An Interview with Paul Parsons and the Science of Dr Who.
It was an excellent talk - appealing to young and old alike. The young had fun answering questions which were rewarded with prizes of Jelly Babies and Sonic Screw Drivers, and the older members were rewarded with succession of fascinating facts (and a few good jokes). There were video demonstrations of invisibility cloaks and some amazing visual effects to indicate how our own brain can be tricked into seeing something that is not really there - like Dr Who's psychic paper.
After the talk he signed copies of his books to a string of enthusiastic admirers - including me.
Earlier Paul had kindly agreed to an interview (which I think is really interesting) - part of which is here in the local newspaper - the Chester Chronicle, but I have posted the whole interview below.
Dr Paul Parsons is a freelance writer, editor and author – specialising in science, space and astronomy. He was formerly editor of award-winning BBC science and technology magazine Focus, and was managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine. His latest book, The Science of Doctor Who (Icon Books), was longlisted for the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. He frequently appears on local radio to discuss science news, and occasionally on TV. He lives in the southwest of England.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
PP: I do remember a snail crawling on a plant at the start of the Bruce Dern film Silent Running as one of the most beautiful and memorable movie moments of all time. That and the little visitors we used to get in our very damp, very rundown house when I was a student!
CD: What is your proudest moment?
PP: Graduating, being editor of Focus magazine when it won PPA Magazine of the Year, walking my mum up aisle when she remarried.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
PP: I guess the moment I decided I was going to earn a living by writing. I’m not sure that event in itself was entirely life-changing – I still had to go away and make it happen. But the realisation that this was what I wanted to do more than anything was in itself a life-changing realisation.
CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
PP: Very hard to answer. The world is an extremely unhappy place, which is a sad fact in itself. It seems there are heartbreaking stories wherever you look, and it’s very hard to put those in any kind of order – who’s to say that any one person’s despair is of greater magnitude than any one else’s. Sadness is quite a subjective emotion. However, personally, I find the way we abuse and exploit other animals particularly depressing.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
PP: I wish I could be more decisive, sometimes.
CD: What is happiness?
PP: Large chips with lots of vinegar. Cold bottle of London Pride. Doctor Who on TV. Nothing else matters!
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
PP: Quite often there’ll be a cat (we have four!) cutting off the circulation to one of my legs. In which case the first thing I do in the morning is try and restore blood flow to my feet, a procedure you might describe as the Tizwas ‘Dying Fly’ meets the Ministry of Silly Walks!
Questions about the Science of Dr Who.
CD: Your book is a fascinating blend of facts about Dr Who and science - a delight for fans, and also for those who just enjoy speculating about the future. How did you come to write the book?
PP: It was a bit of a combination of interests, really. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since the days of Tom Baker, back when the show used to pull in audiences of 13 million, and when Douglas Adams, of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame, was the script editor. I’ve also spent time a scientific researcher – I did a doctorate in cosmology (which is the study of the birth, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe). And I now earn my living as a science writer and journalist. So, pull all those strands together and a book on the science behind Doctor Who seems quite a natural result!
CD: Which part did you enjoy researching the most and why?
PP: I don’t think there was any one topic that particularly stood out for me. What I really enjoyed was the degree of enthusiasm for the show from most of the scientists and researchers whom I approached when I was writing the book. Clearly, a lot of them are big fans of the show. I was able to ring up people like Professor Fred Taylor – who’s an eminent planetary scientist at Oxford University – and say things like ‘could you have a planet with oceans of acid, like the world of Marinus that William Hartnell’s Doctor visited in the 60s?’. And he’d turn round and say ‘well, yes - the planet next door to Earth – Venus – has clouds of sulphuric acid in its atmosphere, and if it was only a little bit cooler then this would be free to fall to the ground as a liquid’. And so on… so there was a real enthusiasm for the subject matter. Only one person hung up the phone on me! The original manuscript had a chapter on each Doctor’s attire. The science would talk about what your clothing says about you from a psychological perspective, and then try and apply this to the characteristics we see with each of the Doctor’s ten incarnations. But when I called this particular clothing psychologist they protested that they had ‘nothing to say about Doctor Who’s clothes’ and put the phone down on me. ‘The Fabric of Time’, as the chapter was called, was later shelved and never actually made the published edition of the book.
CD: I particularly enjoyed the chapter on cybermen - it seems that some people are half way there already. I was very surprised to read about the Baja Beach club in Rotterdam. When you were researching for the book was there anything that surprised you too about the apparent prescience of the writers of Dr Who?
