It’s an elegant weapon from a more civilized age. It’s enthralled movie goers for over 40 years. The guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic knew that their lives were tied to it. We’re talking, of course, about lightsabers. Sure, swords and swordplay have been a staple part of our mythologies for centuries. We all know that Star Wars creator George Lucas studied world mythologies for some time prior to beginning work on his saga set in that galaxy far, far away and that he was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell’s seminal work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. From Theseus to King Arthur, all of our most popular myths have used the acquisition of swords and the skill to wield them as coming of age parables. With the lightsaber, Lucas took this to the next level, introducing audiences to a weapon as enticing as it is lethal.
But while lightsabers have captured our imagination for decades, they represent a pretty enormous question mark when viewed under the lens of science as we know it. For all their mystique and visual intrigue there’s a whole lot about them that doesn’t make sense. And we’re not talking about the way in which Luke’s saber keeps changing color in A New Hope or how it makes different noises when ignited in The Empire Strikes Back. We’re talking about how our understanding of the universe prohibits the very existence of a lightsaber. While any of the following could probably be answered glibly by “because THE FORCE!”, here we’ll take a look at 20 things about this iconic armament that make absolutely no sense…
20. HOW CAN SOMETHING SO SMALL GENERATE SO MUCH POWER?
A certain little green Jedi master once said, “Size matters not”, but sorry Yoda, the laws of physics don’t have your tiny verdant back on this one. Let’s take the scene in which Qui-Gon Jinn scythes through the unscrupulous Trade Federation’s blast doors in The Phantom Menace. Assuming that the door’s competition is similar to that of titanium steel, Qui-Gon’s saber would need to heat it to a temperature of around 1900 Kelvin to melt it.
Wired magazine’s Rhett Allain estimates that to reach this sort of temperature the saber would need to be able to generate 28 kilowatt hours or 100800000 joules of energy. No easy feat for such a diminutive power source.
19. HOW COULD THEY POSSIBLY WEIGH SO LITTLE?
In the documentary Empire Of Dreams, actor Mark Hamill recalls how George Lucas wanted actors wielding lightsabers to treat them as though they were very heavy, like a broadsword — it gave them a sense of heft and power. When the prequel trilogy came along, however, we saw a far more graceful form of lightsaber choreography.
We saw Jedi and Sith alike wield lightsabers one handed, twirl them like batons and flip through the air while holding them. But there’s no way anything that powerful could weigh so little. Even the world’s most powerful battery, the (as yet theoretical) xenon difluoride battery can only generate one kilojoule of energy per gram. That means a lightsaber would have to weigh around 100.8 kilos or 222.23 lbs.
18. HOW COULD LIGHTSABERS CLASH?
We all love a good sword fight and the Star Wars saga has given us some of the most memorable in cinema history. Indeed, Revenge Of The Sith still holds the record for the longest swordfight ever committed to film. Many of us spent our childhood years clashing sticks together with friends or siblings to recreate those epic battles.
But if we take lightsabers at their word and assume that their blades are composed of light, there’s no way the blades would clash in the satisfying way that we see and hear in the films. They’d simply pass through one another as light has no mass.
17. HOW COULD THEY SEVER LIMBS?
Severed limbs and hands are a veritable staple of the Star Wars saga. From Anakin Skywalker’s dismemberment at the hands of Count Dooku in Attack Of The Clones to Luke’s severed hand in The Empire Strikes Back, we’ve seen heroes and villains alike lose appendages to these fearsome blades. But in his series of “Because Science” Youtube videos, The Nerdist’s Kyle Hill posits a somewhat grizzlier reality.
Because the cells of our bodies are composed of around 60% water, the heat from something as hot as a lightsaber blade wouldn’t just neatly sever a limb… even the slightest contact with the weapon would vaporize your entire body!
16. WHY DID PONDO BABA’S ARM BLEED?
It’s one of the coolest moments in A New Hope and a clear homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. When Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker travel to the Mos Eisley cantina to seek passage to the Alderaan system it isn’t long until the callow Skywalker finds himself inadvertently in trouble.
When his young friend is accosted by Doctor Evazan and Pondo Baba, Obi Wan tries to resolve the situation diplomatically but reluctantly resorts to more forceful methods. In a flourish, the veteran Jedi disarms Pondo Baba by severing his arm… which curiously leaves a streak of blood on the ground below. It’s a cool moment (and surprisingly gruesome for a family film), but surely the heat of a lightsaber would instantly cauterize such a wound?
15. HOW COME LIGHTSABERS DON’T INSTANTLY BURN THEIR USERS?
Without a doubt the selling point of Star Wars’ prequel trilogy was getting to see how the heroic Jedi Anakin Skywalker would become the feared Sith Lord known as Darth Vader. In Revenge Of The Sith we saw not only Anakin’s descent into evil but also the injuries which led him to rely on the iconic black life support suit to survive.
