I can't believe I am going to actually write this, but it's been kicking around in my head for too long, and I need to get it out of my system. For those with a low tolerance for nerdism, I beg you -- bail out now. Because here there be Dragons. Nerd dragons. Breathing dread nerdfire.
Earlier today someone on reddit was griping about how Star Wars is unrealistic because all the star fighters bank when they turn, explosions in space have sound, etc. It's so unrealistic!! And yes, it is. And I enthusiastically endorse realism in films, so I cannot condone Star Wars except as a guilty pleasure. But the thing is, you can fix Star Wars if you change just one thing in science. That is, Star Wars physics is the same as our physics, if you assume one thing.
In the Star Wars universe, the Luminiferous Ether actually exists.
So full disclosure: I didn't conceive of this entirely by myself. In the very first Star Wars novel from way back in 1991 (Heir to the Empire, the one written by Timothy Zahn that would kick off the so-called Expanded Universe), Luke Skywalker is flying his X-Wing around and is said to have "leaned hard into the etheric rudder" or something like that. Now, this was just throwaway technobabble in context, but actually Zahn is really no slouch when it comes to this stuff and I suspect probably had more in mind than just that.
Besides that, I actually find it hard to believe I'm the first person to think of this, so I'm sure someone will inevitably post a comment linking to whoever described it before me. And for that matter, all of this hangs together so well that I feel like it almost has to be at least semi-planned, so maybe this is even common knowledge. I mean, in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda straight up says "luminous beings are we", and it's entirely possible that isn't a coincidence. But with those disclaimers, let's proceed.
The basic gist of the Ether is that it was thought to be the medium through which light actually traveled. The legendary Michaelson-Morley experiment demonstrated that it could not exist, and one way of thinking about Einstein's General Relativity is as a model to describe what actually DOES happen in the absence of the Ether. All that weird bending of spacetime stuff? All the differences from Newtonian mechanics? Wibbly wobbly timey wimey dilation? Speed of light as an asymptotic upper limit of velocity? All that goes out the window, if the Ether were real.
The Ether was described as a kind of substrate of the universe. Just as ocean waves propagate through water, light would propagate through the Ether -- an unidentified but still assumed to exist substance, or at least field. This substrate would permeate everything in the universe, and it would connect everything -- the tree, the rock, life...forms.......
When I made that connection, everything fell into place. But rather than start with the implications of that -- that The Force is the Luminiferous Ether -- let's start with everything else and work our way back to it.
In the standard model of our universe, all the various kinds of forces conspire in this sublimely elegant dance to weave an invisible and intangible but utterly inescapable trap that prevents us from ever traveling faster than (or indeed even at) the speed of light.
It's actually kind of infuriating, like the universe is trolling us: as you approach the speed of light, your mass approaches infinity (your mom's still heavier lol), time looks normal to you but is secretly going way slower compared to "outside" (bro do you even tick), time traveling twins ask you trick questions, and so on. All this because photons zip around on these weird mathy null geodesic things that only they get to ride on because they have no mass, and as they zip past you -- always at the speed of light relative to you, mind you, no matter how fast you're going -- they're all like "haha just a little faster c'mon you can do it lol".
But if there's an Ether, all of a sudden those little bastards are bound by the same rules you are. (Check your geodesic privilege, sh*tlords!) Now I mean sure -- they still get their own private fast lane, the Ether, that you don't get access to. And that same Ether is a big old drag on you and your ship, like you're a car trying to drive through a snowbank. But hey, since the Ether is fictional anyway, who's to say that you can't come up with a clever way to just shove that crap right out of your way?
Whence hyperdrive. Basically all it is is a device that uses some clever technique to bore you and your ship a hole through the Ether -- like mounting a big plow on the front of your car. Once you get that pesky Ether out of your way, it's just you and open vacuum, and the sky's the limit (as it were) on how fast you can go. Purists might quibble that Star Wars refers to hyperspace as a place or kind of dimension -- sure sure, that works too. Your hyperdrive "merely" (lol) shifts your mass into a dimension where the Ether is orthogonal to your mass/energy state, so that it doesn't interact with you.
Best part of this? It explains the iconic visual of stretched-out starlines as a ship enters hyperdrive: the light from those stars only propagates through Ether, and you are in the process of shoving all that crap aside, so you're stretching and smearing the light. Once you're actually in hyperdrive, all that light becomes a distorted mottled blur -- exactly as if you're traveling through a tunnel you've torn in the medium that light is traveling in.
And yes this implies that there is still some small amount of Ether left in the tunnel you've created -- there would have to be for you to see at all inside your ship, since otherwise light couldn't exist. But surely we can leave a thin mist of Ether to see by, as long as we shove most of it out of our way. (Or, depending on how you model the Ether, you could just retain or generate a captured Etheric field inside the boundary of your craft, that travels along with you, like your air.)
It also explains what the novels call "pseudomotion" -- that last split-second super-speed shot of the spaceship as it zooms away when it enters hyperdrive. It's not "real" motion because you're really off into this tunnel thing you've bored into the Ether. But from an outside observer your optical echo is still visible in the Ether.
