The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who: Interview with co author Simon Guerrier

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Doctor Who supremo and friend of the site (he’s been previously interviewed here about his career in general and here about the Guerrier Brother’s fantastic film Cleaning Up, which can be bought from the Big Finish website) Simon Guerrier has recently co-authored, with Dr. Marek Kukula a great book on the science behind Doctor Who. Entitled The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who the book was published earlier this month and can be bought from all good bookstores.

Hello Simon, thank you very much for agreeing to the interview. Firstly, I’d like to ask where the idea for doing a book exploring the science of Doctor Who came from and how you first became involved?

Hello Will. The idea has been kicking around in various forms for a few years. I originally pitched a sort of TARDIS manual which would mix fiction (e.g. which buttons to press to make the TARDIS dematerialise) with facts about space and time. But that never quite worked, and then creative consultant at BBC Books Justin Richards rang me last summer asking for something more along the lines of the best-selling Who-Ology. So that’s where it started, and we knocked ideas back and forth before settling on the book as it is. Albert DePetrillo – the big cheese at BBC Books – got me to read the very good Science of Discworld Books at one stage, which was a very useful steer.

The book combines original fiction with detailed chapters on the science behind the show. This helps set the book apart from other such books about the science of Doctor Who. How do you think that the stories help explain the scientific parts of the book?

I don’t think the stories explain the science so much as set the context of what we’re going to talk about. They ensure the book isn’t too dry and serious, and – I hope – they’ll hopefully draw in readers who wouldn’t normally read a book about science. I specifically told the authors not to worry about getting the science right or explaining the scientific concept I’d given them – just to use it in an interesting, engaging way. I’m really pleased with how they responded to that. (Though my co-author Marek did read all the stories to ensure there were no especially glaring scientific errors.)

How do you think science affects what Doctor Who can and can’t do?

I think there are two things. First, real science can inspire stories and clever things the Doctor might discover or do. At various times over the years, there have been people making the show who want to exploit that – you can see that Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis in the 1960s, Douglas Adams in the late 1970s and Christopher H Bidmead immediately after him were all keen to exploit the latest scientific ideas. But other production teams haven’t worried so much about using real science or getting the science right – and that doesn’t necessarily mean that their stories are less effective.

So, secondly, I think science provides an attitude to discovery which is at the heart of Doctor Who. The Doctor doesn’t take things for granted or accept a “common sense” view of the universe. He asks awkward questions about what’s going on and how it’s happening and why. That lands him in trouble but he ultimately puzzles out the truth, which is usually something surprising and weird. As we show in the book, the history of science is a lot like that, too.

What is your favourite scientific fact that you discovered while researching the book?

Oh, I learnt loads. There’s all the stuff about how our memory works and the experiments conducted by American neurologist David Eagleman to work out if stress slows down our sense of the passing of time. How did he test that? He got people to jump off tall buildings! But my favourite fact is realising that Apollo 11 landed the first people on the Moon less than a month after the broadcast of The War Games episode 10 – when the Doctor was exiled to Earth – and the last Apollo mission left the Moon 16 days before the broadcast of episode one, The Three Doctors, the story that ended the Doctor’s exile. So, by weird coincidence, the Doctor was stranded on Earth for almost exactly the same period that humanity wasn’t.

Has your attitude towards science changed since writing the book?

I think the book is a symptom of my changing attitude. Having done my best to ignore science at school and drop it as a subject as soon as possible, in the past few years science has crept into things I’ve been writing, and I’ve found myself more and more caught up in it. I’d like to study more maths and physics, if only I can sort out time from my other commitments.

Why do you think it is difficult now to describe Doctor Who as either Science Fiction or Science Fantasy and which do you think is more applicable?

Hmmm… The trouble with that question is that it all comes down to definitions of science fiction. There are those who think that anything with robots and spaceships is obviously sci-fi – and they usually use the term disparagingly. Then there are those – usually fans of science fiction – who think the term should only be applied to works that apply a certain rigour to the science they contain. I don’t really mind – I like Doctor Who as much for it being imaginative and scary and silly. And sometimes what seems like a big, silly idea turns out to be true. The obvious example is in Planet of the Daleks (1973), where there’s a planet with volcanoes only these are volcanoes of ice. At the time the story was made, that was a ridiculous, science fantasy idea. But in 1989, Voyager 2 detected ice volcanoes on Triton, a moon of Neptune. We now know several moons in the Solar System have cryovulcanism (to use the scientific term). Does that discovery mean Planet of the Daleks was science fantasy when it was made but should now be considered science fiction? Does it make the story any better either way? Does it matter? I don’t think the categories help us.

Do you think science has learnt a lot from Doctor Who?

I know a good few scientists – including my co-author Marek – who became scientists as a result of watching Doctor Who. But I think you’re asking if any Doctor Who stories have gone on to inspire particular scientific theories – as did the horror movie, Dead of Night (1945), inspiring astronomer, Fred Hoyle to come up with the steady state theory of the universe. I don’t think Doctor Who has done that, at least not yet. Perhaps people could let me know if I’m wrong.

Finally, is there anything that you found out about the science of Doctor Who that you weren’t able to include in the book that was still fascinating?

Oh, lots of things. My original pitch has a whole chapter on dinosaurs which ended up being left out. I failed to find a way to include the “golden age” of Arabic science – the bridge between the ancient Greeks and the Renaissance – because I couldn’t think of how to match it to TV Doctor Who stories. And I wish I’d got in somewhere that the word “scientist” originally meant women. It was first used in 1834 to describe mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville – one of the first two women admitted to the Royal Society. Before then, there were “men of science”. So she was the world’s first scientist.

With thanks to Simon Guerrier. The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who can be bought from Amazon here.

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