The wisdom of Yoda

Back in the good old days before George Lucas came up with “midichlorians,” the Force was something quite mystical and spiritual. Watch how beautifully Yoda explains the Force and the true nature of conscious beings to Luke in this scene from The Empire Strikes Back:

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

Long before I even considered becoming Christian, I liked that idea. Now it evokes Paul’s vision of the heavenly man:

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became [to] a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so let us bear the image of the heavenly man.

1 Corinthians 15:44-49

Cloud City

Sorry, I got nothin’. Meanwhile, here’s one of Ralph McQuarrie’s concept masterpieces for The Empire Strikes Back. Click on the image for the full version.


Goldsmith vs Williams

When I was a kid in the 1970s–1980s, it was a golden age for movie soundtracks, particularly in science fiction / science fantasy. Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams were giants in the genre, having composed two of the most memorable sci-fi themes of all time. Goldsmith is best known for the theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which later became the theme for the television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Williams is known for many popular movie themes, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, but is arguably best known for Star Wars. The names of these composers are practically synonymous with science fiction, but these composers could hardly differ more in style.

Goldsmith’s style is grand, remote, cerebral. In my opinion, he’s most responsible for the ‘spacey’ ambiance of hard sci-fi. In this piece from Alien (1979), called “Hypersleep,” there is a vague nautical element—you get the sense of a lonely ship navigating an endless cosmos. Like much of his space-music, it is stark and beautiful. This universe is cold in its beauty—it offers wonder, but no quarter.

In “The Cloud,” a piece from ST:TMP (1979), we get a sense of the enormity of the unknown entity heading for Earth and of the secret it contains. Again, there is a nautical element, highlighted by electronic whooshes that evoke memories of earthly oceans. The music is a little brighter here—the universe of Star Trek is less harsh and hostile than that of Alien, but no less grand and mysterious.

In contrast, Williams’ style is robust, familiar, romantic. It is evocative of adventure, human relationships, and spirituality. Consider this piece from Return of the Jedi (1983), which frames the moment when Luke reveals to Leia that they are brother and sister. This piece, like most of Williams’ compositions, is suffused with warmth and emotion.

“Tales of a Jedi Knight / Learn About the Force” (Star Wars, 1977) is no less filled with awe and mystery than Goldsmith’s “The Cloud,” but it is more optimistic and tinged with a sense of adventure. Here we have the budding relationship between a master and his young apprentice. With Williams, you don’t get the sense of a harsh and hostile universe, but one in which purpose and hope are woven into the fabric of its cosmos, even while it is momentarily under the sway of a dark and oppressive force.

Though Goldsmith and Williams differ in style, they have one element in common—the sense of awe and grandeur they convey through their compositions. It’s impossible to imagine the universes of Alien, Star Trek, and Star Wars without the character and dimension of their music.

A Star Wars legend passes away

Legendary graphic artist, Ralph McQuarrie, passed away on Saturday at the age of 82. McQuarrie is best known for the artistic visions he created for the Star Wars movies — from the iconic design for Darth Vader’s helmet to the sweeping vistas of Cloud City, he was responsible for much of the look and feel of the Star Wars universe.

I was introduced to that universe as a very young child, when my parents took me and my brother to see Star Wars during the summer of 1977. But it wasn’t until I saw its stunning sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, that this fictional universe had any significant impact on me. By the summer of 1980 I was old enough to cogitate on the visions before me, and I remember being completely blown away by Empire, particularly the scenes that took place on Cloud City. I saw the movie many times that summer, and I simply could not get those visions out of my head. Not that I wanted to.

It was years later, when I became a collector of Star Wars memorabilia, that I came across several prints of McQuarrie’s concept paintings and realized from whose imagination those stunning visions emerged. So complete were McQuarrie’s concepts for the Star Wars universe, that George Lucas and the other directors didn’t merely use them as guides, but recreated them on the screen with astonishing faithfulness.

The adventures of three young people in a galaxy far, far away had almost nothing to do with astronomy or space science, but I was so swept away by what I had seen that for the first time in my life it got me thinking about outer space in a meaningful way. It was a very short journey from the fictional Star Wars universe to the real universe, and it eventually led to a career as a professional astrophysicist. In a way, I owe my passion for outer space to McQuarrie and his astonishing vision. May the Force be with him.

Never tell me the odds!

The Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii discovered a record-breaking 19 asteroids in one night last January, two of which are projected to come close to the Earth at some point.

Even with all of these discoveries, it’s estimated we’re tracking only about 1% of the total number of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) in the solar system. To get an idea of the distribution of all the stuff zipping around out there, check this out (seriously).

A little scary perhaps, but at least it’s not this bad:

Recommended reading: