Science Champ: Star Wars or Star Trek?

Photo by Debbie Yutko
Photo by Debbie Yutko

Ready for battle? Two teams of scientists took their places for the “Star Wars vs. Star Trek Science Tag-Team Fight” on Saturday at 5:30PM in Marriott A601–A602. In one corner, Dr. Stephen Granade (physicist) and Eric P. Spana (biologist specializing in genetics and developmental biology) laced up their gloves to defend Star Wars. In the other corner, Mohamed A. Noor (biologist specializing in evolution and genetics) and Erin Macdonald (astrophysicist specializing in general relativity and space-time) checked their laces for team Star Trek. Noor made the unfortunate selection of a red-shirt Star Trek uniform, however, which lent a fatalistic note to the Star Trek defense.

The starting bell came in the form of an animated spoof of Jean-Luc Picard and Darth Vader taunting the science of each other’s pseudo-science. And the fight was on. Noor threw the first punch. Star Trek, he pointed out, developed several life forms based on silicon rather than carbon. Not a terrible choice, since it’s one down on the periodic table and has a similar ability to bond to other atoms. Silicon, however, is much more likely to bind to oxygen, forming silicon dioxide, better known as—sand. Obviously, sand might not be the perfect medium for a living being, but at least they tried. Consider the Star Wars attempt—here he showed a gif of the space slug in the asteroid, trying to eat the Millennium Falcon. Not the least bit scientific.

Adroitly sidestepping the punch with some fancy footwork, Spana showed the crystalline foxes known as Vulpexes on Crait in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. These creatures fit their environment, with the big ears of fennic foxes and the brilliant white of arctic foxes. They follow the general rule of life by blending into the background where they live. Spana then showed a clip from a recent Star Trek movie that showed a brown hengrauggi attacking Kirk and then being attacked by an even larger, vibrant red creature. Both monsters stood out plainly in the snow-covered environment, a jarring contrast to the common rules of nature.

The jabs started flying at faster-than-light speed. Macdonald swung with all the force of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that you can never know both the position and speed of a particle. But the wallop appeared to damage her own team when she pointed out that this is why transporters would never work. Ouch. But she shared her favorite physics joke to ease the pain:

“A cop pulls over Heisenberg and says, ‘Sir, do you know how fast you were going?’ And he says, ‘Nope. But I know exactly where I am.’ And then the cop says, ‘Well, you were going eighty miles an hour,” and he’s like, ‘Oh, great. Now I’m lost.’”

She added, however, that Star Trek solved the problem by adding a hypothetical Heisenberg compensator to the transporter. Bam!

Both sides dealt sound blows in subsequent rounds:

Macdonald: Sucking energy from a star would cause huge flares and a hot zone of death.

Granade: They fixed that in the novelization.

Macdonald *collapsing on the table*: Planets are hard to destroy! It would take a week of the sun’s full energy to destroy the earth.

Granade: What about Star Trek’s red matter? *shows a cartoon of Marvin the Martian from Looney Tunes*

Macdonald: Touché.

Noor: Star Trek used genetics—even graphics of horizontal gene transfer. Meanwhile, in Star Wars… *shows slide of Anakin’s mother saying, “He has no father.”* How did that work?

Spana: It’s a big galaxy, and Star Wars shows a diverse amount of species. In Star Trek, you only get people in costumes and facial prosthetics. Pow.

Macdonald: “We do not speak of such things.” At least warp drives are theoretically possible. You’d just need to build a series of bubbles around the ship, with space-time compressed in front and expanded in back. “We can do the calculations.” We just need the engineers to figure out how to implement it. In Star Wars? The infamous Kessel run in 12 parsecs—a unit of distance, not time. “They move at the speed of plot.”

After equally bruising punches, the scientists proceeded to round two, where they critiqued their own fandom.

Spana: Star Wars is a wonderful fantasy universe. They just shouldn’t have tried to make it science fiction. Midichlorians? Puh-lease. It would have been better to use an infectious disease than a genetic trait. Just because a prank false paper on midichlorians actually got published in four scientific journals before it was discovered to be fake does not make it fact. Or does it?

Noor: Star Trek had people de-evolve into spiders and into amphibians in the episode “Threshold.” Amphibians and humans have a common ancestor, true, but amphibians are not human ancestors, so this de-evolution would be impossible.

Macdonald: *palms face* Check out the terribly imprecise angles between phasers and the beams. Are they using auto-aim or something? And how can the beam, supposedly made of light, travel so much slower than the speed of light?

Granade: “I don’t get lightsabers.” If they’re made of light, how can they turn? How could they cross swords? Plasma? “I got nothin’.”

The bout continued with a Q&A session with the audience.

Question: Dilithium crystals?

Spana: That’s chemistry. Could work.

Granade: The first lasers in the ’60s did use ruby crystals, so it probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

Macdonald: Note that you can date science fiction based on the technobabble it uses.

In the end, sporting a few swollen lips and black eyes, the blood-spattered scientists shook hands and agreed that each universe had its own strengths and weaknesses. But who knew the weaknesses would be so much fun to bash?

Author of the article

Debbie Yutko lives near Atlanta with her husband and two cats. When she isn’t gardening, rescuing homeless kittens, or cramming math formulas into teenagers’ brains, she can be found stringing words together at her computer and dreaming of adventures in far-off lands. She is a lifelong reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and a veteran of Dragon Con, where she enjoys attending panels and working with the talented staff of the Daily Dragon.