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the true meaning of ‘parsec’

January 6, 2016

At the weekend I went to see the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. It was lots of fun, a bit hokey in places but very entertaining. However, one bit awoke the pedant in me: Han Solo’s ship, The Millennium Falcon, is claimed to have made the “Kessel Run” in “under twelve parsecs”. An obvious error: a parsec, like a light-year, is a measurement of distance, not of time. Having looked it up on wikipedia I can inform you that a parsec is “the distance at which one astronomical unit subtends an angle of one arcsecond”. I have very little idea what that means but it translates as 3.26 light-years – or 31 trillion km, or 19 trillion miles.

Clearly, though, the scriptwriter thought a parsec was a unit of time. Doesn’t anyone check these things? Why didn’t they just run it past an astronomer? Or look it up on wikipedia, like I did?

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One Comment
  1. Ah, not entirely. The line in Force Awakens is a nod to a scene in the original film, when Obi-Wan is trying to hire a pilot; Obi-Wan asks Han Solo if his ship is fast & Solo, of course, tells him the bit about parsecs. What’s interesting is the stage directions from the screenplay indicated that Solo is bullshitting Obi-Wan, & Obi-Wan realises it, but is desperate nonetheless. George Lucas is famously terrible at directing actors, so none of this comes across on film & it’s been a fan controversy ever since.

    Though if it still bothers you, Expanded Universe materials gave an alternate explanation, one that makes Solo less of a rogue & more of an ace: the Kessel Run was a notoriously treacherous smuggling route, & when Solo took it, he used an even more dangerous, shorter path that no-one had dared to try before or since.

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