PP: Absolutely – the sonic screwdriver. This is the Doctor’s Swiss Army knife, that he keeps in his pocket and uses for opening locks, and cutting through walls – and occasionally for undoing screws. And I really thought – there’s no way you can do this. I mean, using sound beams to undo screws – that’s ridiculous isn’t it? But it turned out that it’s already being done! Devices like sonic screwdrivers are already used in modern manufacturing! Scientists describe the process by which they work as 'structure-acoustic linear ultrasonics', which sounds like some delightful piece of technobabble that Jon Pertwee might have come out with. In basic terms, you make a focussed beam of sound waves which are then directed towards an object, say a screw. The sound waves set up high-frequency vibrations in the screw, that cause it to rattle along in the direction of the threads to either tighten or loosen. (The direction is controlled by rotating the beam).
But, just like the Doctor's 'old friend', real-world focussed sound beams can do more than just turn screws. They can cut through metal and even solder wires in place – this is a primary application of sonic tools in manufacturing. The trouble is that these tools are extremely short-ranged – thousandths millimetres or less. Upping the power levels so that the Doctor can cook land mines from a distance on a few tens of metres, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor did in the show, would require a hefty power source – bigger, at least for the time being, than anything even Tom Baker could fit in his coat pockets.
The other amusing thing is that I was told much of this by a Professor Douglas Adams, who’s a mechanical engineer and acoustics expert at Purdue University in the States - no relation to the late, great Doctor Who script editor!
CD: What do you think is the relationship between the writers of Dr Who and scientific discovery? Do you think this has changed over the years?
PP: The old, ‘classic’ series of Doctor Who certainly took its science a lot more seriously – which was probably the correct approach for that era.
I think Russell T Davies was right to bring more human drama elements to the new series - and I think that has been one of the key factors in its success. But I still question whether this has to be at the entire expense of the more traditional science fiction elements – the science content of the show. I get the impression Russell T believes quite strongly that it does and he’s endeavoured to tone down what he calls the 'pseudoscience and technobabble'. Personally I think the science elements and the human drama can co-exist - at least for the show as it is now.
It would be interesting to see how the old Tom Baker era episodes would have fared with more human interest and less science in their plots. I'm tempted to think it wouldn't have worked as well. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think this would have detracted from that era's appeal. So maybe this is a sign of the changing times. TV viewers these days want different things.
That said, there have been a few instances of writers of the new series taking science concepts and using them as the basis for some very clever scripts – for example, Steven Moffat’s episodes Blink and The Empty Child, which used ideas from quantum theory and nanotechnology, respectively. But I think in general the series now is less likely than it was in the past to take its lead from what’s going on in real scientific research.
CD: Which Dr Who did you like the best? Which monster?
PP: Tom Baker is absolutely the best Doctor of all time! Though closely followed by Christopher Eccleston… Best monster is a tough one. Though, as I mentioned to earlier, Steven Moffat has come out with some brilliant creations… For example, the Weeping Angels in the episode Blink, in the third season of the relaunched series, are wonderful. They are described in the show as being ‘quantum locked’ which means they can only move when they’re not being observed. This is an idea from quantum mechanics which says that most of the time quantum particles exist as waves, which give the particle an indeterminate position until they’re actually observed, at which point they’re position in space becomes fixed again. Similarly, the Angels can only move when they’re not being watched and otherwise stand rigid like stone statues. There are some great scenes in Blink with flickering light bulbs creating short snatches of dark when the Angels can move, punctuated moments of light when they can’t, creating this kind of strobe-light effect as they close in on their victim. Very scary! Thank heavens for big sofas to get behind.
CD: Have you got a favourite Dr Who episode or story line?
PP: I think it would have to be Logopolis. This was Tom Baker’s regeneration adventure. It sticks in my mind because, for me at least, this was the end of the golden age of Doctor Who. Tom Baker was the longest serving Doctor – he was in the role for seven years – and I think his performance was the best of all the actors that have played him so far. And this whole kind of theme of ‘the end of things’ rings through the entire the adventure. But at the same time it’s done in the Doctor’s inimitable style. For example, at one point he laments the ‘second law of thermodynamics’ which is basically a law of physics which says that in the long run all things must eventually decay away to nothing and disappear. So it’s a bit bleak, but in a very Doctor Who way. I cried myself to sleep!
CD: Is there anything you would like to see Dr Who tackle? Or anywhere you would like to see him go?
PP: Climate change, the credit crunch – we could really do with a Doctor to save us all right now! The Doctor spends his time saving the world from alien invaders. But what about the threat that human beings pose to themselves? Right from the early days of William Hartnell there’s been a tradition of the Doctor going back and visiting key events from history. So, he was there at the OK Corrall, he was there to see Vesuvius erupt over Pompei and his ill-fated assistant Adric crashed a space freighter into Earth 65 million years, wiping out a race of creatures on Earth that we call the dinosaurs. It’d be interesting to see some of the ignominious chapters of human history explored in a little more detail. Where was the Doctor on Sept 11, 2001? The darkest hours of World War 2? What does he make of the atrocities committed by human beings – the creatures that we’re led to believe are his favourite species in the universe – upon each other?