What kind of world spawns a wookie?

THE SCIENCE OF STAR WARS by Jeanne Cavelos St. Martin's Press 256 pp., $22.95

This book is for all of us who wonder why jumping into hyperspace isn't like dusting crops on Tatooine.

Its appeal will probably be limited to those who have seen and enjoyed the first four "Star Wars" productions from the Galactic Emperor of Hollywood, George Lucas. Of course, that includes a sizable proportion of the residents of this planet.

The popularity of Mr. Lucas's creations is due largely to their mythic power. At the same time, their appeal is enhanced by rousing scientific speculation. The world of "Star Wars" is fully realized, complete with alien planets and life forms, space ships, weapons, and the all-too-human droids, C3PO and R2D2.

Science writer Jeanne Cavelos, a former NASA astrophysicist and author of "The Science of the X-Files," offers a semi-serious examination of the plausibility of some of these fantastic inventions.

Convincing make-believe worlds can be a way of illuminating our own. From the time of the ancient Greeks, authors have imagined distant planets, envisioned the future, and even traveled "a long time ago, in a galaxy far away" in order to enlighten and entertain.

Space travel entered the movies at the very beginning of the technology, with "Le Voyage Dans La Lune" by George Melies (1902), arguably the first science-fiction film. The very best science fiction creates a believable and complete world. We're transported to another place and time, where the familiar is mixed with the totally unexpected.

The "Star Wars" universe is sufficiently well imagined that it is possible for Cavelos to use the series as a path to the latest scientific discoveries.

For example, the chapter on planetary environments asks, "Are planets as common as they seem in "Star Wars"? How likely is it that humans could live comfortably on so many different worlds? What conditions are necessary for a planet to develop its own life forms?" Each of these is considered in the light of the latest scientific theories.

The author then takes up the question of aliens: "What might alien life be like? How likely are we to find humanoid aliens? How about intelligent aliens?" Current research in artificial intelligence is reviewed in the chapter on "Droids."

"Space Ships and Weapons" raises questions of quantum physics, relativity, and antigravity, as well as the puzzling technology behind the Jedi light saber.

Finally, in "The Force," Cavelos takes a detour to the edges of New Age mysticism, but retreats firmly to the camp of scientific skepticism.

This is not just a book for bright 12-year-olds, although they will certainly find it appealing and accessible. The scientific research presented is the mainstream of current thinking in astrophysics, cosmology, robotics, genetics, and biological adaptation. The style, as might be expected, is light and breezy, but rarely trivializes the material.

The most important point to emerge from these speculations, however, is about the value of imagination in science.

Arthur C. Clarke has noted that when a distinguished elderly scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when the same individual says that something is not possible, he is almost certainly wrong.

In the 25 years since the first "Star Wars" movie appeared, we have discovered that much of what scientists believed to be true about the universe is in all probability incorrect. The message of "The Science of Star Wars" is that we should not be too quick to confuse the unfamiliar with the impossible.

*Frederick Pratter is a freelance writer in Missoula, Mont.

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