Editorials 
Article by: Kim Wells, Editor
8/03/99

The Rhetoric of Science-Fiction: Star Wars and the Scientific Community

Editor's note: So I just had to jump on the Star Wars bandwagon and review a book about it; still, it's a woman author, and a very interesting concept-- how do you break down the existing paradigms? What can a sci fi pop culture movie tell us about our universe? Apparently, quite a lot...

I can remember the first time I saw Star Wars; my mother took me to the movies when I must have been about eight. We didn't get to go to the movies very often; the cost of a movie was very high for a single parent and our budget was usually very tight. She must have heard, though, that this movie was special and the experience has taken on an almost religious tone in my memory. I remember the movie's first opening sequence, combining the familiar "fairy tale" with something different in the words scrolling across the screen, mixing with the smell of popcorn, but most of all, I remember my first introduction to this new world that seemed so real. I looked up at the stars and considered what they were made of in a new way. Now, in about two weeks, the most recent effort of Lucas' Dreamworks studio will appear. Extreme Star Wars fans are in a frenzy; some of them have been camped out in front of theaters for weeks (a phenomenon that less-extreme fans are a bit embarrassed to be associated with.) In its time, Star Wars was not only a technologically advanced work of film-making, but one that introduced the "final frontier" to a new generation of people and caused everyone else to see that frontier in a whole new way. It inspired us to dream that the world that appeared on the screen for 2 ½ hours might really be possible and this inspiration created a community of fans. It also, amazingly, predicted real scientific discoveries not far off in the future.

When Lucas' first film came out, as Jeanne Cavelos points out in her book The Science of Star Wars, very few "real" scientists would have argued that Star Wars' action was believable. Life on Earth was pretty much accepted by the scientific community as a one-in-a-million fluke, unrepeatable and lonely. Until relatively recently, what most scientists would have argued in answer to the question "is there life out there?" was:

Even if a solar system provides a favorable long-term environment for a planet to develop life, the planet must have numerous specific qualities in order to give rise to life. Consider the huge number of favorable conditions that combined to allow the development of life on earth. This conjunction of so many characteristics must be extemely rare. (Cavelos 17)

Of course, in the last ten years, we have discovered enough planets to figure out that even if life is one in a million, there are probably enough planets out there to create the many diverse kinds of life that we see in our sci fi films and books. The current estimate is that 10% of all stars might have planets (Cavelos 8). New technology has brought science and fiction much closer together on the continuum of probability.

Cavelos, as a former NASA astrophysicist, is recognized as a member of the scientific community and hasn't been drummed out for her "strange" ideas. She describes the theory I quoted above as a "pessimists' theory" and claims that it has fallen out of favor with many scientists today. She admits that some members of her community would still argue that life is too particular and the conditions too specific for life to develop in abundance, but finds that group has become a minority. In a mere ten to twenty years scientists' ideas about the way life forms and the possibility that other planets might be capable of sustaining life have shifted enough to make reputable, respected scientists start to think that the kind of universe we see in Star Wars, in which Jedi Knights battle the Dark Side, could exist. How could this have happened? How could we have gone from a world where Galileo's life was jeopardized by the mere suggestion that our planet was not the center of the God-made universe, to one where we were tiny and infinitesimally insignificant, (and therefore, not blessed by God), to today, where none of these ideas are definite at all? Is no science sacred?

Alan G. Gross describes the shifting ideas of science in a way that explains that science is not as "hard" as the community wants us to believe. Gross argues that all scientific theory (even what gets taught as "fact") works by using tools of rhetoric, (persuasion, invention, analogy, style, models/genres, convention, and precedent). Gross says that "like oratory, science is a rhetorical enterprise, centered on persuasion" (6) and points to precedent for rhetoric and science's unlikely marriage as far back as the Greeks (6-20). While accepted scientific theory used to say that the conditions to form life on other planets in the universe would have to be identical with those on Earth, today, Cavelos' argument that "while this may be necessary to produce Earthlike life, saying it's necessary to produce any life is making quite an assumption" (13) is not out of order. In effect, Cavelos argues that the scientific community has come to a false conclusion or perhaps a hasty generalization:

Life formed on Earth through a series of accidental combinations that were essentially flukes.

All life must be just like that which formed on Earth.

The conditions that existed on Earth to form life are impossible anywhere else in the known universe.

Therefore, life is virtually impossible and does not exist anywhere but here.

Scientific rhetoric, then, did not prove anything, whereas new discovery has come closer than ever to disproving the former "truth." No, this is not a Jedi Mind Trick but the path to a new understanding of Science.

In the last ten years, scientists have found life existing on Earth that most would have said was impossible in the past: "primitive organisms living over two miles underground in only water and rock; thriving in boiling water from super-hot volcanic vents on the ocean's floor; and luxuriating in the frigid Arctic ocean. . . scientists now believe that thousands of undiscovered extremeophiles exist on Earth" (23). If we didn't know so much about our own planet, and how life develops here, what could we know for a fact about life elsewhere?

