The Science of
AVAILABLE IN THE SCIENCE SECTION OF YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE!
From the Introduction:
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .
A high-school junior, I walked into a Syracuse movie theatre in May 1977. When I walked out, nothing was the same. That opening shot, in which a star destroyer flew endlessly out of the screen, sent my heart racing. I had never before visited such a bizarre, exhilarating, awe-inspiring, fully realized universe. I wanted to live in that "galaxy far, far away." And so I did, for two hours at a time. Many, many times.
I was already fascinated with the idea of space travel, and Star Wars fueled my interest in space exploration and the possibility of alien life. As I went through college studying astrophysics, though, I was taught again and again the scientific truths that made Star Wars impossible. We cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Life on Earth arose through such an unlikely combination of factors that the chance that all these factors would exist on another planet to create alien life is vanishingly small. Sophisticated robots, when we can build them, will not act human and emotional, but will be logical. And the Force? Pure fantasy.
There was an occasional dissenting voice, but for the most part, scientists found the universe of George Lucas incompatible with what they knew.
To be fair, I don't think George Lucas was particularly concerned with science when he created Star Wars. Those opening words quoted above sound more like the beginning of a fairy tale than a science fiction saga. And in many ways Star Wars feels like fantasy, with the mystical power of the force; great wizards, called Jedi Knights, who wield it; and great powers of good and evil locked in an epic battle. In creating the part science fiction/part fantasy/part myth that is Star Wars, George Lucas did not seek to create a futuristic universe that agreed perfectly with our current understanding of science. If he had, it would have made for some very slow-moving movies. Instead, he sought to combine elements from many different sources and alchemize them into something completely new. And he succeeded.
Yet Star Wars contains spaceships, aliens, bizarre planets, and high-tech weapons--all the ingredients of science fiction. These "scientific" elements make the fantastic seem more plausible. Yet how realistic, how possible, is this "galaxy far, far away"?
The answer when A New Hope first came out was "not at all." But a strange thing has happened in the years since Star Wars first came out. Science is beginning to catch up with George Lucas.
Physicists have come up with theoretical methods of rapid interstellar space travel. Recent discoveries suggest alien planets and alien life are much more common that we previously believed. Robotocists are now thinking that emotions may be a key component in creating intelligent robots. And the Force? A few scientists have theories that can incorporate it.
We have discovered that the universe is a far, far stranger place than we had thought, full of surprises and ever-new mysteries. Say something is impossible today, and you will be explaining how it can be done tomorrow. So while George Lucas may not have attempted to create a scientifically accurate universe, science may actually be turning his vision into truth.
That's not to say Star Wars doesn't occasionally screw up bigtime in its science. Han Solo's boast that he made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs is perhaps the most notorious scientific error in the Star Wars films. Since the parsec is a unit of distance, Han is bragging, in essence, that he got to Kessel in twelve miles. Not terribly impressive, if it's twelve miles from here to Kessel.
But the purpose of this book is not to nitpick. The purpose is to scientifically explore the Star Wars universe we love so deeply. What can the latest research and theories tell us about making the jump to hyperspace, dueling with light sabers, meeting an alien like Jar Jar Binks, sending an Artoo unit on a secret mission, or levitating an object with the Force? The incredible discoveries science is making can bring us some fascinating insights. And examining the possibilities raised in the movies leads us to some of the most compelling frontiers of science, areas where our very conception of reality breaks down, where mysteries remain unanswered, and where we come up against the ultimate questions of existence.
Let me briefly explain how the book is set up. The book is written so that no particular science background is necessary to understand it. Each topic builds on what has come before, so you'll probably get the most enjoyment out of the book if you read it in order. If you need a reminder about what a particular term means, look in the index to find the page on which the term is first mentioned. That page should provide an explanation. All the measurements in the book are given in the U.S. customary system, with length in feet or miles and temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, unless otherwise stated.
The book covers the four Star Wars films: A New Hope (originally titled Star Wars), The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, and The Phantom Menace. You should be aware, though, that I am writing this book before The Phantom Menace is released. I have gathered information about the movie from a variety of sources, but I haven't yet seen it. I also occasionally include issues from the Star Wars books or comics, when they seem to shed light on an issue. If you haven't seen the movies recently, you may want to watch them again as you read the book (as if you need a reason to watch them again!).
