While the point of science fiction is not necessarily to reflect science fact—or even science possibility—it’s sometimes worth asking what the world would be like if science fiction was science fact. How much would it cost to build and operate the Battlestar Galactica at today’s energy prices? How much energy would it take to make the Kessel Run in less than 10 parsecs? What would it take for that question to make sense? Sorry, Han.
Well today we’re wondering how much Emperor Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, would need to eat daily in order to have enough energy to shoot lightning out of his hands on the reg.
As every Star Wars veteran knows, the Force permits Jedi and Sith to perform impossible feats of dexterity, telekinesis, gymnastics, pyrotechnics, and persuasion. If the Force actually existed, it would prompt some major revisions of our most basic beliefs about the universe. Physics would need a drastic reformulation, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger were causing a stir.
At the very least, we’d need to ditch or reinterpret the most fundamental law of mechanics, the conservation of momentum. Newton’s third law—every action has an equal and opposite reaction—would have to go, too. Jedi seem able to accelerate objects at will, but experience no corresponding acceleration themselves. As we understand the universe right now, a real user of the Force would find himself thrown backwards whenever he force-pushed his way through the crowd at his favorite cantina. Not so in the Star Wars universe.
But there’s one basic physical law that the Force could potentially be reconciled with: conservation of energy. It is basic in physics that in a closed system, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. In order to perform their amazing feats, Jedi would need to expend considerable amounts of energy. If we assume conservation of energy, we can calculate how much energy a Force user would need available locally to deploy their Force powers.
As far as we know, the only source of energy for Force powers is the Force user’s body. And all energy in our bodies comes from—you guessed it—food.
We’ll use a classic example of the Force: Emperor Palpatine electrocuting Luke in Return of the Jedi. According to Wookieepedia, the kinda, sorta authority on such matters, the intensity of force lightning depends on the strength and skill of its user.
Force lightning was a purely offensive, energy-based attack that channeled Force energy down the user’s limbs, hurling arcing bolts of electricity from the wielder’s fingertips or palms … A skilled user could render a target unconscious with only a short burst. A single, powerful blast was sufficient to kill a person instantly.1
It seems safe to assume that Palpatine is more than capable of dispatching Luke with a single Force lightning strike—he draws out Luke’s pain for his own sadistic pleasure. A lethal Force lightning strike is at least as dangerous as a fatal household electrical accident, and possibly as dangerous as a typical terrestrial lightning strike. So how strong are the bolts?
It doesn’t take that much electricity to kill a human. Applied properly, 100 to 200 milliamps will kill you. For context, the usual lightning strike carries around 30,000 amps and delivers 500 megajoules of energy. Even that shouldn’t be too much trouble for an adept Sith lord, right?
Sure, but the Death Star must have have one hell of a catering service.
Ye olde 2000-calorie diet isn’t going to do it for us here. True, a joule is a one small unit of energy — it takes 4000 joules to make a calorie — but 500 megajoules is quite substantial. How substantial, you ask? Well, just to pull off his lighting shenanigans in Return of the Jedi, Emperor Palpatine would have had to have a 120,000 calorie breakfast. That’s around 200 Big Macs. Presumably the Emperor has neither the time nor the digestive tract to handle that sort of indulgence. Maybe that’s why he looks terrible.