The Science of Doctor Who (Paul Parsons)

The Science of Doctor Who CoverThe Plot
Over the course of its long history, the science fiction series Doctor Who has presented any number of intriguing inventions, devices, technological advances and alien species. Scientist (and journalist) Paul Parsons takes a critical look at the TARDIS, the sonic screwdriver, the Cybermen and more and attempts to discover whether any of these things are actually plausible given what is currently known of physics and biology.

My Thoughts
Several years ago, I ran across a book titled The Physics of Star Trek. As a fan of Star Trek and of physics, it was obviously a required purchase, and so I did. The book took a close look at many of the technologies invented for the Star Trek universe — warp drive, transporters, holodecks, phasers and photon torpedoes — and evaluated their scientific plausibility based upon our current knowledge of physics and the universe. It was written at about the same level as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which is to say requiring thought but not out of reach to the average reader.

There soon grew up a small industry around these types of books, as The Physics of Star Trek was followed by The Science of Star Wars, the Physics of Superheroes, The Science of Supervillains, the Physics of Christmas, The Science of Harry Potter — the list goes on. Inevitably (and yet, surprisingly late) the publishing forces landed upon Doctor Who and soon The Science of Doctor Who arrived.

As is perhaps understandable, given Parsons’ background as a science magazine editor, the book reads more as a series of separate articles than as a continuous whole. In all there are 35 different feature length essays, each focusing on a different point of the Whoiverse and bringing in information from scientific experts and science research to either support or discredit the possibility of that particular item/alien/ability ever being a reality.

The articles themselves are quite breezy and informative, definitely meant for the layperson without being excessively dumbed down. Understandably, some of the scientific explanations overlap considerably with those necessary for other series (black holes, wormholes, faster than light travel — those are pretty much science fiction staples at this point) but Parsons tries to put his own spin on them.

The main issue I ended up having with the book was that it was monotonous in its set-up. I think it would have worked a lot better as a monthly series in a magazine than it does collected in a book, because the structure of each chapter (aka article) is essentially the same: Parsons describes some element from the Whoiverse, such as an alien species, and mentions a few episodes in which they appeared. He poses a question about their existence or development, then brings in the opinions of one of the expert scientists, summarizing their findings. All of this takes 7-10 pages and then the article ends; on to the next topic. Though the articles themselves are loosely collected into ‘sections’ there’s no actual narrative thread that connects the parts of the section together; they could just as easily have been in a different order entirely.

The monotony might also have been alleviated somewhat had the stable of consulting scientists been larger. Or perhaps if the consulting sections had been woven together, it wouldn’t have been as obvious that the same person was being spoken to about multiple topics. Ditto the actual episodes which were referenced: while I’m sure Parsons did survey the whole of the Who canon before writing the book, there were several episodes of the series which were mentioned a lot. A lot.

Apart from my issues with how the book was organized, Parsons did a fine job selecting a wide variety of topics for coverage. A smattering of tech, of temporal and spatial phenomena, of alien beings: something for everyone. I can’t really complain at the choices, though I do think some of the science involved in thinking through the aliens was a wee bit thin. Also, if this book was really updated for the U.S. release, there should definitely have been a chapter about the Ood.

In Short
While I won’t go so far as to call this book a must read for any Doctor Who fan, it was definitely entertaining. I have no reason to question any of the scientific conclusions presented either. But I did feel like the information presented was a bit shallow, not just because so many different topics were covered, but because the coverage was so discrete. It was also noticeable by the end that certain ‘favorite’ episodes were referenced constantly rather than using a wider breadth of the series as source material. Additionally, though this version claims to have been updated for the U.S. release, it’s not really – Ten and Eleven are pretty much completely absent from its pages.


The Science of Doctor Who by Paul Parsons

The Science of Doctor Who CoverFrom the front flap:
Almost fifty years after the Doctor first crossed the small screen, he remains a science fiction touchstone. His exploits are thrilling, his world is mind-boggling, and that time travel machine—known as the Tardis—is almost certainly an old-fashioned blue police box, once commonly found in London.

Paul Parsons’s plain-English account of the real science behind the fantastic universe portrayed in the television series answers such burning questions as whether a sonic screwdriver is any use for putting up a shelf, how Cybermen make little Cybermen, where the toilets are in the Tardis, and much more.

(Note: This is the 2010 revision of a book originally published in 2006.)

I am not a science person. In my years of schooling, I never once came up with a non-lame idea for a science project and was positively abysmal at experiments. I did pretty well on tests and homework, but if someone’s test tube was going to spontaneously erupt in a geyser of brown froth (true story!), it would be mine.