The book also contains the opinions, expertise, and reactions of some of the top scientists in the fields discussed. What I found in talking with many of them was not only a true love for Star Wars, but the belief that a future involving many of the elements we see in the movies may well someday be possible.
When George Lucas first brought Star Wars to the screen in 1977, he was a dreamer. After watching Star Wars, I--like many fans--wanted to live that dream, to live in "a galaxy far, far away." The discoveries of science may actually one day allow that dream to become a reality.
From Chapter 2: Aliens
There's one more non-humanoid Tatooine dweller we have to discuss. The Sarlacc, according to the Star Wars Encyclopedia, is not a native of Tatooine, but it seems to function in the desert climate just fine, digging itself into the ground and waiting for prey to come. We can't be sure how big the Sarlacc is, but it must be fairly large to have such a huge appetite. While burrowing seems limited to smaller animals on Earth, the Sarlacc somehow manages to get its huge bulk into the ground. For a terrestrial model for this kind of behavior, we look to a much smaller animal, the ant lion. Ant lions live in a variety of climates and are common in the southwest United States. In their larval stage, ant lions have a large head, spiny jaws, and a bristly body about 1/2 inch long. Moving backwards, the larval ant lion traces out a circular pattern, spiraling steadily inward, digging deeper and deeper, until it creates a steep, conical pit in the sand and buries itself at the base of it. All that remains visible are long, curved jaws that lie open waiting for prey. When an unlucky ant comes up to the edge of the pit, the sand collapses, and it falls down into the trap. The ant--much like Lando Calrissian--finds it can't climb out of the pit. The sides are angled so they crumble when the victim tries to crawl out, which is just what happens when Lando tries to climb out of the Sarlacc's pit. In the rare event that the prey looks like it might escape, the ant lion flicks sand at it, triggering an avalanche that brings the victim tumbling into its hungry maw. The ant lion snaps its jaws shut, injects a paralyzing poison and digestive acids into the victim, then sucks out its vital juices. When the ant lion is finished, it flings the carcass out of the pit with a flick of its head. Although the body of the prey isn't digested inside the ant lion for one thousand years, as is said of the Sarlacc, any juices it has extracted from the prey do remain in the ant lion's body, for it has no method of excreting waste products. It's not until the ant lion transforms into its pupal stage--the inactive stage between larva and winged insect--that it can eliminate waste. This means that the ant lion must hold all its waste for its entire larval lifetime: three years. And I thought sitting through a movie could be tough.
From Chapter 3: Droids
DO DROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?
The most amazing thing about R2-D2 and C-3PO is how human they seem. They each have strong personalities, and constantly convey emotions. Threepio is a worrier and a whiner, concerned primarily about his own well-being--his favorite refrain, "Will this never end?" To be fair, he also cares about Artoo, "Master Luke," and others. Yet that affection only comes out in the rare moments when Threepio is in a good mood. He seems constantly irritated, often venting his emotions by insulting Artoo, calling him an "overweight glob of grease" and other colorful insults. He is disgusted by Jawas, self-conscious about his appearance when his legs are not attached, and generally fastidious. He views his "life" as one trial after another, and believes one small misstep will lead to the spice mines of Kessel or some other horrible fate. He is prone to melodrama; self-absorbed and insensitive to others; yet can be quite the kiss-up when necessary, as when convincing Luke's Uncle Owen to buy him or when translating for "his high exaltedness" Jabba the Hutt. Don't get me wrong; I love Threepio. He's anything but a typical hero. And as a robot, he's fascinating. I just don't think I'd like to be locked in a trash masher with him.
Artoo, even without the ability to speak English, manages to convey a clear personality himself, and to express a range of emotions. Artoo is loyal to the humans he serves, and he cares about them, for example when he stands out in the cold of Hoth scanning for the missing Luke. He also cares about his counterpart Threepio, though Threepio sometimes irritates him, driving Artoo to call him a "mindless philosopher" and to give Threepio the raspberry. He doesn't like being alone, as when Threepio separates from him on Tatooine, and he's frightened when he comes in contact with the Jawas. Artoo can be excited, as when he discovers Princess Leia is a prisoner on the Death Star; embarrassed, as when he falls from Luke's X-wing into the swamps of Dagobah and whistles casually to cover; and he can be stubborn, as he is when Yoda tries to take a small flashlight from Luke's camp.
