Star Wars and the Parsec Palaver: Even if George Lucas did mean to use “parsec” as a unit of distance, he’s STILL wrong.
Trigger warning: This article explains basic geometry and science, with the unfortunate downside of demonstrating that Star Wars is wrong about something, and that the fan boys don’t know what they’re on about. Expect heated comments from angry fans who lack the ability to understand reality, or have a sense of humour, below 😉
OK, it’s time to bury this nonsense once and for all.
Ever since Star Wars: A New Hope originally came out, there has been a minor scandal surrounding the scene where Han Solo declares that he did the Kessel Run in the Millennium Falcon in “less than 12 parsecs”.
Now, it is absolutely obvious that originally George Lucas heard the word “Parsec”, and thought that because it involves the word “sec” (which he correctly thought was short for “second”) then this is a spacey/sciencey sounding unit of time that would be appropriate to drop into a sci-fi film.
Well, it wasn’t long before people explained that it isn’t a unit of time but a measure of distance, and even Neil DeGrasse Tyson weighed in.
Unable to accept a major cock-up in the script of their favourite film, the fan boys went into full mental gymnastic overdrive, trying to come up with why this line could still make sense – talking about a region of black holes that you had to pass through, and that only a fast ship could go a shorter route through this region of space. Therefore, the Millenium Falcon was fast enough to fight against the gravity in this region in order to allow it to take a shorter route that was less than 12 parsecs (or about 39 light years) long.
Sounds good, eh?
Well, actually, no.
Yet again, this may sound good to lay people with no real knowledge of astronomy or astrophysics, but to anyone who ACTUALLY knows what a parsec is, this is just as idiotic as the idea that a parsec is a unit of time, and the fan boys who use it only prove that they have no idea what a parsec even is.
So, let’s first explain what a parsec ACTUALLY is.
The word is an abbreviation, which comes from “parallax arc second”. In short, it is the distance an object is from you when it appears to shift its position by 1 arc second over half an arbitrary distance you or the object travel. It’s basically a measure of parallax and how it relates to distance.
Something should stand out to anyone who isn’t geometrically illiterate or desperately trying to save the integrity of their favourite film franchise – that the distance is dependent on the amount you or the object moves, and hence is not really a standard unit of distance (or rather, wouldn’t be used as one by a space-faring civilization or galactic empire). It is simply a RATIO that relates apparent motion to distance using trigonometry.
It’s used today in respect to the distances of stars from the solar system, using the Earth’s orbit and the apparent shift in the star’s positions throughout the year.
It’s very simple.
Basic trigonometry states that the ratios of the sides of triangles are a function of the angles of the triangle (in fact, this is true of all shapes, and can be called one of the most basic laws of shapes – as it pretty much defines what “shape” means. From this fact we find how similar shapes are defined, because the ratios of their sides are always exactly the same for both shapes no matter what different sizes they are, as long as they have the same number of sides and values for angles).
If we have a right angled triangle, then the ratio between the opposite side and the adjacent side of an angle is a function of that angle, which we call the tangent. That is to say, if we know the baseline of the triangle and we know the angle opposite the baseline, then we know that the adjacent side must have a specific ratio to the baseline which will tell us its exact value.
So here’s how we use that information in astronomy to find the distances to certain stars (those close enough for our instruments to measure any parallax at all).
Measure the position of a star with respect to other background stars on one evening. Then wait until you’re on the other side of your parent star in your orbit and measure the same star’s position and how much it has shifted. Using the semi-major axis of the planet’s orbit as a base line (that is, cutting the diameter of the orbit in half), you can halve the angular shift in the position of the star that you measured and divide the semi-major axis of the planet’s orbit (or its distance to the parent Star) by the tangent of this angle (using radians, rather than degrees), and this gives you the distance to the star you are measuring.
Typically, we talk about it in relation to the Earth, because, well, that’s where all our observations of the universe are made.
So, we know the Earth is about 150,000,000 km from the Sun. We measure the position of a distant star in the night sky, then wait 6 months when the Earth is on the other side of the Sun and measure the same star’s position again.
