Less than twelve parsecs

March 23, 2013

Star Wars aficionados will recognize the title of this post (and blog) as being part of the claim Han Solo makes about the Millenium Falcon in Episode 4.  When asked about the speed of the ship, Solo replied that it made the Kessel Run in “less than twelve parsecs”.  Since the parsec is a unit of distance, I always wondered who made the mistake here: Lucas or Solo.  A quick check of Wikipedia reports that in one draft of the script Obi-Wan apparently criticized Solo for giving misleading information (since the parsec isn’t a unit of time), which suggests that Lucas was well aware that what Solo was saying didn’t really make any sense.  Of course, he also commented to the effect that navigational accuracy, rather than true speed, is what counts in superluminal travel, and so being able to plot a more direct course made the ship “faster”.  However, I’ve always been loath to accept this latter explanation, since navigational prowess lies with the pilot, not the ship (discounting any technological advantages in the ship’s navigational computer).  A friend of mine once gave a (joking) circuitous explanation in which the statement actually made sense if we take into account relativistic speeds and the Lorentz contraction; I wish I could reconstruct the argument.

That’s all for the first post; I’ll be following with weekly posts on science and technology.  I’ll finish up with a question: is the Lorentz contraction real or perceived?  Wikipedia reports that Lorentz said it was real, but Einstein said it was perceived (i.e., experimentally real but without physically affecting the moving body).  I’m no physicist, so I don’t know the background here.


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