The Science of Doctor Who
by Paul Parsons
Review by Cathy Green
The Johns Hopkins University Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780801895609
Date: 05 May 2010 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Johns Hopkins University Press has just published the updated American edition of Paul Parsons's popular science book, The Science Of Doctor Who. Parsons has written a fun (mostly) easy to understand book that covers a great deal of ground in matching up real world science to the gadgets, aliens and monsters of Doctor Who in a variety of areas including biology, physics and robotics. He has also updated book to include everything up through the episode "The End of Time" and the introduction of the Eleventh Doctor. Considering that the show has been around for forty-five years, that's a lot ground to cover.
Parsons has divided his book into four parts: (1)Doctor in the Tardis; (2) Aliens of London and Beyond; (3) Robot Dogs, Psychic Paper, and Other Celestial Toys; and (4) Mission to the Unknown. He starts the book off with an examination of the Doctor's physiology, in particular his two hearts and discusses what advantages and disadvantages this might have and notes that the hagfish has five hearts.
Probably the two hardest science chapters in the book are chapters two and three in which Parsons explains how the Tardis can be bigger on the inside than the outside and how time travel might be possible using real world physics and astrophysics at level of detail considerably above the Tenth Doctor's "wibbly wobbly timey wimey" hand-waving. Fortunately, Parsons is very good at taking complex subjects and explaining them in a manner that does not leave the layperson's brains leaking out his or her ears. I was able to follow most of the discussion of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and how it could be used to allow for gravitational bubbles that would allow the "dimensionally transcendental" Tardis to be bigger on the inside than the outside. The illustration involving the a two dimensional rubber sheet with the middle bulging into three dimensional space was particularly helpful. And while I may not have understood it in its entirety, I did get the basics of Parsons's explanations of the Casimir effect and quantum entanglement. Parsons also consistently tied the science to particular episodes of the show, extrapolating how to get there from current scientific knowledge.
In Part Two, which focuses more on biology and exobiology, Parsons does take a few pages to note the frequency with which planets are destroyed on the show and to point out just how difficult it would be to construct a planet destroying weapon in the real world. For one thing, it would require really huge amount of energy, which means you would need really large amounts of matter or anti-matter from which to create the weapon and it would probably be the size of a small moon, so there will be no front-mounted planet destroying beam weapons on our spaceships anytime soon.
Particularly with the discussion of alien races, Parson is good about tying the science discussion to information or situations pulled from particular episodes of the show. For instance, in discussion of both old school and new school Cybermen, Parsons references the gold allergy as a jumping off point for a discussion of the current state of cyborg technology and implants and notes that it's possible that the weakness to gold comes from the old school Cybermen still having actual flesh body parts such as lungs while new school Cybermen are mechanical bodies with human brains put inside, which leads to a discussion of the current state of the ability to do brain transplants. The biology of Daleks is examined as well. The Sontarans reproduce asexually through cloning, which leads to a discussion of Dolly the Sheep, hydra reproducing through budding, parthenogenic insects and whiptail lizards.
Part Three, which deals with alien tech and robots covers a huge range of topics from real world analogs of the Third Doctor's gadgets to why devises like those used in "Carnival of Monsters" and "Nightmare of Eden" with their miniaturization technology could not possibly work to AI to space stations to force fields and death rays. The show has given Parsons a great deal to work with and he's more than happy to discuss all of it with us.
In Part Four, Parsons is focused mainly on cosmology from the Big Bang to the heat death of the universe. Here again, even with my very minimal understanding of Astronomy (I took Astronomy to meet my high school physical science requirement and took and an "astronomy for humanities majors" course to fulfill one of my science distribution courses in college, and both of those courses were taken more than two decades ago), I was able to understand the basics of what Parsons was discussing, except for the chapter on strange stars and mirror planets where I got a bit lost.
Parsons has packed nearly half a century of Doctor Who and about one hundred years worth of scientific developments in biology, physics, astronomy, and computing and other disciplines into approximately three hundred pages. This is a fun, easy to understand popular science exploration of a huge number of topics using Doctor Who as the jumping off point for the topics Parsons examines. While the book will be of more interest to fans of the show than other readers (it would make an excellent gift for Whovians), anyone who enjoys reading popular science magazines should get a kick out of The Science Of Doctor Who.