We now have an isosceles triangle (or something close enough to an isosceles triangle, given the vast distances in space compared to the paltry diameter of the Earth’s orbit being about 300,000,000 km – in fact, time it right and you can make sure it’s exactly an isosceles triangle, but it’s not really that necessary given the immense distances involved). We can cut this isosceles triangle in half, drawing a line from the distant star to the Sun, making 2 right angled triangles.
Over the scales we’re talking, since the distance between the Earth and the sun is only a measly 150,000,000 km and the angles involved are around 1 arc second or even less, then the difference between the length of the hypotenuse of one of these right angled triangles (which is the distance from the Earth to the star), and the length of the opposite side (the distance between the Sun and the star) is essentially zero – they are as close to the same distance as makes no difference. Plus, when we’re talking about the distance to other stars, it only really makes sense to talk about it in terms of their distance from the Sun, or rather the barycenter of the solar system.
Hey presto, you have the distance to the star.
As the angle approaches 0 it’s tangent in radians approaches the same value as the angle itself. This is thanks to something called the “small angle approximation”. So when you convert 1 arc seconds into radians, the tangent of that angle is equal to 1 arc second in radians. This is very convenient because we can also define our distance to the sun as 1 AU (or astronomical unit), which gives us a distance of 1AU/1 arc second, or just 1.
“1 what?” I hear you ask.
Well, 1 parallax arcsecond, or “parsec”.
Actually, I’ve kind of cheated there by having the tangent of 1 arcsecond equal 1, and whilst I still think it’s OK to think in terms of 1 Astronomical unit divided by 1 arc second equaling 1 parsec, I can already hear astronomers and geometry teachers having heart attacks around the world, so I better explain it better.
What actually happens is you convert the arc second into radians, which is 1/3600 x pi/180, which comes to pi/648000. You want to divide 1 AU by this value, which is the same as 648000/pi AU (Any number divided by a ratio is equal to that number multiplied by the inverse of the ratio – so 7/(3/4) is equal to 7 x 4/3). That means a parsec viewed from Earth is 206264.81 AU.
By calculating the distance to the sun as about 150,000,000 km and multiplying this by 206246.81, you can find that this parsec is equal to about 3.09 x 10^13 km. Since a light year is about 9.5 x 10^12 km, then a parsec is (3.09 x 10^13)/(9.5 x 10^12), or about 3.26 light years. Simples.
Well, that’s great, isn’t it? A Parsec equals 3.26 light years. There, we’ve numerically defined it as a unit of distance so we can use it in navigation, haven’t we?
Not really, and here’s why:
If I move to Jupiter, and then I have to measure the parallax motion of stars from Jupiter’s orbit, I’m now dealing with an orbit around 5 times as large as the Earth’s, which means that a star would have to be around 5 times further away from the solar system for me to be able to see it appear to move 1 arc second.
And that’s because the parsec is not really a unit of distance, but actually a ratio that relates distance to apparent motion.
Remember the basics of parallax: The further you move, the more something appears to move relative to you – so the further you move, the further away an object has to be to appear to move only 1 arc second, because things in the background appear to move less than things in the foreground.
It’s the exact same law of perspective that states that things look smaller the further they are from you.
But wait! We’ve defined the astronomical unit as the distance between the Earth and the Sun, so since the AU is an integral part of the Parsec, doesn’t that mean the Parsec IS a unit of distance?
I mean, it still works with Jupiter if we just put in the value 5AU, right?
After all, the International Astronomical Union (IAU – or “they who demoted Pluto”) recently defined the parsec as exactly 648000/pi AU, so that means that it has a defined numerical value, and that the galactic empire can use a parsec with a defined numerical value, right?
I’m afraid not, for many reasons.
First and foremost, in Star Wars we’re dealing with a galactic empire encompassing many different star systems inhabited by many different species. Each one is going to define the distances they measure the stars to be from them, if they use the parallax arc second, according to the semi-major axis of their own planet’s orbit. All those planets are not going to magically be the same distance from their parent star, and so the concept of a parallax arc second being a standard unit of distance is completely meaningless to them, because they will all measure a different parallax amount for the stars they see thanks to the differently sized orbits of their planets.
