Six Smart Women Discussing Doctor Who

VerityExtraIDOScienceIf you thought our previous installments of In Defense Of went off the rails, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet! Join Deb Erika, Katrina, and Liz as we do our best(?) to defend some of the dodgy science (and non-science) of Doctor Who. It’s about as nonsensical as you might expect.

And be sure to enter to win a copy of The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. Remember, if you’re already a Verity! patron, you’re automatically entered! If not, leave a comment over on the giveaway post, or become a patron before the contest ends on June 24th.

As for the comments here, please take a crack at defending all that “science”–or just laugh at our pitiable attempts.


Download or listen now (runtime 50:35)  

Comments on: "Extra! – In Defence Of… Science!" (16)

  1. Henrik said:

    I only just pressed play on this episode so I don’t know what you’re covering but I will preemptively state: there is no defence for ‘Kill The Moon’. None. At all.

    I seem to recall I covered the reasons why, at length, in the comments here:

    It stands to be repeated though, even if you don’t even broach the subject in the episode.

    There is just no defence.

    • James C said:

      Here’s one…

      So the egg-moon, in our skies for millions of years, is growing some kind of space dragon inside. For 99.x% of that time its mass does not change – some the mass of the interior is being used to feed the growing baby space dragon. But at the end of its gestation a significant infusion of energy is required (solar? background radiation?) and so the mass of the moon increases significantly. Also as the soon to be born dragon needs to leave a new moon-egg behind. As the story notes, the changes on the moon are causing some havoc on the Earth.

      And then… happy birthday! A space dragon is born, and from it comes a new egg. The space dragon itself is very large, but also very fine – it’s designed to drift on those nurturing solar winds (or other malarkey – take your pick). Off it goes, taking its additional mass with it, leaving behind a new egg-moon, roughly the size of the old one.

      To summarise: millennia of stable mass –> rapidly increasing mass in the final years –> birth –> lightweight space dragon lays new space egg, similar in size to the old one. = Total mass is one moon (old moon replaced by new one) plus diaphanous space dragon plus a little bit of wastage from the birth process. All additional mass came from before birth, via good old E=MC2.

      Which I think fulfils the brief of this episode, even if it is clearly utter utter bollocks!

      • I like it. I also thought that perhaps this space dragon lays it’s eggs in some sort of time pocket, only releasing one egg at a time into real time. When one egg hatched, another egg was released from the time pocket to take it’s place. Thus this creature, that requires millennia to gestate ensures the longevity of it’s species. Too bad they didn’t add a couple lines of techno babble to confirm a theory like this to the story.

      • It’s a good idea, BeckyB.

  2. I haven’t had a chance to listen yet, but I just wanted to take the time to thank you for “In Defence of…” as I used it as a panel topic at a recent convention. I was the programming chair for last weekend’s Anglicon in Seattle, and I asked Charles Martin (who was on the “IDO…” panel at LIWho) to help me out with this. We challenged each other to defend topics (I opened with “The Myrka”), then let the audience challenge us. I think we both did very well, except I finally had to concede after a little over a minute on the design of Erato from “The Creature from the Pit”! It was a big hit and a lot of fun, and I hope we get to do it again next year (blatant plug about to follow) August 5-7 (our Facebook page and our website). And you know, Seattle isn’t all THAT far from Edmonton…

  3. That was a fun episode to listen to!

    Nothing to say in defense of anything, but I was inspired (if that’s the right term for what I did) to activate my iPhone and ask Siri to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. Siri’s response: “Who, me?”

  4. Richard S. said:

    Marek Kukula, excellent science presenter, I think he appeared on that DW Confidential just after The Lodger, along with Karen & the BBC Sky At Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock (whose time at science-ey college overlapped mine by a year).

    I really don’t mind when DW indulges in huge scientific fibs, the removal of which would destroy the whole plot. It’s the little, fixable errors that bug me. Like Wilf and his telescope, right next to a blazing fire which would ruin not only the optics (expansion of the metal parts, condensation), and the viewing conditions (heat haze), but also Wilf’s own night vision. RTD could’ve written a funny scene with Cribbins & Tate switching red-filtered torches off & on in the darkness, but noooo.