The film clearly demonstrates that proximity to lava caused Anakin’s clothing to set on fire while the scorched air burned his lungs. But given that the temperature of lava is around 1500 Kelvin and a lightsaber’s blade is even hotter at (presumably) around 1900 Kelvin, surely Anakin would burn to a crisp every time he ignited his lightsaber.. right?
14. IF LIGHTSABERS ARE LASER SWORDS… WHY DO THEY GLOW?
The term laser sword has been used a couple of times in the Star Wars canon. Most recently Luke Skywalker used the term in The Last Jedi and the young Anakin Skywalker referred to Qui-Gon Jinn’s weapon as a laser sword in The Phantom Menace. But if we look at the composition of a lightsaber blade, there’s really no way they can actually be lasers.
A lightsaber blade has a whitish core surrounded by a corona of colored light. But while the diffraction that causes this soft glow does occur in lasers, it would not be visibly noticeable this close to the beam’s source.
13. WHY DON’T LIGHTSABER BLADES SHOOT UP INTO THE SKY?
We all know that aside from their glowing blades and ability to cut through virtually anything, a lightsaber is virtually the same as a regular sword once ignited. It grows to a length of around four feet and then stops. So far as we’ve seen, it never changes shape or changes in size.
But if lightsabers were actually composed of light, there’s no way that the beam could be restricted to such a uniform length. A beam of light would shoot onward until it dissipated unless it was restricted by some sort of cap. And if lightsabers had a cap… they just wouldn’t be lightsabers.
12. WHY DOESN’T EVERYONE HAVE A BLUE ONE?
While lightsabers have been picked apart in various Star Wars Encyclopedias and apocryphal books, we’ve seen very little about how they work in canon. And by canon we mean the movies themselves. Aside from a throwaway line in Rogue One about the lightsabers being powered by Kyber crystals, the science behind lightsabers is as mysterious as The Force itself.
Many scientifically savvy fans, including The Nerdist’s Kyle Hill have theorized that the glowing cylinder is actually a loop of super heated plasma contained within a magnetic field. That would account for the variation in color as plasma changes color at different temperatures. But since plasma is blue at its hottest state, that’s probably the only color you’d want.
11. SHOULDN’T THEY BE A LOT LOUDER?
Sound designer Ben Burtt is really one of the unsung heroes of the Star Wars saga. The sounds that he created for that galaxy far, far away rooted its fantasy in a plausible reality. By fusing organic and inorganic noises he created a unique soundscape that defied the conventions of science fiction.
The lightsaber sounds Burtt created were so beautiful that in A New Hope George Lucas refused to have music playing in the climactic duel between Vader and Obi Wan because the lightsabers sounded so musical. But if lightsabers are indeed arcs of super heated plasma, they wouldn’t make such a gentle hum. They’d boom like lightning!
10. WOULDN’T METAL BE THE WORST THING FOR THEM?
If you grew up with Star Wars there was a pretty good chance that you wanted a lightsaber of your very own. Indeed, a flood of merchandising geared towards kids who wanted to act out their own Jedi adventures hinged upon exactly that. The lightsabers we saw in the film, particularly in the original trilogy, were design classics — masterpieces of chrome and plastic.
It’s a well known fact that Luke’s saber in A New Hope was actually made of the flash unit of an antique camera. But you don’t need to have a PhD in physics to know that surely metal would be the worst thing to make a lightsaber hilt out of as it’s a pretty efficient conductor of heat.
9. WHY IS BEN SOLO’S SO MUCH BETTER MADE THAN KYLO’S?
When we first got a good look at Kylo Ren’s lightsaber in The Force Awakens, it looked markedly different from those wielded by previous villains. It looked rough and unfinished, lacking the polish of its predecessors. It even had exposed bits of wiring. It all pointed to a Force autodidact who rigged up his own lightsaber using scraps of half remembered knowledge from stolen Jedi texts.
But when we saw Luke’s flashback in The Last Jedi (a cool nod to Kurosawa’s Rashomon) it’s clear that before he became the master of the Knights Of Ren, Ben Solo had a far more polished looking saber. What’s the deal there? Did he forget how to build a second properly? Or did he need Uncle Luke’s help? School assignment maybe?
8. WHY DON’T ALL JEDI HAVE AT LEAST ONE HAND MISSING?
Across the Star Wars saga we’ve seen what a formidable weapon the lightsaber is. We’ve seen it cut through blast doors, bounce back laser blasts, absorb Force Lightning and (of course) scythe through people like a hot knife through butter. Surely, learning to duel with such a weapon would make for a pretty steep learning curve.
Perhaps its possible that Jedi practiced their saber techniques using humble wooden sticks or metal rods. Yet it’s worth noting that in Attack Of The Clones we saw even younglings wielding live sabers in training. With all that fancy blade spinning, twirling and throwing we’ve seen in the saga you’d think that most Jedi would lose at least one appendage while honing their skills.