The IAU has only managed to define the parsec numerically because we only live on one planet and all our parallax measurements are taken with respect to Earth’s orbit, and setting it at this value just helps deal with having a standard definition of the ratio to help us deal with the problem of being over-precise when dealing with the slight differences in the Earth’s distance to the Sun over the course of a year. It wasn’t made a standard unit so that we can somehow use it when we start traveling among the stars. As soon as we start colonizing further afield – and definitely when we start colonizing other star systems – this standardized unit will have no meaning.
Secondly, nobody would try to navigate by parallax arc seconds, precisely because it is defined by the amount you or the target object has moved.
If you’re in your space ship and you travel 1 million kilometers and you measure the amount a distant star has appeared to move as 1 arc second, then someone in a ship next to you that has traveled 2 million kilometers will measure that same star to have appeared to move about 2 arc seconds.
You both plug in the values for the parallax motion you observed from the star into the parallax formula on your handy space calculators and find that the star is 1 parsec away from you and about 0.5 parsecs away from the other ship!
Even worse, you’ll measure the star to have a different parsec value when you yourself move different distances!
And even worse than that, how the hell do you use this unit to figure out the distance you’ve traveled?
Well, you find out your distance to different stars by measuring the difference in their position, which is dependent on the distance you moved, and given you don’t know the distance you’ve moved (because that’s what you want to figure out) and you don’t know the distance to the stars around you (because you need to know the distance you’ve moved in order to figure that out) you’re lost in a pathetic mathematical loop where both values you need to find out are completely dependent on you knowing the other meaning that you can’t know either, unless you depart from this silly “unit” of measurement and refer to a more standard unit of measurement for one of the values, begging the question WHY THE HELL DON’T YOU JUST USE THE FRIGGIN’ STANDARD UNIT OF MEASUREMENT?
It just makes no sense.
You see, the problem with this argument isn’t just a case of assigning a standard numerical value to a Parsec. It’s with how you MEASURE it.
It’s like deciding to measure velocity in meters per heartbeat.
Sure, you could decided to standardize the “heartbeat” as a unit of time, by suggesting that the “standard” number of heartbeats in a human being in a minute is about 80, so a “heartbeat” is 3/4 of a second, and now you can use meters per heartbeat as a standard measure of velocity. But the problem is when it comes to measurement.
Everyone has different heart rates (and they can change with the level of activity and stress a person is subject to – and even worse, different species will have vastly different heart rates), so when someone tries to measure it using their heart rate, they will have a non-standard value.
So then they have to do some maths to find out how many heartbeats per second they were experiencing, and do some calculations to fit this value into your “standard” unit of measure, find out how many seconds passed and how many heartbeats they counted and how that relates to the amount of heartbeats in the “standard” unit…. but why? You’d just use meters per second.
Similarly, how are you going to measure a parsec? Well, you have to measure the parallax motion of the distant star – but that’s dependent on the motion of the observer.
There’s no standard way to measure it as a standard unit – and THAT’S the problem, and that’s why nobody in their right mind would suggest it as a set unit of distance for use in navigation.
Standardizing the numerical value of a parsec won’t help you, and the idea that you can standardize a numerical value for a trigonometric RATIO is possibly one of the most mathematically illiterate things you can suggest.
This is the crux of the problem. A parsec is a way of measuring the distance of objects FROM you, not distances you travel.
The idea of using the Parsec as some standard unit of distance is insanely stupid, and nobody who actually understands what a parsec is would ever think of it being used by a galactic empire or even for interstellar navigation as some standard unit of distance, because that isn’t what it is.
Only fan boys who can’t let the fact that their favourite film said something hilariously stupid would think that such a mind-bogglingly dumb idea would make any sense whatsoever.
If you have a galactic empire, or are navigating through interstellar space, the only standard unit of distance you’re going to use is the light year, because it is a STANDARD unit of distance that everyone can measure, and not a RATIO dependent on the distance the observer moves which will be different for everyone.
And who they hell is going to come up with a standard unit of distance that is 3.26 light years anyway? That’s just a silly idea. It’s so close to a light year that you’d just talk in light years. That’s like deciding to come up with an extra standard unit of distance in the metric system that equals 2.7 kilometers. Who the hell does that?
