The Science of Doctor Who: s01e01, “Rose”

In 2005, Russell T. Davies brought Doctor Who back to television screens, and he did a wonderful job. The show’s ratings reached unprecedented heights, and our favorite Time Lord gained fans he’d never have been able to reach in the old days. Whovians never had it so good.

But one thing hadn’t changed in the years since the old show went off the air. Back then, most of the science in this classic work of British science fiction came from the magazine articles and the uncommon TV special on new discoveries in astrophysics. And that was okay, really. But this is the 21st century: there are science cable channels, science blogs, science celebrities, and the fairly accurate and up-to-date Wikipedia. Anyone writing for TV should be able to get at least the freshman science right, if only to give it lip service before violating it.

So here, I’m going to look at the science of individual episodes of the new Doctor Who. I’ll not spend a great deal of time on character or plot concepts in an episode unless, you know, I feel like it. And I may not worry too much about core concepts of the show like the TARDIS: like warp drive in Star Trek, if it’s BS, it’s BS upon which the series is built, so it gets a pass. And just because some science may be dubious doesn’t mean it’s a bad episode… unless the plot depends on the science in question…

So, “Rose”. The main science-fictional concept here is that a giant plastic alien brain is animating shop-window mannequins to terrorize the shopping malls of London. The episode doesn’t make this clear, but the Nestene Intelligence has been to Earth twice before in older episodes. In those attempts, it uses a ‘realistic’ puppet (like Mickey this time) to take over a plastics factory (Auto Plastics the first time), which it uses to make the dummies and ship them around the city; we have no reason to assume the M.O. is different this time.

This explains how a mannequin would have a gun hidden in its hand: the Autons have them built in when they are made in the factory. But the dummies seem to be otherwise just like ones used today, perhaps with different plastics that make them easier to animate. Based on the antics of the loose arm in “Rose”, we gather that the dummies don’t need any other sort of special organs – brain, individual muscles, consumption/storage – to do their jobs.

This suggests that the main Nestene consciousness is doing all the work remotely, controlling them telepathically and physically moving them with transmitted telekinetic force, like a child playing with hundreds of action figures at once. This fits in perfectly with the episode’s plot: the Nestene needed an amplifier array to blanket the city, and once it was defeated, the entire army collapsed like abandoned fashion dolls. Plastic’s a good choice, by the way, for animated puppets. Since plastic is composed of long chains of molecules, called polymers, one can imagine the chains coiling and relaxing like animal muscle to move the puppet around.

Telekinesis is a great science-fiction tool: since we have no evidence of anything like it existing in reality, a writer can have it function however convenient. We can use the laws of physics and biology to say a few things about telekinesis and telepathy: no one has yet suggested a method for such forces to be generated and received that has held up to experiment. Also, animals do not evolve the ability to generate directed radiation in the forms we do understand, since it’s always more energy-efficient to do your work in other ways: for example, communication by sound waves, or by color and motion, takes far far less energy than producing radio waves. There isn’t an organism on Earth that doesn’t have a limited energy budget. On the other hand, an advanced organism may find a way to add those abilities artificially to itself, so we’ll let the Nestenes have that one.

Finally, I do want to touch on a new attribute of the TARDIS: the outside doors. In the past, it was often implied that the TARDIS had inner and outer doors, with a mysterious discontinuity between them – mainly due to limitations on television effects technology. And the interior doors were generally portrayed as comfortingly massive. Now, the TARDIS appears to have a simple set of flimsy wooden doors between the console room and the universe, which would concern me quite a lot as a traveler. I think we must assume, based on the Doctor’s assurance that they’d resist “the hordes of Genghis Khan”, that either those doors are far more solid than they look, or that there’s plenty of super-science reinforcing and protecting them – or both. It’s fun to now be able to look into and out of the TARDIS whenever we want, so that’s good enough.

Next time: blah blah blah… and I feel fine.

Evil wares

I had plans for last night. Not especially ambitious ones, but I knew how I wanted to spend the evening. Unfortunately, it turns out that Starr’s computer picked up a couple of viruses from somewhere, causing WoW to crash on launch as well as blocking most malware removal sites and large swaths of I spent about three hours fighting them, getting one virus off the machine and restoring her WoW function, but the “Backdoor” trojan is resisting all attempts to remove it. Grrr.

Slept pretty good last night, but traffic was heck this morning. We had a little light rain, which apparently caused everyone to panic, so I got in a little late. I have no desire to be grumpy all day, though, so I’m looking for some music to cheer me up a bit.

Along those lines, I enjoyed MarsCon’s Friday night performance by The Cassettes, so I picked up their latest album – on cassette, of course – which included a card for free digital download. No DRM, either. It’s pretty good stuff, and any band that includes a home-made theremin is worth some attention.

I just needed to look up a high voltage traveling arc for another reference. For some reason, this in itself has cheered me up a bit.

Azerothian Geographic Society

It takes a certain kind of person to play World of Warcraft, yes. It takes another kind to try and figure out the geographical details of the place.