The EU also has the notion of an Interdictor cruiser, which is basically one of those triangular star destroyers that also has a couple massive sphere... thingies. They're used to disrupt other ships' hyperdrives and suck them back into normal space. This is described vaguely as due to "generating gravity wells".
In our universe, this ain't make no kind of sense. You can't generate a gravity well any way other than by making a big old pile of mass. Fortunately, Star Wars has the Ether to the rescue.
Suppose that gravity tugs on the Ether. It tends to bunch it up, so that more Ether collects around planets and such. This is the "gravity well". In terms of hyperdrive as we just outlined it above, well your hyperdrive can only shovel so much snow. Fly too close to a star or a planet and it'll strain your hyperdrive, exceed its capacity, and your tunnel will collapse. Poof, you're back in normal space -- and now rather dangerously close to that star or whatever. ("Flying through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops, kid!") This would be like how a needle can penetrate a piece of linen trivially easily, but can't penetrate 6 layers of denim at all. Or, how that snowplow you put on your car works great for snow but not so much for wet sand.
Now, someone might here point out, "Hey man, wouldn't light get slowed down by the bunched up Ether too?" Well, sure, maybe it would. But even if it does, it's still going really freaking fast, so does it really matter? And there are other ways to explain it too: since we're making all this up anyway, we can just suggest that maybe the passage of light through the Ether sheds energy that is experienced as gravity: Ether accumulates around mass, light gets all caught up in it, and the energy loss due to the Ether/photon interaction manifests as gravitons.
Anyway, in this model, all the interdictors have to do is bunch up the Ether. This is a simpler problem than warping the actual shape of reality, which is what you'd have to do in our universe. More to the point, it would probably be considerably less energetic. So those Interdictor cruisers' "gravity well generators" are just shorthand for "causing the Ether to bunch up".
So they would work similarly to a hyperdrive, in that they also move the Ether around a little. Just instead of boring a tunnel they fly into, they instead grab some from over there and pile it up over here. Depending on what the Ether actually is (that is, if there are "etherton particles") these gravity well generators could just be a Large Hadron Collider that smashes particle streams in such a way that it emits ethertons. Then when the hapless target wanders by, their hyperdrive can't penetrate the manufactured 6 layers of denim, and they pop back into normal space. No planet-scale mass required.
Man, Star Wars is just full of this stuff. Most notably, faster than light communications.
In our universe, nothing can travel faster than light; therefore, barring poorly understood quantum entanglement, no physical event can have an effect (whether it be a particle emission or a wave or what) that travels faster than light. This means there is no way to create a signal that can travel faster than light -- or as physicists have it, causality is limited by the speed of light. You can't cause something to happen -- including the transmission of nonrandom information -- at a remote point faster than it would take light to get there the hard way.
For Star Wars, though, this one's easy: you just shoot a particle beam down a hole you burrow in the Ether same as you would to fly through -- just much smaller. That is, whatever clever gadget you use to move the Ether around for hyperdrive and for mass interdiction, you just point in the direction of whoever you want to talk to, dig a tunnel as far as you can reach, and shoot some Higgs bosons down it in ASCII or Morse Code, or whatever. Those particles then travel faster than light would through the Ether. Sure, you can only dig a tunnel so far this way, but the range doesn't have to be infinite, it just has to be far enough.
Once your particles reach the end of the tunnel they pop back into normal space, and your recipient can detect them with an antenna, optical observations, or whatever. They would also presumably cause minute ripples in the Ether along their path (especially if you used, say, gravitons -- remember the Ether bunching) so you could detect the signal even if you're not near the point where the particles pop back out into normal space. Voila, FTL radio.
By now I think I've probably beaten the point to death. So I'll move quickly through a few other things before I get to the main event.
Scrappy Starship Repairs
Han Solo and Chewbacca can repair the Millennium Falcon seemingly with nothing more than some scrap aluminum and some fence wire. In those same EU novels I mentioned, Luke at one point starts to repair a broken radio in his X-Wing by pulling out superconducting wire coiled in his hyperdrive to use in making a new winding in his space radio.
This reinforces two things. First, the fact that all these technologies are evidently built roughly the same way implies that they operate on similar principles -- namely, shuffling the Ether around, as outlined above. (Indeed, one supposes that if he'd wanted to, Luke could have reversed the polarity on his hyperdrive and turned it into a small interdictor system, and this wouldn't have seemed weird in the story.)
Second, since coiled wire is clearly invoking the idea of a superconducting electromagnet -- or perhaps the equivalent for the Ether rather than magnetism per se -- it smacks of field/force management aimed at manipulating and controlling some other substance. That is, just as a real-world tokamak magnetically controls an ionized plasma, these exotic superelectromagnets manipulate the Ether.
Easy peasy. Someone discovered some weird little crystals that have a similar (or merely complementary) effect as the superelectromagnets, and figured out that if you pair them with a really small hyperdrive/Ether-magnet coil, you can make a very localized rod of bunched-up Ether that captures light, making an energy blade. The whole Ether/gravity/light interaction explains why lightsabers have inertia when swung around, even if they don't have mass, strictly speaking. They glow because the over-energized Ether releases a small amount of energy in the form of photons, like a flame. For that matter, they could be glowing in many spectra -- could be that if you stare at your lightsaber too long you get a sunburn.