You’d have thought the fact that a parsec equated to such an odd numerical value would have made people think that maybe it’s not what they think it is….
It’s just a convenient measure of distance we can treat as a unit because the way we use it relates solely to the distances to stars when observed from our Earth, where we all live and which moves a pretty set amount throughout the year. Take away all those factors, and the parsec ceases to have any coherent meaning as a unit of distance.
There is a final problem with the whole apologetic around the “parsec” line, and it has to do with hyperspace.
As the argument has been put in one blog, “Traveling at hyperspace is much more complicated than just pressing a button and going directly from point A to point B. A ship’s computer has to be programmed with a route to avoid the known obstacles along that route.”
This completely misunderstands what hyperspace is. You don’t travel at hyperspace, you travel through hyperspace.
In any n-dimensional space, a hyperspace is any n+1 (or more) dimensional space in which the original n-dimensional space is embedded. Think of a 2 dimensional space, like the surface of a piece of paper, and hyperspace is the 3 dimensional space it exists in.
Now think of 2 points on that piece of paper. You want to plot a course between them, but you’ve put some objects between those 2 points. If you want to travel between them through that 2 dimensional space, you have to avoid the obstacles.
But if you travel through the hyperspace of 3 dimensional space, you can plot a course in which you don’t have to think about avoiding those obstacles at all – so the idea of having to plot a course to avoid objects that exist only in a dimensional space that you aren’t going to be traveling through is completely nonsensical.
You can expand this idea to think about a 4 or more dimensional space in which our 3 dimensional space exists, and the same rules apply when you travel through that 4 or more dimensional hyperspace – no need to avoid obstacles that only exist in the 3 dimensional space.
So no, traveling through hyperspace literally IS as simple as “just pressing a button and going directly from point A to point B” – that’s the whole freakin’ point of hyperspace!
To claim it’s not that simple is to prove that you really have no idea what hyperspace is.
The thing is that, in Star Wars, hyperspace doesn’t mean hyperspace – it just means going really fast, which isn’t what hyperspace means at all.
(There’s also a topological definition of hyperspace, but that’s still nothing like the hyperspace of Star Wars.)
Seriously, Star Wars fans, I’d have stuck to accepting that Lucas made a dumb mistake thinking that a Parsec was a unit of time if I were you, because this new stupid idea where you try to appear clever just proves how ignorant you are of what a Parsec is, and even what geometry is.
And in fact, if one of the fans had just decided to say that a “parsec” is a unit of time in the Star Wars galaxy, rather than engage in this incredible feat of mental gymnastics that fundamentally misunderstands what a parsec is in astronomy and astrophysics, I’d have been absolutely fine.
Really, I would have been completely OK with that explanation.
After all, they’re in a galaxy far, far away, right? They can have whatever units of time they want and call them whatever they want – so they can happily have a unit of time that just happens to be called a “parsec”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Sure, we’d still all know that George Lucas originally wrote the line because he didn’t understand what a parsec is, but it would be perfectly acceptable as an answer. Not just because it’s OK for them to have whatever units of time they want, but because we know that Star Wars isn’t sci-fi – it’s fantasy.
Similarly with hyperspace. Stop pretending it relates in any way to the scientific concept of hyperspace, and just accept that this is a fantasy series where General Relativity and the rules of space-time geometry don’t exist, and which isn’t using the scientific terms in any way close to what they actually mean.
The problem only comes when you try to pretend you’re clever, and make it very obvious that you haven’t got a clue.
Stop pretending Star Wars is sci-fi, because when you do, you make up ridiculous apologetic arguments for it’s flaws that really just completely misunderstand and misrepresent science – and that’s why people have to write blog posts explaining what things like parsecs actually are, after you butcher their meaning to pretend your favourite fantasy has some scientific relevance.
(Please note: Yes, it is fun to bait Star Wars fans, but actually I hope this helps people understand some basic trigonometry and geometry and astrophysics in an entertaining manner.)
This article is also posted on my “Astro-gnome” blog at Trolling with Logic.