Azeroth’s “Google Map” has been assembled at For most of the game, players have explored two continents on that fantasy world (though at least one more is known to exist), but the actual map scale has never been revealed. Some time ago, I figured that one could record the time it takes to walk between two points on the map, and multiply that by the average walking speed of a hero laden with equipment, and come up with a fair estimate of the scale.

I’m far too lazy to do that, of course, but someone else wasn’t, and neither was another person. Turns out that the “continent” of Kalimdor is about 4 miles wide… or around 41 square miles in size. For my Virginian friends, this is vaguely the size of the combined cities of Blacksburg and Christiansburg.

In a related note, this destroys a hypothesis I had made before about the shape of the world of Azeroth. The “world map” seen in the Burning Crusade game expansion must be considered an artistic rather than a faithful representation; and I argued that Azeroth was clearly flat, because there is no difference in the position of shadows between the northernmost and southernmost points of the continent at the same time of day and season. (The Greek Eratosthenes used the shadow trick to figure out the Earth’s size in the 3rd century B.C.)

Unfortunately, if Kalimdor is around 10 miles long, then that’s not enough distance for the shadow trick, and the question remains unresolved. Oh, well. Perhaps the Gnomes can develop a space vehicle and get some photographic evidence (there is indeed photography in WoW).

Fantastic Settings

The other day Starr picked up a book for me, one that I’ve been meaning to read for years: Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle In the Dark. I’m enjoying it, but he’s preaching to the choir, and I’ve not yet gained any new insights from the book. On the other hand, I also finally have a copy of tltrent‘s In the Serpent’s Coils waiting in line, and I’m looking forward to reading that one. In my opinion, “Young Adult” fantasy and science fiction is where much of the good stuff is happening right now. Say what you want about Harry Potter, but Sorcerer’s Stone was a better read than many of the transcribed D&D adventures that pass for fantasy novels these days.

Speaking of transcribed D&D, Gary Gygax’s recent death caused me to drag out some of the old adventures I’d saved since the mists of First Edition, with an eye to running them again. In particular, I’m looking at the old S-series: “Tomb of Horrors”, “White Plume Mountain”, and “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” (a particular favorite).

Now, I know these were convention tournament modules, but I was struck by the lack of role-playing, or even much of a plot besides “collect loot and survive to the end”. The adventures are full of unfair puzzles, insta-deaths, and places where the GM will have to do some blatant railroading if the party’s not going to wipe (no running back from the graveyard to rez!)

If I were to run them now, and the basic concepts are juicy enough to make the idea interesting, I’d have to do some major re-writing for my audience. I’d want map revisions, monster changes, and some serious story integration. It wouldn’t be a trivial task, even discounting the problem that the adventures were designed for experienced First Edition AD&D characters. What game system do I want to use – a D&D version, Earthdawn, Herc & Xena, an alternate-universe Shadowrun? (And in most of those cases, which edition?)

Yeah. This is kinda turning into a campaign, which is too bad; I’m not sure I can spare the time right now, fun as it sounds. The urge to run “Barrier Peaks” near Roswell using the Deadlands setting may have to wait.

Addendum: The sentence “the chest contains 10,000 gold pieces” was obviously written by someone who had never counted out 10,000 quarters, say, and then tried to carry them around for any length of time.

Reverse Engineering the Future

First day in two weeks I’ve felt halfway decent. My sleep was restful, the little headache pulses are gone, and I even had the initiative to get back to walking today. (Only 2/3 of a mile, because it got cold out, and I didn’t bring a jacket this morning.)

Tonight I will be catching up on housework and bills, and of course giving my Mom a call to see how she’s doing.

Was thinking more about the high-tech Captain Nemo today. If you dropped today’s MacBook Pro in his workroom, I suspect that he’d figure out how to turn it on, and even use some of the software if there wasn’t a login password. I expect he’d work out what the battery was, and might even be able to recharge it using the technology of his time. I’m sure he could work out the basic concept of the motherboard, and I’ll even grant that he could reverse-engineer the simpler peripheral protocols with enough brute force, time, and care.

I’m fairly confident, though, that the LCD screen, integrated circuits, memory, and hard disk would be completely beyond him. At his technology level, any of them would have to be ripped apart and destroyed to achieve even a basic understanding of the principles involved. A magnetic storage medium might be within his imagination, but the ability to build another one just wouldn’t exist yet.

(A few of the TNG and DS9 episodes annoyed me in this fashion, showing the heroes taking apart communicators and tricorders with utterly primitive tools. I’m convinced that one couldn’t even crack the cases with less than highly specialized tools, and if one did, the contents would be largely integrated into a few non-user-serviceable bits. But that’s just me.)

Perhaps Nemo could accomplish much with “black box” parts delivered by a mysterious supplier, much as the scientist-heroes of This Island Earth did. But could our justly-paranoid sea captain trust the source?

130 Leagues Over the Asphalt

T – I – R – E – D.