    And, isn’t Wilf looking at Venus? Or someone is, in one of the eps. His telescope is pointing straight up, in the middle of the night, but from here, Venus only appears near to the sun in the sky (because it’s closer to the sun than we are) therefore it’s visible near to the horizon at dawn & dusk.

    And what about Luke or Maria or someone, looking through a telescope at the full moon, even though the really cool features, mountains, valleys, craters, etc, would effectively be washed out by the direct sunlight.

    And Benny Sherwood (sorry, wrong RTD franchise), allowing all his school friends to view the eclipse thru telescopes that haven’t had their smaller viewfinder scopes removed or filtered or covered, leading to injury, blindness and death if the kids’ eyes or bare skin accidentally intercept the sun’s magnified rays. Think of the children, Benny!!

    And that full moon over Metropolis & the Luthor Mansion, every single damn night of the year!!! But I’ll stop now…

  5. Beth G said:

    My faith in the Doctor leads me to believe that reversing the polarity of the neutron flow is perfectly valid science, and it only sounds wrong because our incomplete human knowledge lags so far behind him.

  6. Liz must win for astonishing scientishiness. Reddy camoflauge is clearly important for satan, and islands are of course where you get all the mega fauna and the mini fauna! Best laugh I’ve had in ages. Well done everyone!

  7. Gary Schaper said:

    I have to agree with several of the “panelists” on being presented with some of the topics: if the game is to defend a preposterous proposition, the topic should define the terms of why it’s believed to be preposterous, instead of just (for example) naming the “Devil” in The Satan Pit and saying, “This is inherently wrong: go!”

    Anyway, when it comes to dodgy Who science, I always think that a scientifically ridiculous premise is absolutely fair play. What I’m less thrilled by is when the implications or resolutions of the premise continue to make up scientific rules for the sake of ending the plot or causing complications — the moon-as-an-egg offended my sensibilities a good deal less than how this suddenly caused the moon to have normal gravity for filming convenience, or how the huge spider monsters had to be single-celled. Classic SF always allows you its howlers, even when these have become institutionalized trope to allow for any story to happen, like faster-than-light travel. It’s when you throw out any sense of consistency with the crazy premise that you realize that the writer is just going to make up anything to solve the plot. (See: The Forest of the Night.)

  8. James C said:

    So I couldn’t sleep last night for thinking about the Blinovitch Limitation Effect. As you do. And in the spirit of pseudoscience I have some thoughts about how it would work. Here goes.

    What’s important to note about Blinovitch is that it’s not a law – it’s an effect of time travel that limits how much change you can make on the past. The effect is this: the limitation on your ability to change the past increases with the effect that the change will have on your present. If a change in the past doesn’t affect your own present, then you can do so freely. Even if it leads to massive change for other people.

    So back in the Aztecs when the Doctor said ‘You can’t change history – not one line!’ he clearly wasn’t telling the truth. Or rather he was telling the truth, but only for certain values of history. So Barbara probably could have changed the Aztec community that she met without too much harm, even though that particular attempt did not work. By contrast, Rose couldn’t change her father’s history, even at a time after she was born, as doing so was very likely to have eliminated the set of circumstances that enabled her to make the change: not working in Henrik’s, not living on the Powell Estate. Possibly growing up as the rich daughter of a soft drink magnate! The famous ‘fixed points in time’ are those that have a massive impact on all of the future, and especially on the instigator of the change.

    The rule in the Day of the Daleks is an extension of this idea – going back more than once significantly increases the risk that the events that you change will have too radical a change on your present, and the amount of effort required to sustain that change is unsustainable. Chaos ensues.

    The ‘can’t meet yourself’ iteration of Blinovitch is simply taking this idea to an extreme – meeting yourself increases the probability that the past will change your present pretty much to a certainty. Even more chaos ensues – catastrophically for the Brigadier. Handily I think that Rose meeting her infant self is still allowed – the meeting had no reason to have any effect on the infant.