Suffice it to say, then, that while I enjoy science fiction entertainment, it’s not because of the science. Still, The Science of Doctor Who promises “a plain-English account of the real science behind the fantastic universe portrayed in the television series,” so I reckoned on being able to follow it. Alas, Paul Parsons’s definition of plain English is a bit different than mine.

I was okay with the majority of the material. Chapter topics include the Doctor’s recurring foes, regeneration, gadgets, weapons, space stations, force fields, parallel universes, and more. In general, Parsons would start by mentioning something that happened in a particular Doctor Who serial and then interview renowned scientists as to whether this is actually possible. Most of the time the answer is “no” or “only with extreme amounts of energy/effort,” but there are a few things that are not so far off. The chapters on alien worlds (Lots of planets really do have a north!) and mirror planets were particular favorites of mine.

Stupidly, however, I hadn’t counted on there being so much physics! I frequently found my eyes glazing over during these sections, which were unfortunately clustered near the beginning (making it hard to get started) and end (causing a strong urge to set the book down with only forty pages to go) of the book.

Take, for example, this quote from page 35:

M-theory’s main thrust is to generalize the one-dimensional objects of string theory into p-dimensional objects known, amusingly enough, as p-branes (where setting p = 0 gives a particle, p = 1 gives a string, p = 2 a “membrane,” and so on).

My brain’s response: asdlkjasldkfzzt!

Seriously, is that plain English? I note that Parsons did not bother to define “p-dimensional,” though that probably wouldn’t have been much help to me anyway.

In the end, I did learn some interesting things. In the chapter on Cybermen, for example, I learned that a cybernetic brain implant currently exists that can block the signals that cause Parkinson’s disease. That’s pretty awesome! I also now know that Sontarans reproduce by cloning and it takes only ten minutes for their offspring to reach adulthood. That’s less awesome.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on reading The Science of Doctor Who but now I think I’ll give my brain a rest by actually watching some.


J’s Take on The Science of Doctor Who

The Science of Doctor Who Cover
Because when you can capitalize on a media sensation without breaking copyright laws, why shouldn’t you? The Science of Doctor Who takes the science and quasi-science and pseudo-science you can find in Doctor Who and compares it to the state of real world science (and techology).

I never found it so dull that I wanted to completely stop reading it, but I didn’t find it fascinating or captivating for the most part. A lot of the science that was included were things I already knew, or studies I’d already heard of. Some of it was new, but already I couldn’t call up one example of it.

At times, he got so deeply involved in explaining some scientific concept that he’d go for pages without even mentioning Doctor Who.

It also seemed to me that he kept referring to the same episodes. He’s really keen on “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”, using them for all sorts of examples of things. And most of the older Who episodes he mentioned were ones I’d seen or heard of, because they were released on DVD. Which started to make me wonder if he’d really watched all the Who he could possibly watch, or only hit the highlights.

Right at the start, it says the book has been updated up until the Eleventh Doctor. But don’t expect a lot of updates. Ten doesn’t even get much action. And right in the first chapter, the first paragraph even, he says we don’t know if the doctor has a family. Apart from calling a girl his granddaughter in the first series. Well, we all know there’s more family than that!

Where I really took objection to what he was saying though was in regards to Jack Harkness. He says in the future everyone’s bi and then blithers on about not having to reproduce in the traditional manner, so being straight is no longer biologically necessary. Or something. But Jack is not bi, because he doesn’t limit himself to two genders, or even to humans. And the kiss he and the Doctor shared is a not a ‘gay kiss’. Because neither of them is gay!

Oh, oh, and then he talks about this idea that this female scientist had that.. wow, the Doctor could regenerate as a woman! And he thought it’d blow our minds a little if the Doctor were transgender. I think it was him that had his mind blown when she mentioned the idea.

Back to the science.. I don’t know how many explanations I’ve read now about the theory of relativity and gravity and time and the speed of light. I don’t pretend that I understand it fully, but I’m not really eager to read about it anymore. I think that sort of thing is better demonstrated with video. Not little graphics and text written by a non-scientist.

I wish there had been more Dr. Who images in the book. Or like.. anything. I think one picture might’ve featured the TARDIS. I guess they didn’t want to pay any licensing fees. But it made the graphics that were included all the more boring to look at.

Well, that all made me sound rather down on the book. But overall it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t a slog. If you like Doctor Who and want to learn about cutting edge science, go for it. If you just want to get your geek on, probably Chicks Who Dig Time Lords is a more interesting read. And if you’re looking for science, go for Michio Kaku or Neil deGrasse Tyson.