Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Midichlorians Were a Bad Idea... But not For the Reasons you may think

Say what you will about the Star Wars franchise. I personally am not much of a fan, probably because I got a little bit too into it when I was younger. The whole franchise has a massive fanbase, and where people stand varies. Some say the classic trilogy is best, some say A New Hope (or if you really want to be a purist, Star Wars) is the only good one. Others say Empire Strikes Back is the best. Others enjoy the whole saga and extensive expanded universe, some people prefer to stick to the movies.

Whatever you may think about Star Wars, there is one area in particular where many seem to agree, and that is on the quality of The Phantom Menace. It did have a few positive elements that got attention, but most of those were greatly overshadowed by its problems. One of the biggest controversies of course was the introduction of "midicholorians"- or the explanation that the Force was merely a series of microbes in your bloodstream rather than any kind of magic.

The one thing anyone remembers positively about The Phantom Menace: Darth Maul and his double-bladed lightsaber.

Considering where I stand with Star Wars it really doesn't matter to me precisely how the force is explained, but a lot of fans were outraged when after three movies treating the force as supernatural, George Lucas suddenly decided to try and give it a scientific explanation. I have heard that they were ideas George Lucas had from the start, but it was never brought up. Still, I can say that midichlorians aren't exactly a great idea. Heck, I've even expressed interest in writing some Star Wars related material that would attempt to reconcile the whole thing (probably by explaining something along the lines of midichlorians being misinterpreted, simply the most comprehensible part of an otherwise impossible to understand Force, or just something commonly found in those who are sensitive to it). However, my uncertainty about midichlorians is less to do with any kind of demystification and more a case of bad execution.

Now to start, I think it is worth bringing up that one criticism I've given towards Star Wars before is that, when you get down to it, it fails logic on so many levels. I could probably easily make a long list of scientific fails across the franchise, but I'll just provide you three of the most especially prominent errors.

1. Complete Disregard to Einstein

To provide a simple explanation for some extremely complicated science, basically the speed of light is finite, and it is also the fasted speed that can possibly be reached, at least by all known physics. Going at the speed of light causes a massive time distortion. 

In short, if you were to actually travel at the speed of light, time would slow down for you while progressing normally outside. If you were to travel say... 25 light years (a measure of distance in astronomy, basically how far light can travel in one year), it may only be a year for you, but outside 25 years will have passed. Go back to Earth, and 25 more years will have passed, everyone you know will have aged fifty years while you are only slightly older than when you left.

On Star Wars the characters routinely "jump to light speed" as though this was nothing. They don't even so much as use a techno babble hand-wave to justify this. As nonsensical as Star Trek's science could get they at least tried to get around this issue with warp drive.

In actuality, if real science were to be considered, and George Lucas still wanted them to go at light speed, the story of A New Hope would play out quite a bit differently. The exact distance travelled is not specified, but in actuality, even if only a few days passed aboard the Millennium Falcon, outside there would be a significant difference. By the time they got to Alderaan, the entire empire and rebel alliance would have aged significantly (assuming they didn't die of old age) and Princess Leia would be long dead.

2. Sound Does Not Travel Through Space

This is a huge mistake that has been made so many times in so many science fiction stories. It's insane how many films fail to realise the simple fact that space is a vacuum and therefore sound waves cannot travel. It's actually extremely rare to see a work of science fiction that actually gets it right.

2001 is one of the few movies with the nerve to actually show space scenes in dead silence. Even the ones that got it right will occasionally try to cover it up with music.

3. Asteroids Don't Work Like That

Another old fashioned sci-fi cliche to be invoked by Star Wars is a chase between the hero and the bad guys through a lethal asteroid field. These are thousands of ginormous rocks that are incredibly close to each other, the kind of thing no sane person would ever enter on their own accord else they crash and die in a fiery explosion.

Yeah, the truth is that while asteroid fields do exist (we have one in our own solar system), they are in fact ridiculously easy to navigate. An asteroid field as seen in The Empire Strikes Back would quickly be crumbled into dust. Real asteroids would be miles apart, and the only way to actually crash into one would be either if done intentionally or through sheer stupidity. 

Basically, if a chase like in The Empire Strikes Back were to happen in reality, flying into the asteroid field would have made no difference. Then again the Empire has power over the bulk of the galaxy and access to the most sophisticated technology available yet somehow can't even afford to train its soldiers to shoot straight or hold its own against an army of teddy bears with bows and arrows.

So those are three basic scientific problems with the franchise, how does this say anything about midichlorians?

Well, to start off, it is clear looking at those three examples alone, that unlike say... George Pal or Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas doesn't seem concerned about scientific accuracy. He is probably more interested in the story or the visuals than whether they make sense when the details are fact-checked with actual science. 

So then why is it that he suddenly decides to go and try and find a scientific explanation for the one element that was treated as supernatural? I have no problem with some sort of explanation being applied but why did George Lucas choose the Force of all things to try and explain scientifically? If he's going to do that why not also try to explain how the characters in his world are able to get around the time dilation that would come from jumping to light speed or why asteroid belts are so ridiculously close together? 

Whether George Lucas had always intended them to be there or not, the midichlorians were never mentioned in the original trilogy, but brought up straight out of nowhere in a few lines of dialogue of The Phantom Menace. There's no in-depth look at it or attempt to reconcile with the Force's more supernatural treatment in the Classic Trilogy. All we get is "oh by the way, the Force is just microbes, moving on". 

Perhaps if handled differently the midichlorians could have been an interesting idea and even accepted by fans. As it stands, the fact that George Lucas tries to offer a scientific explanation to the Force seems very out of place in a franchise that otherwise seems to have no regard for how science works.

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