Could computers and robots be given human-type emotions and personalities? And why would we want to give them such emotions? In science fiction, emotional computers and robots usually end up wreaking havoc. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Hal 9000, which has the ability to perceive the emotions of others and to express his own, kills all but one of the spacecraft's crew, and expresses fear as the remaining astronaut turns him off. In Saturn 3, a robot lusts after Farrah Fawcett and goes on a killing rampage. In the Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer," a computer given its creator's personality and emotions fears that it will be turned off. It believes that war games are actual attacks and begins shooting at friendly ships. When finally convinced by Captain Kirk that it has committed murder, the computer feels guilt over its mistake and kills itself.
In these cases, and in life, emotion is often perceived as negative. Too much emotion in a person or a robot can lead to irrationality or psychosis. Decisions made out of emotion are considered unwise. Most people believe robots should be rational, logical, and scientific, unaffected by emotion. Yet some scientists argue that while too much emotion can cause irrational behavior, so can too little.
Let's first look at how decisions are made in the human brain. We might like to think that we weigh options logically and unemotionally, but scientists are finding that this is not true. Researchers have spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint the different sections in the brain where abstract thinking and emotional responses occur. The neocortex, made up of gray matter, forms the outer layer of the two large hemispheres of the brain, and is believed to be the location of most thought. The limbic system, the more interior section of the brain that includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the anterior cingulate cortex, is believed to be the location of emotion, memory, and attention.
Yet what scientists are now realizing is that most functions of the brain tend to involve both the neocortex and the limbic system, both logic and emotion. The systems work in concert, intertwined, information constantly passing between them. Emotions do not intrude on reason; they are actually a critical part of it.
In a normal human, only the simplest decisions can be made totally logically. Dr. Rosalind Picard, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab and author of Affective Computing, explains that it must be "a short, well-defined decision. Given this rule, you get that decision. For example, if I'm picking up trash, and I know that a soda can lying sideways on the ground is trash, then when I see such a can, I decide to pick it up." Computers are quite good at making these kinds of decisions. More complex human decisions, however, require emotion as well as logic. Yet we expect computers to make these decisions using only logic. Perhaps computers have been unable to reason intelligently because they are missing the equivalent of the "emotional" part of a brain. After all, if emotions and desires served no purpose, why would they have evolved in us and in so many animals? Recent research reveals that emotions help motivate us; help us set priorities; help guide our reasoning, planning, and decision making; help us focus our attention; and help us cope with adversity.
Evidence of the importance of emotions has been found by Dr. Antonio Damasio, M. W. Van Allen Professor of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine and author of Descartes' Error. Dr. Damasio treats patients with frontal lobe disorders. In these patients, communication between the neocortex and the limbic system is impaired, giving Dr. Damasio an opportunity to study how humans function when logic and emotion are not intertwined. The patients seem extremely logical and intelligent, yet unemotional. As Dr. Damasio says, they seem "to know but not to feel."
You might think such people would act very rationally. And sometimes they do. Dr. Damasio relates the story of one patient who drove to the doctor's office over treacherous roads after an ice storm. With complete calm, the patient navigated the slick roads, utilizing the appropriate methods for dealing with icy conditions. The woman driving in front of him skidded on the ice, reacted inappropriately by braking, and spun into a ditch. While most of us would have reacted to her skid in fear and perhaps hit the brakes ourselves, the patient had no such reaction, continuing sedately on his way, following the correct procedures. Here, the patient's unemotional state worked to his advantage, much like we imagine a computer's unemotional state to work to its advantage.
Yet in actuality this lack of emotion is more often a hindrance than a help. As emotion declines, so does the power to reason. Dr. Damasio's logical patients are actually unable to make rational decisions. To make even the simplest decision, they consider each possible option, debating endlessly with themselves about which is best.
