In 1977, when viewers were greeted with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”, Star Wars wowed audiences with a fantasy story set in space. You had a wizard in the form of Obi Wan Kenobi, an evil samurai, a pirate with Han Solo, a princess, and the farm boy who aspires to become a knight. With a laser sword. But a laser sword without cool music.
But being rooted in science fiction, Star Wars had to explain how a spaceship could get across the galaxy. If a ship traveled at regular rocket speeds, it would take millions of years to get to another solar system. Even at the speed of light, the Star Wars galaxy would take thousands of years to travel to another star system. Those starts in the sky, like the hundreds of billions of stars in our own galaxy, are carrying the light of a star that may have died out millions of years ago, the light only now reaching us in the present. Literally a long long time ago in a galaxy far away.
So if the crew of the Millennium Falcon wants to travel the cosmos, they need to find a way to do it faster than the speed of light. The issue is, if you go by everything we know about science, we can’t go faster than the speed of light. We could go into the whole “the closer you get to the speed of light the greater your mass gets until it reaches infinity so you can’t ever go past the speed of light without infinite energy and the only thing infinite is the compassion of the human heart” issue – but we won’t, because that’s a hold deeper than the pit of the almighty Sarlacc. Instead, we’ll discuss just what the idea of “hyperspace” is in the Star Wars universe, and how it can be used to navigate the Star Wars galaxies.
Of course, this is a science fiction story, with emphasis on the word “fiction”. This means there will be plenty of people who will disagree about just what you’d see in hyperspace.
A New Direction
Imagine that an ant lives on a a map of the world. If the ant wants to crawl from one end of the paper to the other, it has to walk from one end of the paper to the other. The little ant can start from New York on one end, and walk all the way to Beijing on the other. On the map, anyway. A similar idea was used in the classic book “A Wrinkle in Time”, where an ant was used to demonstrate tesseracts.
Now, suppose someone had rolled that tub into a cube, and the ant — rather than walk all the way around the map, burrowed a hole into the map, and sent a string to the other side. Now instead of moving the long way across this map, our clever ant can go a lot shorter route.
The idea isn’t a new one in science. The first time people stopped thinking of flat maps to plot their courses and taking advantage of the world being round was when ships would chart a course across the oceans. See, the world isn’t flat. It’s more like a globe — not a perfect globe, as the equator bulges out a little, but it’s far more shaped like a ball than a flat map.
When sailors charted their courses across the oceans, what they discovered is that going in a straight line like they were on a map wasn’t the most efficient way. Because the world is curved, they had to use a different kind of geometry. Rather than the geometry discovered by Euclid millenia ago in Greece that could find the angles and lines on flat surfaces, they used what was called non-Euclidean geometry: how to find the paths of curves. By treating the world as a ball, and charting their course that way, they could find shorter routes. Shorter routes meant less time at sea, which meant more money.
So the question becomes — what does this have to do with how the characters can travel across the Star Wars galaxy while singing acapella? Hyperspace.
Traveling Through Hyperspace Ain’t Like Dusting Crops
In the first Star Wars movie, as the crew is escaping Tatooine, Han Solo barks out to Chewie to prepare the Millennium Falcon for hyperdrive. It looks cooler when the Falcon is rendered in legos, by the way.
Without going into all of the science wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff, what a hyperdrive does is let a spaceship move into a different direction than the up/down/left/right that we’re used to.
Think back to our ant. If the universe was a map rolled into a tube, then it would be faster not to move across the surface of the map like a 2 dimensional object but move through the center of the rolled up tube of the map.
The same thing is true with the notion of hyperspace. For the ant moving across the flat map, it has no idea of “up” or “down” — just north east south and west until it discovers a new direction. For a space traveler, this would mean moving in a 4th dimensional direction. This is what breaks people’s brains.
Let’s take a quick step back. If you live in a 1 dimensional world, shaped like the thin line of a lightsaber, then everything is just a line. You can only go back and forth. If you live in a 2 dimensional world, than you make squares and circles and triangles. You can go forward and backward, left and right. If you live in a 3 dimensional world like we do, you can go forward and backward, left and right, up and down. And finally, to move 4th dimensionally, the hyperspace path that is used to travel the Star Wars galaxy, we move forward and backward, left and right, up and down — and another direction that most mathematicians call “ana” and “kata”. Don’t try to think about how that would look and work. A classic book on mathematics tells all about this idea from the point of view of a square living on a flat land in the book “Flatland”. Really good. Like the ant moving on a string in the middle of the map rolled into a tube, to another ant standing on the map, they just seem to vanish in one spot and then appear in the other. They aren’t teleporting — they’re just moving under the map.
When we think about the Star Wars galaxy map (not the one from the video game), like the sailors on Earth’s oceans, they aren’t treating the galaxy like it’s a flat map or even a 3 dimensional map. They’re charting their way across as if the universe was in 4 dimensions.
So this way, even a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away — travel is short enough for all of the adventure. Or for a really cool musical version of “The Force Awakens”.
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