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Dec. 16, 2015

Shannon Schmoll: Slight Obsession

Dec. 16, 2015

Shannon Schmoll is the director of MSU’s Abrams Planetarium. She received her doctorate in astronomy and education from University of Michigan in 2013. Though not actively working on any projects at the moment, her research has focused on integrating formal and informal learning environments, particularly classrooms and planetariums.

Like so many, Star Wars captured my imagination as a kid.

My dad was a major Star Wars fan and his love certainly helped me develop a slight obsession with the franchise. When I was a kid, he taped “Return of the Jedi” off the television. I found it one summer and watched it whenever I had the chance. When the special editions of the original trilogy were released, I convinced my mom to take me to Taco Bell every Sunday so I could collect all the Star Wars toys they had. I started reading my dad’s Star Wars novels to the point where I wouldn’t put it down to even eat dinner (much to my mom’s annoyance).

Today, as an adult I proudly own several versions of the original trilogy. Even before we had kids, my husband and I had the most serious discussion of which order do we show Star Wars to our kids when they are old enough (it’s 4-5-1-2-3-6 by the way). Even for our daughter’s first Halloween, she was Yoda and I was Wicket.

The point is, I love Star Wars.

It’s hard to pinpoint, but this love likely helped nudge me into my current career path. I can’t put all the blame with Star Wars, as I was equally enthralled with the like of X-Files and Farscape. However, when I was in high school, I had an open fourth-period class and decided to fill it with physics. This was my first exposure to the subject and it was something that honestly scared me a bit. But, I was quickly fascinated.

As the semester went on, I found myself more and more interested in astrophysics. To me, the coolest things were out in space. I found myself thinking about the Millennium Falcon and what hyperspace would really look like during our relativity unit. In my college solar system class, I found myself thinking about the asteroid scene in “Empire Strikes Back” and realizing how inaccurate it was. When discussing exoplanets, I wondered if there could be something like Dagobah out there. I found myself applying the science back to Star Wars because it was a familiar touchstone.

I can say now that the science of Star Wars is pretty bad. When teaching the public about astronomy, I like to connect the science of space to things they can relate to. The bad science of Star Wars often comes up as a result. It’s not that I am picking on it. It’s more that Star Wars permeates our culture so thoroughly; it’s an easy reference to help people challenge their preconceptions of the space and astrophysics.

Does knowing that the science is terrible ruin Star Wars? I don’t think so, because Star Wars is a grand adventure with interesting characters. They are stories within a captivating universe that the bad science doesn’t matter. It’s the other way around. It makes space interesting and fun and something you can anchor your knowledge to. In the process it makes learning and thinking about the reality of science more fun. At least that is true for me and I suspect for others as well.

You can bet I am going to be at the theater this weekend, wearing my Wicket costume, and shaking with excitement when that LucasFilms logo first pops up on the screen and those first chords of the theme echo through the theater. The science will melt away and I will be a kid again just enjoying the ride…at least until I see it the fifth or sixth time.