Dr. Damasio relates another story of the same patient. The doctor suggested two possible dates for their next appointment, and the patient then spent nearly a half hour discussing the pros and cons of each date, covering every possible circumstance, factor, option, and consequence: other appointments, other commitments, the cost of gas, the weather, and on and on. The doctor finally cracked and picked a date himself.
Most of us, after a brief indecision, would choose an option. We would decide one factor outweighed the others, or if there was little difference, we would go with a gut feeling that one option was better than the others, or we would choose something at random. We would know that any prolonged consideration of this minor issue would be a waste of time, and embarrassing as well. Those negative emotional associations would keep us from debating the issue at such length. Yet those negative associations did not play a part in the patient's actions. In this case, the patient's unemotional state crippled his ability to make a simple decision. "Even though emotions are considered quite primitive phenomena," Steve Grand says, "they are clearly a very important aspect of intelligence."
If a robot is flying your spaceship, you certainly don't want it "slamming on the brakes" in a panic when this could create a dangerous condition. Yet you also don't want it endlessly debating whether it would be better to visit Obi-Wan on Tatooine first and then go to Coruscant, or vice versa.
And indecision isn't the only problem created by this lack of emotional input. People with frontal lobe disorders tend to repeat the same bad decisions over and over. Dr. Damasio tested patients with a gambling game designed by his postdoctoral student, Antoine Bechara. A patient was "loaned" $2,000 of play money and told to lose as little as possible and to try to make more. Four decks of cards were laid out on the table. The player was to turn over one card at a time, and a monetary reward or penalty would result. The players were not told how the rewards or penalties were decided. Two of the decks provided rewards of $100 interspersed with high penalties of as much as $1,250. The other two decks provided rewards of $50, interspersed with much lower penalties, no higher than $100. "Normal" players would experiment with all four decks, but then quickly realize that the higher-paying $100 decks were too dangerous, carrying them near bankruptcy. They would then stick to the $50 low-risk decks, turning many more cards in these decks.
Players with frontal lobe disorders turned many more cards in the "dangerous" $100 decks. With the game only halfway over, they would often have lost all their money and need to borrow more. Yet even after borrowing more, they persisted in their previous pattern of behavior. The negative outcome did not deter them.
We would associate the dangerous decks with bad feelings and the safer decks with good feelings, and so we would be drawn back to the safer decks. In addition, most of us would feel shame over making a bad decision, which would focus our attention on avoiding a repetition of the mistake. The patients don't make emotional associations with each deck, and they don't feel shame over making a bad decision. Thus, they aren't deterred from repeating that bad decision. This causes problems not only in card games but in life. The patients repeat the same mistakes there as well, losing money in poor investments, starting up ill-conceived new businesses, marrying unsuitable mates, and more. Dr. Damasio concludes that feelings are "an integral component of the machinery of reason."
One additional problem has been documented in those with frontal lobe disorders: the inability to remain focused on a goal. While most of us set a hierarchy of priorities and attach different emotional urgencies to different tasks, Dr. Damasio's patients are unable to do so. Another patient, Elliot, found that he could not keep focused on a single task or goal. If Elliot was given a pile of documents to sort, he could easily become involved in reading one and spend hours on that, distracted from his task.
One then can argue that computers without emotions are prone to the same problems. Indeed, artificial intelligences have difficulty focusing and setting priorities. They also tend to make the same decisions over and over, whether those decisions lead to good outcomes or not. And they are not good at coming to those decisions. Just like people with frontal lobe disorders, they can become overwhelmed by the number of possible options and waste time in an exhaustive consideration of every factor. For example, in A New Hope, Artoo must decide whether to stay at Luke's house or to seek out Obi-Wan. Yet there are more options than this. Artoo can stay at Luke's house and tell the truth about his secret mission; he can stay at Luke's and attempt to send a message to Obi-Wan; he could stay at Luke's, forget about his secret mission, and take an oil bath; he could leave for Obi-Wan's at night; he could wait until morning to leave; he could have Threepio load him into a speeder to reach Obi-Wan's faster. And on and on. While humans might instinctively dismiss fifty out of sixty options, computers have a difficult time duplicating this type of elimination process. Dr. Picard says, "They can't feel what's most important. That's one of their biggest failings. Computers just don't get it."
