it really standard Imperial procedure to dump garbage just before going into hyperspace? Wouldn’t this mean that heavily-used shipping lanes would have dangerous amounts of garbage floating about that a ship might collide with? A starship is necessarily a self-contained system – would it be that much trouble to hang on to your garbage ‘til you could drop it off at a recycling center or jettison it into a sun?

The light saber duel: suffice it to say that while it looked pretty cool onscreen, any remotely competent swordsman would have taken out Luke or Vader in 10 seconds flat. Those big, sweeping moves might look impressive, but they’d get you killed against an actual opponent. Real swordplay is much faster and more precise. (Also, you probably noticed that though Yoda claimed a Jedi uses the Force for defense, never for attack, it was Luke, not Vader, who attacked.

Come to think of it . . .
A New Hope: Vader vs. Kenobi – Kenobi attacked Vader.
The Empire Strikes Back: Vader vs. Luke – Luke attacked Vader.
The Return of the Jedi: Vader vs. Luke – Luke attacked the Emperor.


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