Cavelos' book is part of a growing reexamination of the facts that science does know, both about our own planet and those outside our solar system that we have been able to find. Her slant, in guessing at what is possible in "reality" by analogizing our discoveries to Star Wars' imaginary world, uses familiar fiction to explain not-so-easy to understand scientific principles. What Cavelos and other scientists like her have discovered is something that will really excite those crowds of people standing in line for tickets to Episode One: "While George Lucas may not have attempted to create a scientifically accurate universe, science may actually be turning his vision into truth" in effect "catch[ing] up with George Lucas" (xiv). Star Wars meets Aristotle.

To explain about "real" scientific discoveries, Cavelos combines two genres, science fiction and the scientific report. She explores the fictional world that Lucas' film shows us; using the desert planet of Tatooine to explain gravitational shift caused by astronomical objects like our sun, and describes possible consequences on a planet's environment. Talk about deforestation! She also uses the icy wastes of Hoth (from the second film, Return of the Jedi) to tell us the scientific explanation for how and why major climate change on our planet might be possible as a result of something as simple as a "non-catastrophic" asteroid strike. She cites considerable authority, calling upon other scientists as well as her own background in the traditional scientific community. Using "layman's terms," her book describes complex ideas about fantastic worlds that may help us understand our own world better. Ultimately, her section on planets posits that "if only a tiny percentage of these [2.5 million estimated planets] come close to reproducing Earth's environment, that could potentially provide the planets we see in the movies" (19). By using what Gross would call a rhetorical device, Cavelos pulls two seemingly disparate communities together, improving our understanding of both.

But Cavelos is no dummy, in the tradition of the scientific report, she lets scientists weigh in with their doubts about Star Wars, pulling in the opposition as a way of showing her own ethos; we know that there are still problems with Star Wars' and she addresses this. Part of her attempt to show both sides of the story also illustrates the shift in thinking that comes when we are both a sci fi buff and a person who knows our science. We disengage when plot elements, and the fallibly non-scientists writers screw it up. For example, Dr. Miguel Alcubierre, of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitation Physics in Potsdam explains something that most of us know about:

The sound of explosions in space [really gets my goat]. That bothers me most. Something blows up and you hear a big ka-boom! Explosions would never make a sound [because with no oxygen, there are no sound waves]. Being a science fiction fan on the one hand and a physicist on the other, there's a duality. . . You have to turn off your brain. (234)

This duality between one discourse community (the sci fi fan) and another (the person who has spent years studying basic principles of science and can't forget what he/she knows) tells us why some people just don't like science fiction. To some people, the predictions of sci fi seem too impossible and those mistakes ruin the whole thing. People have accepted what we know of as scientific "fact" don't want any old fiction muddying the water of "truth." But what Cavelos' exploration of the scientific rhetoric in Star Wars shows us (and in a way that is much more gripping than Gross' discussion of science) is that science really doesn't prove facts at all, and that what we believe about science (those sacred "black boxes" where information just gets accepted as true once and disappears forever) is just convincing argument that could change with time. This opens our minds to even more innovation.

Right now, there is no real evidence that can really prove or disprove anything about what we might encounter in space. All that we do know is based on faith in strong cameras and mirrors angled the right way. But, considering the change in our conceptions about the way human life forms following the discovery of DNA and RNA, and the techniques of gene splicing that someone like Mary Shelley could only dream up a few hundred years ago, could it be possible that the problem that we have today in "turning off" our rational mind for the part of our brain that just wants to hear a good story might be irrelevant to the way things will work when technology has actually created space travel?

Who knows what could happen?

Cavelos' look at whether the world we see in Star Wars' is scientifically possible draws two different, sometimes hostile to each other communities together. She brings what could be a boring scientific report into another genre, and so creates a style that is much more readable and interesting than the typically dead "thingishness" of traditional scientific reporting (Killingsworth-Gilbertson 131). We have fun, but we also learn something. Her audience ranges from people who know very little science and who just like the movie to her peers in the scientific community. She makes the same argument that Gross makes in The Rhetoric of Science: that science is fluid and changing, and that "facts" might be closer to fictions than we thought, but does so in a very accessible manner.

What sci fi buffs know is that good science fiction often predicts the logical course that current science might take. Sometimes scientists even draw their ideas from fiction and new inventions and technologies are born. Incredible science fiction predicts things that are impossible but that eventually, somehow, become logical. This is what draws "sci fi" geeks to the movie theaters in droves, and it is why we can forgive the occasional scientific error in favor of speculation over what might actually be true, and possible. Hope, and progress, and shifting science, like the "Force," is always with us.


Works Cited

Cavelos, Jeanne. The Science of Star Wars. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Gross, Alan G. The Rhetoric of Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie and Michael K. Gilbertson. Signs, Genres, and Communities in Technical Communication. New York: Baywood Publishing Inc, 1992.

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