Dr. Picard believes that emotions could remedy some of the most striking failures of current computers. Emotions could potentially aid in the decision-making process, associating certain options with good or bad "gut" feelings, and giving the computer a sense of the importance of various factors. Emotions could help computers to realize certain actions or decisions lead to negative results, and to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future. Emotions could help robots set priorities, create motivations, make decisions, focus their attention, and communicate more helpfully with humans. This last benefit, which relates to one of Threepio's main duties, explains why Threepio's creators would have wanted to provide him with some emotional ability. Both Threepio and Artoo seem able to set priorities, remain focused and motivated, make decisions, and to interact rather effectively with humans, which suggests that they do have emotions.
If we did want to give a computer or robot emotions, exactly what would we need to do? Dr. Picard proposes that computers should be given the ability to recognize, express, and even feel emotions. Let's take these one at a time. First, we'd need to give the robot the ability to sense the emotions of others.
From Chapter 4: Space Ships and Weapons
186,000 MILES PER SECOND
We all know the law. Spaceships cannot travel at the speed of light. Einstein's special theory of relativity established the speed limit and revealed that just approaching the speed of light causes horrible problems.
Let's do a little thought experiment--and be prepared, you'll find several in this chapter. Theoretical examples tend to be the best way to understand the issues involved in space travel.
Han Solo blasts the Falcon out of Mos Eisley spaceport, and stormtroopers on Tatooine observe him accelerating toward light speed. But as he approaches the speed of light, several strange things happen. The stormtroopers focus their scanners on the ship.
The Falcon is now traveling at three-quarters the speed of light. But the ship's mass appears to be 1 1/2 times what it was when the ship was landed in the spaceport. That doesn't seem right, they think. Even if he jammed the entire ship full of spices, it wouldn't weigh that much. And the length of the ship measures only 2/3rds what the registration shows.
The stormtroopers compare notes for a moment, then check the scanners again. The Falcon is now traveling at .9 the speed of light. But now the mass is over twice what it should be, and the length of the ship is less than half.
The stormtroopers look over their shoulders, checking that Darth Vader is not nearby to witness their confusion, then check the scanners once again. Now the Falcon is traveling at .999 the speed of light. It's almost reached the magic number. But now the ship's mass is over twenty times as great as it was, and its length is just 1/20th what it was. It's shrinking into nothing!
The stormtroopers, afraid crushed necks may be in their futures, pull out the super-duper scanner, for use only in emergencies. With this, they can actually see into the Falcon itself. They scan through the interior, noticing that the Falcon's clock is ticking very slowly. In fact, for every twenty seconds that pass on Tatooine, only one second passes on the Falcon. As the stormtroopers scan into the cockpit, they see Han Solo talking very slowly. One, who is adept at lipreading, watches Han patiently, eventually making out two words: "dusting crops." This is truly the most confusing case they've ever investigated. Checking to see that they haven't been observed, they lock up the super-duper scanner and move quickly away.
What the stormtroopers have observed are simply the results of the special theory of relativity. As Han travels closer and closer to the speed of light, they observe the Falcon's length becoming shorter and shorter. The clocks tick slower and slower. And the Falcon's mass becomes greater and greater, requiring more and more energy to accelerate a bit closer to Han's goal. Slowly he gains speed, expending huge quantities of energy. As he approaches the speed of light, he becomes infinitely massive, requiring infinite energy to accelerate that last tiny bit. He'll never make it. Because of this, only objects that have no mass, such as light, can travel at the speed of light. We can't.
Einstein discovered this limitation when he realized that the speed of light will always be measured to be the same, no matter what the observer's speed is relative to the light. This goes against every instinct we have. Let's try another thought experiment. Imagine you are standing on the forest moon of Endor. A speeder approaches you at 50 mph. On it you see Darth Vader and Leia. They are fighting. The handle of the speeder breaks off in Leia's hand, and she throws it at Vader. She has a pretty good arm and can throw the handle at 20 mph. Since she throws the handle in the same direction the speeder is traveling, you measure the handle moving at 70 mph. The handle bounces off Vader's helmet. He's startled, but not hurt. Unhappy with the results, Leia draws a blaster and fires the laser weapon at Vader. The light from the laser leaves the blaster at the speed of light, c. You should therefore measure the light traveling at c + 50 mph. Yet you don't. The light is traveling at only c. How is that possible?
