Star Wars has long become a cultural phenomenon, one that resonates with and reflects our global mindset. There are several interesting themes that one can explore through Star Wars, despite its rather simplistic premise and story. Those include: good versus evil, nature versus nurture, social obedience and autocracy versus individual freedom and democracy, cross-cultural myths, and of course ‘The Force’, a substitute for God, spirituality, paranormal phenomena and more.
I often get asked about the scientific errors in sci-fi movies, and I usually reply that I tend to turn off (or at least turn down) my scientific mind and just enjoy the drama and the underlying ideas in such movies. So I will not here expound on the various utterly unrealistic cosmic and technological features that are used in the Star Wars saga. Instead, I want to explore its representation of aliens and what it says about our fascination with extra-terrestrials.
My first observation is that the world of Star Wars teems with aliens — more than a hundred by one account. These include the Wookies (e.g. Chewbacca), the Rodians, the Neimoidians, the Luggabeasts, and many others, plus those that appeared in earlier episodes (who could forget Yoda, Jabba the Hutt, Jar Jar Binks, Admiral Ackbar and others). Aliens in Star Wars are not only numerous, they are very diverse, including reptilian (cold-blood) humanoids.
Numerous and diverse aliens simply implies that life, varied, intelligent, and technically advanced, must be ubiquitous in the universe. Indeed, because Earth is relatively young (4.5 billion years compared to about 12 billion years for our galaxy), many extra-solar planets will have formed well before ours, and if life has appeared on so many of them, then it will have had so much time to evolve to higher levels than humans. After all, we have only become technologically advanced (radio communication, rockets into space, etc.) in the last century or two. Imagine what level we will have reached in millions, let alone billions of years, here on Earth or beyond… But what we see in Star Wars is humans at the top of the scale, and most aliens very primitive.
Interestingly, as I watched the cute BB-8 droid (robot) in Star Wars, I kept wondering why there aren’t any fully robotic aliens in the saga. Indeed, any sufficiently advanced civilisation will have developed sophisticated robots that can explore — and even colonise — various corners of the galaxy. Advanced robots can not only take care of themselves, finding energy and minerals to keep going, they can repair themselves when needed, and replicate — that is, create copies of themselves that can further travel, explore and colonise. The galaxy should be full of such droids, even more than the various aliens that we meet in the movie.
Aliens have continued to be in the news recently. Last September, there was an interview of Edward Snowden, in which he insisted that signal encryption will make it impossible to tell whether any signal from space is from intelligent aliens or just a natural phenomenon. In other words, if we detect an encrypted signal, we won’t know that it carries any information, so we won’t be able to tell that it’s artificial.
Interesting idea, but not quite right. First, if aliens want to communicate with us (or others), they will make it easy for anyone to tell that it’s an intended message, hence they will not encrypt it. But what Snowden was referring to was normal communication within the civilisation itself, not something intended for others. When we broadcast TV or other signals on Earth, we often encrypt them, as we do not have aliens in mind. Still, if anyone receives such a signal, they will surely realise that it is an intelligent one, even if they can’t decipher it, simply by its structure (very narrow frequency band, for instance). Furthermore, after just a few decades, any civilisation will (as we did) move on to more sophisticated and efficient communication technologies, such as fibre optics and beamed, satellite-based broadcasting, where leakage to space is minimal, hence reception from afar won’t even be possible. Still, Snowden’s ideas and the media repercussions that they had just show how much attention we pay to any smart suggestion about aliens.
A month later, a science news story permeated through the popular media: the star KIC 8462852 (informally named “Tabby’s star” after Tabetha Boyajian, the discovery team leader) was found to dim regularly by about 20 per cent, something that could not be explained by any known natural phenomenon and was thus quickly interpreted as the possible manifestation of advanced alien technology. (Perhaps something like the Death Star in Star Wars). Promptly, researchers at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in California turned the Allen Radio Telescope Array (42 six-metre radio antennas) toward Tabby’s star and performed two types of searches. They found nothing but promised not to give up.
Virtually all scientists expect the phenomenon displayed by Tabby’s star to sooner or later be explained naturally. The history of space exploration is replete with such cases (natural phenomena mistaken for alien effects), from Mars’ “channels” to the pulsars’ high-frequency and beamed radiation.
The fascination with aliens is a reflection of our human angst about our place and future in the universe. Could we be alone? Or could we be invaded by aliens far superior to us? By exploring scenarios, in movies and in science, we try to come to terms with those perplexing questions.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on at twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.