Went back to Roanoke on Saturday. My mom’s doing great: she can move both her leg and arm now, and on Sunday took a few steps (with a great deal of support). I’m told this is still Gold Medal performance, and my optimism was repeatedly fed this weekend. nanoreid was there for a bit, and I got to say hi to Ginny and Ian as well. Starr bought my mother a knitting loom which can be fastened to a solid surface, and now my mom can indulge her addiction one-handed for the duration!

Roanoke felt a little odd, there are buildings and shops which weren’t there last time I passed through – a bit like hearing an old song on the radio and finding an entirely new chorus after the second stanza. I took a hotel room there Saturday night to save us the drive to and from shrewlet‘s offered crash space in Blacksburg, but while the room was huge, the bed was hard as a plank, and we slept poorly for folks who would be driving 204 miles home. Route 460 was a beautiful, tranquil drive, though. I’m sold on that road for now.

Yesterday we woke too early, and headed over to spend lunch with Starr’s mom, then the afternoon at Amy’s with the gamer group. Her mom was going to gas grill the food, but after the gas loop rusted away at a touch, we went with good old charcoal, and lunch was yummy. I now know where Starr gets her habit of cooking a regiment’s food for a few people, and felt guilty leaving before I could consume a second hamburger.

While the afternoon was sold as a combination grilling / gaming event, I’m not sure anyone was really into the gaming, and after a few hours of excellent chatting and cattching up, we left to get me some badly needed quiet time. I developed yesterday something that feels much like my old migraine headaches, something which comes in short, searing pulses then goes away for a half-hour or so. (One of the first things Starr did when hearing about that was to check me for stroke indicators – of which I seem to have none.)

In geek news, the Mars Phoenix robot probe has a Twitter account. Andy Ihnatko referred to the account as cosplay for rocket scientists, but I’m enjoying keeping up with what the probe’s doing (or at least what it was doing 15 minutes ago – speed-of-light lag, y’know). Some quick Googling finds images taken by the Mars Recon Orbiter of Phoenix on the way down (Phoenix Down?) which means that we Earthlings not only managed to hit a target scores of millions of miles away, we got a picture of it from another camera that had previously done so under our instruction. [T]hese are the things that hydrogen atoms do when given 13.7 billion years. – Carl Sagan

So, yeah. Probably another early bedtime tonight, which is a shame because I wanted to get some WoW levelling in. With luck, the rest of the week will go a little easier on me!

Brief updates

  • 10:48 Reading BadAstronomer’s live tweets of the launch of the space shuttle this morning. I love this Internets thing. #
  • 10:50 Hating the fact that, due to the early EDT changeover, I’m getting up in the dark again 🙁 #

Sent subspace radio by LoudTwitter

Ex Libris

Now that I have cleared out some books, and indeed started another stack to go, I feel less guilty about picking up a few more.

Reading right now:
Storm Front, by Jim Butcher
A little something madwriter suggested to me

Wanting to pick up ASAP:
In the Serpent’s Coils, by Tiffany Trent
Benighted, by Kit Whitfield
Wizards at War, by Diane Duane
The Sagan Diary, by John Scalzi
The Empty Chair, by Diane Duane

I’ve had books 2 and 3 of Butcher’s Dresden Files for over a year. Now that I have book 1, I feel I can finally start reading through, though after all these years I’ve finally learned to break up reading a series with other books by other authors. Having met Tiffany two Technicons ago, I figure it’s high time to read Coils; and cjmr knows why I’m planning to read Benighted. With A Wizard of Mars coming out, I need to catch up on my Young Wizards; and I can finally wrap up the story of my favorite literary Romulan Commander with Empty Chair (out for over a year, and I somehow never noticed).

I’ll save comments on madwriter‘s offering for some other entry sometime 🙂

More thoughts: I’m not sure I’ve bought many new books over the last year. Most of these have been on the shelves for a while. I think I needed to convince myself that it was okay to spend the money again, as long as I don’t let my living space collapse under the accumulated weight. Also, I’m pleased about how many of these authors I’ve gotten to speak to, even briefly and electronically. I love the 21st century. Lastly, I’m depressed by the difficulty of finding a science book section in B.Dalton’s or Waldenbooks. It’s not like I can’t get the individual books I’m interested in from Amazon or have Jesse down here order them for me, but I wish I lived in a country that wanted to read about science.

More Illumination

Really, I can’t bear to watch this “UFO Files” program for another second.

Yes, I do indeed love the idea of flying saucers and extraterrestrial visitors, for the same reason I dig Atlantis and telekinesis; because it would be cool. But can I please have more than second-hand stories and photographs of indistinct blobs? Could I please please have some indisputable proof, something that could be used to convince almost anyone?

Sagan said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and I’m not going to argue with the man. I’m not here to debunk anyone. I want to hear the story that shakes the world. But it’s going to take more than “I knew someone who had a friend who worked with a guy who swears he saw stuff in a government document of some kind.”

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