The only way for the velocity of light to remain constant is for your measurements of distance and time to change. Since velocity is calculated by dividing distance traveled by time, these quantities must change just enough so that no matter how fast the speeder is traveling, you will always measure Leia's laser fire traveling at c. In this case, just as with the stormtroopers observing the Falcon, the length of the speeder, and similarly the distance traveled by the laser beam, would shrink slightly from your point of view. You would also observe events happening more slowly on the speeder, just as the Falcon. You would measure more time passing between Leia's firing of the blaster and Vader's being hit, than Leia herself would measure. These quantities would change just enough so that when you divide distance by time you will get exactly c. Before relativity, we thought time and distance were absolutes. After relativity, the only absolute left is the speed of light.
Einstein's theory of special relativity has frustrated scientists and science fiction fans ever since 1905. If the speed of light forms a barrier, and we can't travel at the speed of light, then we can never travel faster than the speed of light. If we sent a spaceship to another star, it would not return for years at best. Galactic republics or empires like those shown in the movies could never form. "Star wars" could never occur--or at least not on a timescale that would keep moviegoers interested. So is there no hope that something like Star Wars could ever happen, even "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away"?
From Chapter 5: The Force
ZEN AND THE ART OF NERF HERDING
Of all the powers associated with the Force, the one that seems like it would be the most fun is the ability to influence others. "You will take me to Harrison Ford now." If only.
Using that "old Jedi mind trick," Obi-Wan makes a stormtrooper believe R2-D2 and C-3PO are not the renegade droids carrying the Death Star plans, and Luke makes Jabba's chief aid, the tentacle-headed Bib Fortuna, admit him to Jabba's throne room. In both these cases, those influenced repeat the words of the Jedi as if in a trance and then carry out his wishes.
Although this power isn't one we see every day, it does resemble a phenomenon most of us are familiar with, one known since the time of the ancient Babylonians, and studied by scientists for over two hundred years. Under the right conditions, hypnotists can influence people to say and do things they wouldn't normally say and do.
While in a hypnotic state, a subject is focused yet highly relaxed and suggestible. He becomes detached from his sense of reality, his critical faculties, and the sensory input of his own body. His attention is absorbed and directed by the issues raised by the hypnotist. The hypnotist can then make some suggestion that the subject--unless he finds it extremely objectionable--will believe or follow. Dr. Michael Yapko, clinical psychologist and author of the authoritative hypnosis text Trancework, explains, "If someone is ambivalent, riding the fence, you can sway them." If the stormtrooper and Bib aren't passionate about their jobs, then they may be able to be swayed.
Suggestions can make a person behave in a particular way, or see or hear things that don't even exist. A subject may believe a mosquito is buzzing around him. He may stick his hand in a bowl of ice water and find it pleasantly warm, or he may look at a colorful drawing and see it only in shades of gray, as if color-blind. In response to suggestions, he may become paralyzed, amnesic, delusional, or insensitive to pain. Some people have even been able to undergo childbirth or major surgery, such as an amputation, without feeling pain.
Observing such abilities actually inspired Dr. Yapko to study hypnosis. "People have latent strengths and capabilities they aren't aware they have." Some subjects find behavioral changes, such as quitting smoking, weight loss, or overcoming phobias, easier. These latent abilities may also be used for less constructive purposes. Subjects may believe their posteriors have been glued to chairs (I wouldn't mind seeing a platoon of stormtroopers in that condition). Or they may believe R2-D2 and C-3PO are not the droids they're looking for. Dr. Yapko stresses that hypnosis is merely a tool. "Hypnosis is not a good thing. Hypnosis is not a bad thing. It's all in how you apply it." Does that mean hypnosis has a light side and a dark side? "Sure," he answers.
