The most famous thing about Star Wars beyond the popularity of lightsabers is easily the casual way it asserts itself to have all gone down in the distant past. The notion of a futuristic adventure actually taking place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” remains one of the simplest and greatest mindfucks in the history of science fiction. But could the very setting of Star Wars have a basis in real science? Author Patrick Johnson, Ph.D. asserts that everything we see in the Star Wars films could feasibly happen in a universe prior to the formation of our own. In essence, Luke, Rey, Darth Vader and Jar Jar Binks all happened before the Big Bang.
“First of all, I want to caveat we have no evidence to say yes or no that there was a universe before the Big Bang,” Patrick Johnson tells Inverse. Johnson is the author the new book The Physics of Star Wars, which was published by Adams Media on November 7. And he’s wise to start our conversation with a caveat. Talking about physics as it relates to pop culture is one thing. But introducing new fan theories about the nature of the Force, that’s something else.
Still, Johnson has a great notion, one which not only gets a fun conversation about physics brewing in the zeitgeist but also might neatly explain everything that’s weird about the Star Wars galaxy. “Our current understanding of how the universe started does not rule out the possibility that there was a universe like the one we know and love today,” he says. “The Big Bang was a time when things were so hot and dense, that all our laws of physics break and the universe collapsed upon itself. Everything became so hot and dense and basically bounced off itself. And before that, there could have been another universe. But, all the information about that is lost in the bouncing back of the universe.”
In most ways, Johnson’s approach here is similar to the much-contested “many-worlds” theory of quantum mechanics. Essentially, this principle asserts that viewing history as a linear narrative isn’t quite right. Instead, myriad universes could be viewed as a tree with multiple branches. Having the Star Wars universe exist pre-Big Bang could be one of those branches.
So, if the Star Wars universe existed before our own, and all the information was lost during the Big Bang, the exact particulars of how and why George Lucas, J.J.Abrams, and Rian Johnson know about it aren’t entirely clear. But Johnson doesn’t think that’s much of a problem either.
“I’m not saying this is true and guaranteed, but if you allow for the universe before the Big Bang who is to say there’s not a universe before that, and before that?” he says. “And if you allow for the existence of multiple universes going further and further back in time, and you allow for the existence of infinite universes, there exists a universe where we’re having the exact conversation, but I have a different shirt on. So, it’s not unreasonable to say there exists a universe where maybe a fundamental constant has a slightly different value, which allows for the Force to exist. Or where the word parsec means a different thing.”
The wonderful thing about Johnson’s way of thinking is that nearly every quibble we might have about the science mistakes or fallacies inherent to Star Wars could have a cool explanation. Different, pre-Big Bang universe could mean different physics. Famously Han Solo said the Falcon made the Kessel Run in “less than 12 parsecs,” which is confusing since a parsec in our world is a unit of distance not a unit of time. But, in Johnson’s book, he outlines that we do the same thing in our world, too. How often have you told someone that you are five minutes away from your destination? Thinking about how we swap time and distance all the time, Johnson’s book helps us to understand we might not even need to worry about the ancient universe stuff to give Star Wars a break with its science “mistakes.”
“I”m not trying to say, oh George Lucas got this right or this wrong. That’s not the main point of the book. But, instead, to say, it doesn’t matter that this a completely made up universe that we can’t talk about things that are meaningful to our lives in a relevant way,” he explains. “If I’m being completely honest, one of the things that depresses me about being a physicist, is people ask me what I do, and I tell them I teach. And then I tell them I teach physics and the response is ‘I hated physics!’ or ‘Oh you must be so smart!’ And that makes me sad. Anybody can love physics. It has a bad reputation. So, I’m taking something people love very much — Star Wars — and using it to inspire a conversation about physics.”
Stil, if Greedo put a blaster to Johnson’s head and asked him for the final word on the Star Wars galaxy existing in a pre-Big Bang context, what would he say?
“I would say that’s possible,” Johnson says laughing. “But the scientist in me would also say, there’s no evidence to indicate that this is the case.”
The Physics of Star Wars is available now from booksellers everywhere.