    And now for some actual science! If you saw the Brian Cox special on the science of Doctor Who you will have seen his illustration of the limits of time travel: he drew a big X, marking the cross-point as your location in the present moment, the area inside the V shape above the present as the set of all your possible future events, and the area inside the upside down V below the present as all of the possible past events that could have allowed you to get the the present moment. The area to the right and left of your present moment represents all of the past, future and present places and events that are impossible for you. Time flows from the bottom to the top of the X, with the present always in the middle.

    This is really handy for illustrating Blinovitch. Assuming (as we do) that time travel has been made possible, then if you make changes in the past that are comfortably within the field of possible events that led to your own present, then you’re OK. But the more radical effect that the past change has on your own present, the harder it is to pull off, and the greater the energy required to sustain the change. When you get to impossibility (paradox), you get explosive memory wipes, Reapers and other bad mojo.

    Enter the TARDIS! Somehow its powerful temporal engineering gives its crew greater power to change the past, insulating them from the effects of past changes, up to a point. So the Doctor himself can meet himself with few consequences other than selective amnesia (perhaps induced by the TARDIS itself). It also creates the possibility for a colossal paradox to be sustained, as we saw in the Sound of Drums, when the TARDIS is turned into a paradox machine.

    I was also thinking about reversing the polarity of the neutron flow…

  9. It’s not an egg. Unless that critter has an ovipositor that’s bigger on the inside (and by the way – ouch!).

    Still not an egg.

  10. I love these “in defense” episodes and I hope you do more in the future. Perhaps you could try giving out the topics in advance so that everyone would have the chance to prepare a really good defense.

    Wasn’t the dodgy science involving the Satan Pit, the fact that the Satan monster was suspended on a planet that was orbiting a black hole? That was why it was an “impossible planet”; this to ensure that it would never escape?

    I don’t understand why people are so upset about the moon being an egg, yet never complain about an alien sucking up people’s souls into a super computer, and then using those souls to reanimate dead bodies that have been turned into slave robot soldiers.


  11. Fabulous episode, which I listened to in the lab while I did sciencey things!

    I find it fascinating how upset so many people are about the egg-moon in Kill the Moon. I was actually willing to buy into that at first – but what totally ruined the episode for me was the “immune system” of the egg – the spider-like things that were supposedly killer immune cells or something similar (they were described as being single cells, anyway). That’s when I discovered that I’m OK with DW taking all sorts of liberties with science, but not with BIOLOGY, dammit! (I’m a biologist). By the time the newly hatched space dragon immediately laid a new egg, I had already filed the episode under “completely unscientific space fantasy”, so I didn’t care…

    Most of the time, I consider DW to be ‘science fantasy’ rather than ‘science fiction’, as it doesn’t always have a strong grounding in science. But what I LOVE is the celebration of science in DW, the way that there are often problems to be solved in a scientific (or semi-scientific) way, even if that involves pseudo-scientific technobabble (it is TV, after all). The fact that UNIT is now led by Kate Stewart, who has a scientific background rather than a military one, is one more way that the show is celebrating science.

  12. Paul A. said:

    I’m in the school of thought that says that Doctor Who is science fantasy and can be forgiven a large amount of dodgy science in service of a good story.

    Why “Kill the Moon” upsets me (to the extent it does, which is less than for some people) is that it’s not only bad science, it’s also bad storytelling.

    When the new-born space dragon magically produces an egg exactly like the one it just hatched out of, I could have forgiven it for being a biological and physical nonsense. What I can’t forgive it for is that it cocks up the central drama of the entire episode by arbitrarily removing all the consequences of the decision our protagonists have been agonising over for the last half hour.

    • That is a very good point, Paul, and I suspect that the bad storytelling issue underlies a lot of people’s anger about the ending of that episode, even when they have fixed on the bad science as being the problem.

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