Why Science Keeps Rediscovering 'Star Wars'

Astronomers have a well-worn strategy for making headlines

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The cliche: "Star Wars, meet science," wrote The Atlantic Wire's Uri Friedman yesterday. That was nice, Uri, but they've met before. Many times. People got quite a kick out of NASA's announcement yesterday that they had discovered a planet orbiting two stars. "While the planet's officially called Kepler 16b, astronomers are already referring to it as Tatooine, after the home planet of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, which also had two suns," Friedman wrote. Funny, that reminds us of a news item we read just a month ago. In August, scientists discovered a planet that only reflects about 1 percent of the light that reaches it, making it "black as coal." That became "the Darth Vader  planet." In May 2010, NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught closeup footage of Saturn's "Mimas" moon, and due to an odd similarity with a certain evil spacecraft, they dubbed it the "Death Star moon." In December 2009, touting the capabilities to discover new planets, NASA announced that habitable moons, like, oh I don't know, the forest moon of Endor, might soon become "scientific fact."

Where's it from? The origins of this cliche begin "a long time ago" in a galaxy known as "the Reagan years." In 1983, President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative that would put devices in space to defend against a missile attack. Critics criticized it as far-fetched and expensive, dubbing it the "Star Wars" initiative. So even as the film trilogy was being completed, people were reappropriating it for their own means (and perhaps courting the "nerd" vote).

Why it's catching on: Like the rest of us, astronomers are having a tough year because of budget cuts. The Hubble telescope will soon be out of commission and the funding for its replacement is looking less and less likely to pass. Beyond that, scientists are always looking to energize new recruits and make their profession relateable to the greater public. So if you name something after Star Wars, not only is the press more likely to report it widely, kids are far more likely to get excited about what NASA and other astronomers are up to. Discovering "a circumbinary planet" sounds boring, but discovering Luke Skywalker's hometown sounds awesome!

Why else? Many of the recent discoveries are resulting from NASA's Kepler planet hunting mission which is vastly expanding the range of knowable planets. No wonder some of them happen to share characteristics with the entirely imagined planets of science fiction, especially in Lucas's uberpopular sagas. We just have a greater diversity of them to find. Or maybe it's just that Tatooine was on everybody's mind recently. The desert-like planet was filmed on location in Tunisia, which got more news than usual when the Arab Spring kicked off there. Star Wars, in general, has been on peoples' minds with controversy over some added features in its Blu-ray release. The most obvious reason, though, is that this generation of astronomers were much younger when the first Star Wars first premiered, and thus, were probably inspired into their profession by childhood obsession with the new world opened up by the film's groundbreaking special effects. No wonder they hearken back to it as often as they can. And no wonder the rest of us drool when they do. Those movies were awesome.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.