7. HOW EXACTLY DO SITH MAKE THEIR CRYSTALS “BLEED”?
If you’re a fan of Darth Vader and you aren’t reading Marvel’s current canonical Darth Vader title, you’re missing out. After relaunching last year, the book currently focuses on Vader adapting to his new role as a Sith Lord after the events of Revenge Of The Sith.
In Darth Vader #5 we see Vader take the green Kyber crystal from the lightsaber of a Jedi he ended and pour his anger, sorrow and hate into it to make it ‘bleed’, resulting in the red crystal that all Sith use in their sabers. It’s a cool moment, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. A better explanation of how Vader is able to do this than “because The Force” would have been nice.
6. WHY DO LIGHTSABERS TURN OFF WHEN DROPPED?
We’ve seen it happen numerous times throughout the saga. A Jedi or Sith will be disarmed or bested and their saber will instantly deactivate and clatter harmlessly to the ground. So… what’s the deal there? It’s been argued that perhaps all lightsabers are activated via a dead man’s switch that is depressed throughout combat but this seems unlikely.
This kind of switch would be very prohibitive of hand positioning on the saber which in turn would make it impossible to do all the fancy twirls we saw in the prequel era. Plus, unless you were using The Force to hold the button down, you wouldn’t be able to throw your saber either.
5. HOW CAN JEDI AND SITH DUEL WITHOUT BEING VAPORIZED?
Plasma is the fourth state of matter and while we may not think that encounter it often in our day to day lives, it actually accounts for 99% of all matter in the universe. Fire is plasma. The fluorescent lights in your office contain plasma. But if, as many scientifically minded Star Wars fans believe, a lightsaber is in fact a ring of plasma superheated by an electrical current and contained in a magnetic field… dueling with them would be impossible.
Two colliding sabers would do more than clash with a flash of light and a cool sound. According to IFL Science‘s Martin Archer, the magnetic fields containing the plasma would reconnect, resulting in an explosive discharge of the plasma which would vaporize both duelists.
4. WHY DIDN’T DARTH MAUL’S EXPLODE WHEN CUT IN HALF?
Even fans who weren’t sold on The Phantom Menace overall will concede that the climactic battle between Darth Maul, Obi Wan and Qui Gon is one of the most heart-stopping in the saga. But after besting the master, Lord Maul finds himself face-to-face with the student at the duel’s climax.
During the fast paced swordplay, Obi Wan slices Maul’s double bladed lightsaber clean in two, but Maul quickly regathers his wits and engages the padawan with a single blade. However, if lightsabers are indeed loops of plasma, then a lightsaber is essentially a portable fusion reactor. Slice one of those in half and you’ll likely be vaporized in the ensuing explosion.
3. WHY CAN THEY BE HOLSTERED AND WORN IMMEDIATELY?
For a lightsaber to do the things that a lightsaber can do, it would have to get hot. Really hot. At least 1900 Kelvin to melt through a metal door in seconds as we’ve seen in The Phantom Menace and Rogue One. Keep in mind that the surface of the sun is 5,778 Kelvin. Yet, time and again we see lightsabers deactivated and holstered immediately.
Not once do we see anyone complain of the heat, get singed clothing or even wince when the hilt brushes their leg. Even the most heat resistant metals on the planet like cobalt, nickel or tungsten wouldn’t be able to remain cool immediately after the blade was retracted.
2. WOULDN’T THE HEAT FRY DARTH VADER’S CIRCUITRY?
We’ve seen Darth Vader wield a lightsaber countless times across the Star Wars saga whether in the movies, canonical comics or the animated Clone Wars. But we’ve also seen how delicate the machinery of his life support suit is. In Return Of The Jedi, Emperor Palpatine’s Force Lighting strikes the dark lord’s armor, frying the circuits of his suit.
Lightning, like fire and (presumably) like a lightsaber is made of plasma. So if a glancing blow from Palpatine’s Force Lightning was enough to shut down the circuitry of his life support, surely even a graze from a lightsaber would send his circuitry into meltdown?
1. WAIT… THEY LET SMALL CHILDREN USE THESE THINGS?!?
Hopefully we’ve established just how powerful, lethal and scientifically untenable a lightsaber is. Surely the safest pair of hands in which to put a fusion reactor with incredible destructive capability is… that of a blindfolded five-year old?!?
Now, in all fairness the canonical book Lightsabers: A Guide To The Weapons Of The Force identifies these as training sabers with lower power output, but if these training sabers operate on the same principle as their heftier cousins, those are very difficult scientific principals to tame to the point of kid friendliness. Why not let them train with wooden sticks? Or metal rods? Or anything else that doesn’t have the potential to vaporize a floor of the Jedi Temple?
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