Why is There Sound in Space in Star Wars?


ship over planet

One of my Dad and my favorite pastimes is watching movies together and pointing out the inaccuracies that the movie makers either didn’t consider or shrugged over. Most recently we watched the first three Star Wars movies, and we were kind of gobsmacked really at the amount of scientific inaccuracies in a movie entirely about space. The biggest of these was the presence of sound in space.

So why is there sound in space in Star Wars? There is not sound in outer space, but the sound in Star Wars is necessary to make the movie more enjoyable and entertaining.

However, if you are nerdy enough (like me) to know that the ships in Star Wars don’t travel through a pure vacuum, but actually travel through invisible matter known as “ether,” then you would know that this could be the one (meagerly) possible scientific solution for how the auditory compression waves caused by an explosion could somehow be heard in space… But even I’ll admit, that’s stretching the truth and laws of physics. 

Despite trying to radically justify the sound in Star Wars, I have to admit defeat when I know that the science of outer space is far less entertaining than the movie tropes of outer space (and oh boy are there many outer space movie tropes!)

Why Can’t You Hear Sound in Space? 

Generally speaking, it is easiest to think of outer space as silent, a vacuum where sound is not capable of traveling. 

To explain why this is the case, here’s a quick science refresher. The density of matter (or in layman’s terms: the thickness of substances/ molecules) in outer space is so minuscule that a pressure wave could hardly be registered, that is, if one were even to exist, thus, making it impossible to hear sound in space. Sound travels through vibration of wave lengths, and if there is no means to travel (because there is no air to travel through), then the sound cannot carry, and thus cannot be heard. That is to say, sound can’t be heard by our ears in the way we think about sound.

Sound can, however, be “heard” if you’re tuning in to the right frequencies, electromagnetic vibrations, for example. NASA created a technology that was finally able to capture the sort of sound one can find in space. You can hear the eerie sounds of Jupiter and Saturns Rings in this video here.

To clarify this, however, NASA developed technology doesn’t detect ‘sound,’ but rather detects waves of electrons in in things like ionized gases, which are impossible for a human ear to detect and hear. The pitch of what you hear on this video varies based on the density of the gases present. This further proves that there are some things in space that are (often) beyond human comprehension.

So You’re Saying You Can’t Actually Hear an Explosion in Outer Space?

Yes, that is what I’m saying. Unfortunately, you can’t hear any kind of sound in empty regions in space. Due to sound traveling via vibrations of atoms and molecules within a given medium, like air or water, when there is to air or water, like in outer space, the sound has no viable means of travel.

However, as I mentioned earlier, if the Star Wars universe does indeed exist not in a vacuum but rather through the ether, then, and only then, could we suppose a little bit of noise of some kind could be heard.

If you’d like to watch how ridiculous it is watching fighting and explosion scenes from Star Wars in silence, like what the reality should be, I lead you here. (You don’t need to listen to the first one minute of the strange robot lady explaining what the video is, so fast forward to the silence and…enjoy?)

So Then Why Can You Hear inside a Space Vessel but You Can’t Hear Outside of it?

You can hear inside a spaceship because it is pressurized and has oxygen, which is a medium in which sound can travel through. In fact, a spaceship is likely noisier in space than it is on earth because sound often echoes when it has nowhere else to travel to. 

There was a really lovely anecdote I once heard about an astronaut who had to endure this irritating and constant beeping sound. It started to drive him mad, until he decided he’d try to fall in love with the sound. Once he did that, the beep became almost like music to him.

While that does LITERALLY nothing to explain why you can hear inside a spaceship, I think it at least explains that you can, and that maybe (in this instance) it would be preferable if you couldn’t. Because I do not have the patience and dreamy qualities that astronaut did, and an incessant beeping for years on end would drive me to madness.

What Would it Be Like if They Didn’t Talk the Whole Movie?

To risk being totally obvious, a silent Star Wars movie where no one spoke and no sound was heard would not be Star Wars, it would be a very strange silent film, probably produced by NASA or Pepperdine University’s Physics undergrads. 

I do not want to see an entirely silent space movie. And if I did, I could go to the Griffith Observatory (where even their star show is generously narrated).

What Would it Be Like if They Realistically Only Spoke through Their Helmets?

Well, imagine watching Star Wars, and Luke and Leia having pivotol conversations with astronaut helmets on. It sounds more like the movie Space Balls to me than it does Star Wars. The choice to not have them wear helmets the whole movie is the same reason the show Chernobyl chose to have all the Russian characters speak in British accents — because the alternative is highly comical and changes the entire tone of the movie.

The creators of Chernobyl hired almost entirely British actors, and they initially had them attempt Russian accents, but their attempts were so outlandish they knew if they aired it on TV that way, it would come off as a farce instead of a serious drama mean to have a listing effect on the viewer. In this same regard, if Star Wars had their characters where pressurized space suits every second, we wouldn’t get to enjoy the costumes, their natural vocal intonations, and their facial expressions (which are pretty important to see when watching a movie to convey, you know, emotions.)

The Real Question is – Would We Actually Want to Watch the Accurate Version of Star Wars??

Honestly, probably not. Imagine how supremely boring it would be to watch those fighting sequences in total silence. Part of what makes the cinematic experience of a movie so visceral is the sound design. Star Wars has a particularly masterful sound design. This sound design has also made its mark upon many children who learned to make gun sounds from the singular sharp whizzing noises made by the guns in these space movies. Not to mention the remarkable and unmistakable score! That theme song is unreal. Also, can you imagine how anticlimactic it would be to watch the Death Star explode in silence? Sorry, but, Boring!!

So while the sound in space in the Star Wars movies is not actually accurate according to physics and the laws of space, it is, undoubtedly, far more enjoyable that the realistic alternative. The soundtracks are good, but three hours without any conversation? Seems a bit much. 

Brad

Awesome all around dude.

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