How To Blow Up A Planet And Other Highly Scientific “Star Wars” Theories

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640Header by Rory Midhani

Feature image by Shutterstock

I loved the new Star Wars film. Absolutely loved it. Sure, some people found the nostalgia pandering slightly annoying. (It personally didn’t bother me.) And yeah, okay, The Force Awakens was full of standard issue J.J. Abrams plot holes. (For example: Why was supposed sanitation worker FN-2187 suddenly given a blaster and sent into battle? Why didn’t Leia ever check R2D2 for Luke’s whereabouts? How did Resistance forces not notice that giant structure being built to harness the power of the sun and blow up planets?) But you guys. You guys! A female action hero protagonist!

Female military leaders and advisors!

Adorable genderless robots!

Via Hitfix.

Via Hitfix.

This movie wasn’t perfect by any means, but I sincerely adored it. Sitting in the dark with a bunch of strangers and watching multiple female X-wing pilots wander around Resistance hangers and do their thing in battle was beyond satisfying (especially knowing the history!). Captain Phasma didn’t get much screentime, but I kind of loved that she only appeared in heavy, salvaged chromium Stormtrooper armor; it gives me Samus Aran feelings. And Maz Kanata, just… did that really happen? I think I’m in love with a 1,000-year-old space pirate.

I’ve been reading quite a few fan theories and Poe/Finn pairings recently, but I won’t subject you to that (unless you want to talk in out in the comments, in which case, hello). Instead, I wanted to share with you some top notch nerd speculation on the science of Star Wars.

1. Neil deGrasse Tyson: How to Blow Up A Planet (Star Talk)

Related: Neil deGrasse Tyson explains what Star Wars gets right about science (Tech Insider). It’s not very much. But that’s not really the point.

2. How BB-8 Works

I love that these people built a whole website on the topic and took the time to 3D model BB-8 inside an X-Wing. Such dedication! Here’s a sample:

The first thing we have learnt from this patent is that there is a concept in robotics called holonomic motion. Ground-based holonomic robots are those who can instantaneously move in any direction on the horizontal plane. That makes them incredibly responsive. Both the Sphero and our little guy BB-8 are holonomic robots.

3. How Fast is the Millennium Falcon? A Thought Experiment. (Tor)

Lots of math to back up their analysis here!

This is where my attempt to deduce how fast the Falcon is runs into the barrier between fiction and reality, even though I’m already talking about a theoretical concept within a piece of fiction. George Lucas obviously didn’t have any underlying factual worldbuilding worked out when he wrote A New Hope and it’s clear that it was never his intent to do so. He wanted to tell a story about spiritual forces, empires and rebellions, daring fighter pilots, and hero’s journeys. Everything that could possibly call for a measured explanation, like a lightsaber, a space station the size of a moon, or the speed of the Millennium Falcon, was thought up in service of the spectacle of the Star Wars epic. The only explanation behind having Han establish “.5 past light speed” as the Falcon’s speed is that it makes Han sound cool. “.5” is an arbitrary number and doesn’t signify a scale or speed.

4. Why Kylo Ren’s Lightsaber Works (Nerdist)

Related: Are Lightsabers Possible? (Gizmodo)

5. An Analysis of Blaster Fire in Star Wars (Wired)

Rhett Allain actually did a whole series on Star Wars science for Wired, but this blaster fire analysis one is my favorite. He also says that the physics doesn’t make a lot of sense (and it’s okay).

First, let me comment on the ground base’s blaster shots. The average for these things is just 34.9 m/s (78 mph). This is in the ballpark of a baseball pitch. Compare this to the speed of a Nerf gun bullet at about 10 m/s. This means two things:

  • A Jedi deflecting blaster bolts with a lightsaber is about the same as a baseball player hitting a pitched ball.

  • Playing with Nerf guns and plastic lightsabers in the backyard isn’t too terribly different than the movie.

6. Darth Vader: The Six-Million-Dollar Sith (Scientific American)

This article is actually an excerpt from 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 by Jeanne Cavelos. It came out before the atrocities that were Episodes I-III, which is why he doesn’t have all the details on how Vader fell into that lava pit. I kind of wish I didn’t have all the details either, but here we are.

Quadriplegics who suffer from a similar problem use a ventilator attached through a hole in the neck to the trachea. This means air enters and leaves the body below the vocal cords, never passing over them. In a more sophisticated design, a speaking valve can be incorporated into the tube, which allows air through the tube into the lungs, but prevents air from leaving by the same path. Vader may have a similar ventilation device. This would explain why his breathing seems independent of his speech. A person’s voice with such a system can often be weak. Thus to project a commanding presence, Vader would need his voice augmented somehow.

