Non-Fiction Reviews

The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who

(2015) Simon Guerrier & Marek Kukula, BBC Books, £16.99, hrdbk, 408pp, ISBN 978-1-849-90938-9


This is both a fiction anthology of short stories interspersed with a popular science book for those with an embryonic interest, at early school level, in science. This kind of makes the book seem both a bit of a mishmash as well run of the mill but actually it is rather engaging and a neat package that is likely to appeal to readers of many ages from teenagers upwards.

The appeal has to be down to the way this book has been assembled (more of which later) as much as it has as to the brief that must have been given to the short stories' authors and the interspersed science chapters. The short stories are in fact short shorts which makes it difficult for any of them to last long enough to become boring (though I confess a couple did but that could just be me). Each story has a different set up be it the Troughton Doctor trapped with his companion in a multiverse corridor with doors to different universes, or the Ecclestone Doctor on a space ship whose hull seems to have acquired slowly spreading barnacles, or the Hartnell Doctor in a forest world… Meanwhile, in between these short shorts the science chapters are cosy chats about science using the preceding story as an initial springboard. And so, following the multiverse corridor story, there is an exploration of the multiverse concept versus a singular Universe covering things like Hugh Everett III's theory, quantum physics, string theory and the wave-particle duality of light. Overall there is a slight science bias to astronomy and physics, which perhaps is not that surprising as Dr Who is a show about a chap who bounces about the space-time continuum; on the other hand given the programme regularly features monsters, there might have been a little more biology, but pity the chemists as their discipline does not get much of an appearance. Nonetheless some considerable ground is covered starting off with quite a good explanation as to what is science.

Now, while this is book is not strictly a 'science-of-Doctor-Who' book (it doesn't explain this is how a sonic screwdriver might work) it does provide casual, but accurate, explanations of some of what you might call the science tropes that are regularly used in the plots of episodes. Nor does it set out to explain how the show's creators brought science into Dr Who other than that does crop up on an occasional incidental basis: for example, the failure of the British Mars lander Beagle 2 on Christmas 2003 inspired the loss of Guinevere One in the episode 'The Christmas Invasion' (2005). Nor does it catalogue how the show's SF predicted science fact though, again, this does crop up from time to time. Terry Nation's 'Planet of the Daleks' (1973) sees the Daleks smothered by an erupting ice volcano, while a decade later in August 1982 Voyager 2 flew past Neptune's moon Triton with its ice volcanoes. Instead we get, as said, cosy chats about aspects of science and along the way we get to see how this science relates to the science in the show. One way this is done is through the use of brief block quotes of lines from the series, and this works well: I greatly enjoyed these.

Down points? Actually very few. The book might have taken a critical look at some of the sloppy science treatments the show's writers have occasionally committed, but to be fair these are rare, and had the book gone down that route it might have ended up being quite hard on the 2014 season whose crappy science was in no small part responsible for sparking an on-line blog debate, and it never does writers any good to unduly bite the hand that feeds. Having said that, a few of the show's anachronisms are mentioned. The only other thing that just mildly irritated was the use of nonsense equations as art graphics at the start of each chapter and by the block quote lines from the show. I really do think that BBC Books missed a trick (perhaps their graphic artist flunked science at school?). Let's be clear. The nearly all of the UK population under 50 years and older that 16 have passed GCSE-level school science that is usually taken aged 15 or 16. Indeed roughly a million UK school pupils take a GSCE-level science each year. For goodness sake BBC Books, how hard is it to include real science equations that the majority of the population would recognise? Or doesn't the nation's science literacy extend to publication houses and those generally working in the media sector? Those readers who do not know much (or any) science will still get as much enjoyment of seeing a genuine science equation or graphic as a nonsense graphic, but a genuine equation or graphic will spark a smile of recognition from those who are science literate at a basic school level.

Leaving aside the above, which is hardly the authors' fault, what we end up with in The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who is a book that fans of the show who enjoy the science in science fiction will hugely get off on. Indeed, younger viewers of the show might even find the small embers of their own embryonic science interest fanned and if that furthers an appreciation of science, or even for youngsters to take more interest in school science, then that really is fantastic. Science is a powerful analytical tool for looking at the world (and Universe) and we badly need more scientists and engineers for our knowledge based, intellectually driven, technology facilitated, 21st century economy. If books such as this can help, then so much the better. In short, if there is a young Dr Who fan in your family or close circle of friends, then you really might want to consider getting this for their birthday or Christmas (and then you can read it first before passing it on…).

Jonathan Cowie

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