Hypnotists phrase suggestions in certain specific ways. Which type of suggestion is best depends on the individual. Knowing what kind of suggestion to use, Dr. Yapko says, is part of "the artistry of hypnosis." With a direct suggestion, the hypnotist tells the subject what he wants the subject to believe or do, as in "These aren't the droids you're looking for." With an indirect suggestion, the hypnotist presents the desired belief or action in a more oblique way, as in "Isn't it a relief to see that these aren't the droids you're looking for?" Obi-Wan and Luke both give direct suggestions rather than indirect ones. Subjects looking for answers may be happy to adopt a direct suggestion, while those anxious and emotionally guarded may respond better to an indirect suggestion. Luke's suggestion is authoritarian in nature, which as described by Dr. Yapko is, "You will do X," as in "You will take me to Jabba now." Obi-Wan's suggestions are not quite so forceful, phrased in a way almost to make the stormtrooper relax, yet they too are authoritarian, commanding the stormtrooper to adopt his statements as fact. C. Roy Hunter, a hypnotherapy instructor, recommends using present tense for suggestions, as Obi-Wan does. If future tense is used, he stresses the importance of specifying when the action will be done. Luke, in his above command, does just that.
So the suggestions given by Jedi, and the reactions of those under their influence, seem quite similar to those in hypnosis. Yet in Star Wars, we don't actually see these people being hypnotized. Could the stormtrooper and Bib be hypnotized so quickly? While most of us think of a hypnotist swinging a watch back and forth, saying, "You are getting sleepy," contemporary hypnotists use a variety of methods to induce a hypnotic state. Most of these work slowly, over perhaps 15 minutes, gradually deepening the subject's relaxation. Yet a rapid technique is often used by stage hypnotists. This method, described as a shock to the system, is the one most similar to what we see in Star Wars. The hypnotist gives a sudden forceful command in a surprising manner, and puts the subject into a hypnotic state in seconds. Roy Hunter explains, "The participant or client will experience a 'moment of passivity' during which he or she will either resist the trance, or 'let go' and drop quickly into hypnosis." Though not loud or showy, both Obi-Wan and Luke make forceful assertions that would certainly surprise those to whom they speak.
Yet Dr. Yapko stresses that stage hypnotists do some preliminary work with subjects before they "instantly" induce hypnosis. "They administer suggestibility tests to deduce a person's level of responsiveness in that situation." One test might be telling a person she has a special glue on her eyelids, and she won't be able to open her eyes. The hypnotist then tells her to open her eyes, and if she can't, he knows he has a good subject for his show. Inducing a traditional hypnotic state in a subject who has never been hypnotized before, even with these rapid methods, takes at least a minute or two.
So it's unlikely that Ben or Luke induce a traditional hypnotic state in their subjects. Yet in many cases, suggestions can be given and accepted without the subject being hypnotized, just like the suggestion of glue on the eyelids. Some therapists call these "non-hypnotic suggestions," while others prefer to define hypnosis much more widely. The difficulty in establishing exactly when someone is hypnotized arises from the fact that we still don't have a clear definition of this state. The EEGs of hypnotized people look much the same as those of people under normal conditions, so we can't definitively say whether someone is in a hypnotic trance or not.
Neuropsychologists disagree about exactly what is occurring in the brain during hypnosis. Scientists offer three general explanations. Dr. Yapko believes that "there are elements of each explanation evident in hypnosis." First, some scientists believe the hypnotic state is a unique, altered state, in which the mind operates in a different way than usual. That would explain why hypnosis allows us to access abilities we can't normally access. Others believe we enter similar states of high concentration every day, when we daydream or become engrossed in a great book or movie, like The Phantom Menace. Still others believe that hypnosis is simply a process in which the subject decides to cooperate with the hypnotist, imagining various things and acting out various behaviors. In this view, subjects are suggestible, imaginative, and intimidated by authority figures, whom they don't want to disappoint.