I’m undecided whether The Force Awakens is enough to make up for I-III. Tentative yes? I guess it depends on whether they follow through on what has been set up so far.

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. I might have inwardly fist pumped when a female character, who shall not he named for spoiler reasons, physically outmatched a male character,who just shall not be named, in a pivotal scene which I will not exemplify further.
    No “more cunning”, “swifter”, “trickery”, reasons that women are sometimes allowed to overcome men.
    She simply outmatched him in a battle of strength and uh, forcefulness.
    That scene was incredibly satisfying and I can’t remember anything like it, outside of Xena or Buffy.

  2. I loved this movie with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. I hoped it would be good. I spent far too much time in the months leading up to it sitting in the dark by myself whispering “what if it’s as bad as the prequels?” And yeah, it had issues, with almost everything surrounding the superweapon being the big one, but everything else was just SO GOOD.

    Rey is EVERYTHING. I wish I could be five again watching this movie just so I could see this movie and have her as a role model/baby gay crush.

    My favorite scene is near the beginning, with Rey and the helmet. It makes me wonder how people can say she’s bland or cardboard… that one scene says so much about Rey and who she is.

  3. My favorite science plot hole is that if Starkiller destroys the local star to power its weapon, why doesn’t it just destroy the local star and swan off? Whichever system is screwed without a local star anyways.

    Also, thinking about this is really funny, because then presumably the center of gravity to orbit around shifts to the heaviest planet in the system. But what if it’s a lightweight system, and Starkiller is the new heaviest object? It just swallowed a freaking star. Do all of the planets just start orbiting around Starkiller now? Does Starkiller start flying around with all of these planets leftover planets and moons and asteroid belts orbiting around it, like gigantic rings of Saturn / moons of Neptune. And then every time Starkiller gets to a new system suddenly sufficiently heavy planets start interacting with the newest star’s gravity, which might get really dangerous for Starkiller.

    Oh, I guess that’s the real reason they destroy the planets in addition to killing their star.

    • You know, I didn’t think even about how that destroys the star! But they’re siphoning energy off of it, so yeah, of course. Eventually it will run out.

      Starkiller becoming the new center of gravity is a hilarious image. I REALLY LOVE THIS COMMENT, thank you for existing. <3 <3

        • According to a Trivial Pursuit card I read two weeks ago (my memory is weird because I have no idea where I put my umbrella YESTERDAY), Starkiller was originally supposed to be Luke’s last name, instead of Skywalker, because he killed the Death Star. So it’s a total throwback!

          • More than a throwback, kinda.
            In Force Unleashed, a video game from 2009 that had 2 sequels an apprentice of sorts to Darth Vader got re-named Starkiller.
            He was born Galen Marek ,eventually came out on the side of the Resistance and the symbol of House Marek would become the Alliance Starbird in honor of his sacrifice to their cause.

            BUUUUUUUUUUUT that’s all now under EU continiuty mess sooo I have no idea if naming the weapon Starkiller is suppose to be a special poke in the eye.
            I can hope tho.

          • So interesting!

            Did you guys see the comments George Lucas made about the expanded universe being thrown out? If not, don’t look them up. But he did not take it well.

            I am fine with it if that name is a special poke in the eye.

  4. Basically I just want to comment SAME on every other comment on here, so I’m sparing you all that by writng this comment instead. Consider everyone on here samed.


  5. I like the thing going around on tumblr about how Rey who we saw eating dinner with her X-Wing pilot helmet, would totally swoon over Jessika Pava and they’d go on dates where Jessika would take her flying in her X-Wing and it’s just too frickin’ cute!

  6. Okay these links are all amazing- but I still don’t know how I feel about the fact that the obvious sexism present, was showcased as a joke. (I.e. Every man being consistently surprised at Rey’s general awesomeness.)

  7. hello yes i heard this is where we come to be gay about star wars i have Thoughts

    I’ve seen more poly rep/OT3 shipping for this film than I have for anything I can remember, and it makes me so so happy to feel even a tiny bit seen in that way. + poe/finn/rey is so cute lbr

    ALSO: The fact that people would rather Rey have a relationship w the guy who Literally Tortured Her than the sweetest dude in the galaxy is Creepy As Hell 2 me (there’s a lot of kylo/rey shit out there folks). I’m v white so I don’t want to overstep here, but I’ve seen a few people talking abt how blatantly racist they feel it is.

    also I’ve decided poe is genderfluid bc i am Projecting Unhealthily onto them

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