Etheric Rudder, AKA Why Do Space Planes Bank in Turns?
We started with the etheric rudder, so we have to explain it, right? Well in our universe, the only way to turn in a vacuum is to exert a rotational force; typically this is in the form of a jet of gas. Vent some off to your left side and behind you, and you spin to the right, etc.
Problem is, that's costly. It means that not only do you have to carry some fuel around with you to vent in order to steer, you can run out of it. As I recall, fighters in Star Wars (and other ships) can run out of fuel, but generally not nearly as fast as would be implied if they were dumping mass all over the place. So clearly they have some other technique to turn in space.
So, once again we invoke our clever Ether manipulator. This time, though, it's much cruder than boring a hole through the Ether. Rather we just want to push against the pervasive Ether field that is already there, so that we can use it to turn our vessel. At the same time, gravity is bunching up the Ether around planets and stars -- creating a natural "up" and "down". (Down is where the Ether is denser.) This means that for maximum effect in pushing on the Ether you're going to want to naturally align your craft's etheric rudder with the local up and down -- which means that you're going to bank as you turn your fighter.
And for that matter, if you are turning your ship by pushing against the ether, you can propel it the same way -- just push behind you instead of to the side.
Okay now we come to the main event. By now it's kind of an anticlimax though: basically the Jedi are people who can mess around with the Ether -- the Force -- without the use of technology.
Force Jump? You do something that causes the mass in your body to push against the Ether/Force in such a way that you jump higher than you could otherwise. Basically the principle by which spacecraft steer and generate thrust.
Force Lightning? You create a very small region of super-dense Ether, which due to the Ether/gravity/light interaction causes the air to compress very tightly, ionize, and release energy in the form of electricity, whose direction you guide by how you construct the Ether-wad. (Or maybe you just somehow add energy to the Ether, causing the ethertons jump between energy states in such a way that they release energy directly in the form of electrons.)
Force Communication? (That is, the famous "I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of souls cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.") This is just a variant of FTL radio. The Jedi is sensing minute signals that propagated long distances at FTL speeds through naturally-occurring transient voids in the Ether with waveguide properties that are constantly being created and destroyed -- the Ether's equivalent of zero-point vacuum foam. The more powerful the broadcast signal ("millions of souls cried out"), the farther away you can sense it.
Telekinesis? The Jedi just fools around with the Ether in the same way the etheric rudder works, but simply uses it to push other objects around rather than a ship she's sitting in.
The big question, of course, is how does the Jedi actually do this without the aid of glorified superconducting electromagnets. Now, we've been making stuff up all along, of course, and it's all been fairly plausible (LOL); this is admittedly harder. But, we can rise to the occasion!
Lucas' much-reviled answer from the prequel films was "midichlorians". For all that it is an answer inconsistent with the narrative, it does at least aptly address the question: the midichlorians are a biological structure that uses the analog of quantum effects in an Etheric universe to manipulate the Ether. Perhaps this is a version of the remarkable ATP/Krebs Cycle in our universe which is the surprisingly complicated semi-quantum phenomenon at the heart of mitochondrial energy production. But alas, the midichlorians are unsatisfying (though, regretfully, canonical.)
In the absence of that, one has to get a bit hand-wavier, and suppose that the entropic profile of a brain or personality, which in our universe is an unbelievably complex but mostly independent wave function, can interact in some way with the Ether. That is, the information implied by a sentient personality can be thought of as a standing wave pattern in the Ether of stunning intricacy and complexity, that can be manipulated to induce other effects in the Ether.
It could be purely energetic -- a resonance between that standing wave pattern and the Etheric field/substance. Or it could be biological: even if you don't like midichlorians per se, it's pretty well-established that there is some biological component of Force-sensitivity, at least in the EU, and it could be this which completes the effect. With training, a Jedi can improve this link, which amounts to structuring thought patterns in such a way as to reinforce whatever resonance or biological link is represented by Force sensitivity.
And so this brings us to the last of the major Force powers: Jedi Mind Trick. The Jedi uses his stunningly intricate standing quasiquantum brainwave pattern to mess around with the standing brainwaves of weak-minded fools, using the Ether as the medium.
A Luminiferous Ether accounts for tons of little stuff too -- it's now obvious what repulsor lifts do, from their name; droids can't be Force-sensitive no matter how smart they are because their standing brainwave patterns are too structured to be able to generate the required resonance with the Ether; and so on. So, at least in my head, it all stands together.
Ultimately this means nothing, of course. And I have no doubt that JJ Abrams & Co. will fill the new films will lots of new gimmicks and visuals that leave us all aching for the good old days of midichlorians. But I thought this was an amusing thought exercise (though perhaps amusing only to me.)
But if you've read this far, and you take away from this mess only one thing, let it be this: How sad is it that this is probably the most relevant thing I've used my Physics degree for since I completed it? All I can say is: I'm sorry, professors. I'm so very, very sorry.