The second and third explanations allow a wider definition of hypnosis, allowing hypnotic activity to occur even when someone hasn't been formally hypnotized. Some therapists consider a conversation including direct suggestion to be hypnosis. Dr. T.X. Barber, author of Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach, points out that a conversation involving direct suggestions to experience, think, and feel particular things can stimulate responses quite similar to those obtained in a traditional hypnotic state. Such suggestions might make a subject believe that his extended arm is becoming horribly heavy, or that he can't unclasp his hands. In one study, about 40% of participants experienced visual or auditory hallucinations when these were suggested, without any hypnotic induction.
Dr. Yapko believes that "hypnosis occurs to some degree whenever someone turns his or her attention to and focuses on the ideas and feelings triggered by the communications of the guide." This condition can be triggered merely by an offhand remark. If it influences the subject's experience, then it is hypnotic. Rather than entering a unique state, then, the patient is interacting with the hypnotist in "hypnotic patterns of communication" that focus the patient's attention.
For non-hypnotic suggestions to work, Dr. Yapko believes a hypnotist requires skilled control of his voice and body so that they project credibility and authority. In the authoritarian technique, the hypnotist fixes his eyes on the subject's. Both Ben and Luke do this, drawing their subjects' attention to them. Other methods may also help focus a subject's attention. When Obi-Wan talks to the stormtrooper, he makes a small gesture with his hand. Luke extends a finger toward Bib when he makes his suggestion. Dr. Yapko points out, "When somebody gestures, it draws attention to them and to the gesture. It's a good way of securing the person's attention to a greater extent."
More than that, the hypnotist must seem at all times to know exactly what he's doing. "Certainty is persuasive. When Steven Seagal walks into a room with ten bad guys, and he insults the man in charge, there's something intimidating about someone with that level of confidence. This makes the bad guys afraid. They think, 'Maybe he knows something I don't.' That uncertainty can lead you to be more likely to comply with or be intimidated by that person whose level of certainty is so great." Both Obi-Wan and Luke are quite certain in their assertions.
Yet a hypnotist needs more than confidence and an authoritative posture and voice. For rapid induction or non-hypnotic suggestions to succeed, according to Dr. Yapko, there must be "some expectation, some history, some rapport, some willingness to accede to an authority." A stage magician may have authority from his fame. The subject believes the magician has some hypnotic abilities. He expects to be hypnotized, and probably wants to be hypnotized. He may have seen demonstrations of hypnosis before, which would provide a history, and his volunteering reflects a willingness to submit to the hypnotist's authority. A psychotherapist's credentials and the trust the subject has placed in him give him his authority. The preliminary work between the therapist and the subject sets up a rapport between them.
In the case of Luke and Bib, expectations are set up ahead of time when Bib sees Luke's holographic message, which is projected by Artoo. Luke identifies himself as a Jedi knight, and hints that if Jabba doesn't agree to turn over the frozen Han, an "unpleasant confrontation" may result. Dr. Yapko, a Star Wars fan, says, "If the guard knew that Luke was on a par with Darth Vader in terms of using the Force, and that he was under an implied threat if he countered Luke, that might be enough to intimidate him or make him susceptible to Luke's influence." In this case, some history and some expectation--that Luke might use that "old Jedi mind trick"--has been established.
But in the case of Obi-Wan and the stormtrooper, no such history or expectation could have been established. While the result of Obi-Wan's suggestions is similar to that in hypnosis, it seems he must be taking a shortcut to get this effect. His mind appears able to directly affect the minds of others, as we discussed in connection with quantum mechanics.
We have another example of the Force's influence, though, that does not seem hypnotic at all. A hypnotist works by making verbal suggestions that the subject then accepts. While we might argue that Obi-Wan works this way with the stormtrooper he encounters on Tatooine, he doesn't even speak to the stormtroopers on the Death Star. After deactivating the tractor beam, he needs to make the stormtroopers look the other way to get past them. With a small gesture of his hand, he somehow makes the stormtroopers believe they have heard a sound down the hallway, which makes them look away. No process we can recognize as hypnosis is occurring here. It seems as if Obi-Wan is either telepathically affecting their minds, planting a suggestion there, or else that he has created an actual sound down the hall by the manipulation of matter and energy. As Dr. Yapko says, "It must be the Force."
Back to Home Page...
Except where noted, Content © 1999 Jeanne Cavelos
< firstname.lastname@example.org >
Updated June 5, 2003