Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who - Simon Guerrier and Marek Kukula ***

There have been a number of books on the science of the long running family science fiction TV show Doctor Who, notably the unimaginatively titled The Science of Doctor Who, and it might be imagined that The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is more of the same. But we are firmly told that The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who isn't that kind of book in the introduction.

The biggest difficulty following this is to say just what this book is, and who it is aimed at. The format consists of alternating short stories featuring the Doctor (in all of his incarnations) and chapters that cover 'the science bit', sometimes vaguely related to the story, but often not. So, for instance, the first story features an intriguing, but frankly hard to scientifically justify, monster that is gaseous. However, the following science bit makes no attempt to explain how this could be possible. It also doesn't correct the error in the first story where the Doctor says 'Fact: the mean temperature on the surface of Venus is 735 degrees Kelvin.' Well no, it's not, because a kelvin (lower case) is the unit - there are no degrees involved. It's just 735 K.

Let's cover the stories first. As is often the case with written Doctor Who, several of them come across as essentially for children. It's easier to do a crossover TV show that will appeal to both adults and children than it is to do a crossover short story - and the science fiction in Doctor Who has always tended a little to the juvenile and monster-laden when compared with the sophistication of much written science fiction. It's not true of all the stories here, but some are a touch wince-making.

Mostly the science in the science bits is okay, but the authors - a fiction writer and an astronomer - can struggle with history of science. They wheel out that oldest of chestnuts, that 'a monk called Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for agreeing with Copernicus...' Groan. (No he wasn't, he was burned for common-or-garden religious heresy.) And they fall for the old 'NASA invented everything' myth, telling us that technology invented to get to the Moon gave us computers and non-stick saucepans. As both predate NASA's existence, this is a bit surprising. Oh and apparently Archimedes used lenses in his 'death ray' which would be a surprise to him, as the design involved curved mirrors.

The most worrying part of the science bit is the statement 'We now understand that we don't feel motion but changes in motion - what's called inertia.'  That's odd because changes in motion are called acceleration in my world. That apart there is a fair amount of interesting stuff, but it's pretty random - there's no clear structure. Most of the non-fiction seems aimed at the older teen/adult audience, but there are occasional bits, particularly where it gets a touch philosophical, where I felt talked down to as an adult.

The result, then, is something of a mess. We've got 15 Doctor Who short stories of mixed quality and a series of science sections which take on broad Doctor Who-ish themes like cosmology and time travel and cyborgs, while explicitly not structuring itself around the science of Doctor Who, and so becoming piecemeal and unsatisfying. Definitely a curate's egg with good and bad parts, but it would have been significantly better if it had been structured more effectively, had a clear audience, and had science that was better grounded in history.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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