The Science of Doctor Who by Paul Parsons

From the front flap:
Almost fifty years after the Doctor first crossed the small screen, he remains a science fiction touchstone. His exploits are thrilling, his world is mind-boggling, and that time travel machine—known as the Tardis—is almost certainly an old-fashioned blue police box, once commonly found in London.

Paul Parsons’s plain-English account of the real science behind the fantastic universe portrayed in the television series answers such burning questions as whether a sonic screwdriver is any use for putting up a shelf, how Cybermen make little Cybermen, where the toilets are in the Tardis, and much more.

(Note: This is the 2010 revision of a book originally published in 2006.)

I am not a science person. In my years of schooling, I never once came up with a non-lame idea for a science project and was positively abysmal at experiments. I did pretty well on tests and homework, but if someone’s test tube was going to spontaneously erupt in a geyser of brown froth (true story!), it would be mine.

Suffice it to say, then, that while I enjoy science fiction entertainment, it’s not because of the science. Still, The Science of Doctor Who promises “a plain-English account of the real science behind the fantastic universe portrayed in the television series,” so I reckoned on being able to follow it. Alas, Paul Parsons’s definition of plain English is a bit different than mine.

I was okay with the majority of the material. Chapter topics include the Doctor’s recurring foes, regeneration, gadgets, weapons, space stations, force fields, parallel universes, and more. In general, Parsons would start by mentioning something that happened in a particular Doctor Who serial and then interview renowned scientists as to whether this is actually possible. Most of the time the answer is “no” or “only with extreme amounts of energy/effort,” but there are a few things that are not so far off. The chapters on alien worlds (Lots of planets really do have a north!) and mirror planets were particular favorites of mine.

Stupidly, however, I hadn’t counted on there being so much physics! I frequently found my eyes glazing over during these sections, which were unfortunately clustered near the beginning (making it hard to get started) and end (causing a strong urge to set the book down with only forty pages to go) of the book.

Take, for example, this quote from page 35:

M-theory’s main thrust is to generalize the one-dimensional objects of string theory into p-dimensional objects known, amusingly enough, as p-branes (where setting p = 0 gives a particle, p = 1 gives a string, p = 2 a “membrane,” and so on).

My brain’s response: asdlkjasldkfzzt!

Seriously, is that plain English? I note that Parsons did not bother to define “p-dimensional,” though that probably wouldn’t have been much help to me anyway.

In the end, I did learn some interesting things. In the chapter on Cybermen, for example, I learned that a cybernetic brain implant currently exists that can block the signals that cause Parkinson’s disease. That’s pretty awesome! I also now know that Sontarans reproduce by cloning and it takes only ten minutes for their offspring to reach adulthood. That’s less awesome.

I’m glad I didn’t give up on reading The Science of Doctor Who but now I think I’ll give my brain a rest by actually watching some.

Additional reviews of The Science of Doctor Who can be found at Triple Take.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson: B

From the back cover:
In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.

Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners, scientific advances dazzled the public, and the rich outdid one another with ostentatious displays of wealth. Against this background, Marconi races against incredible odds and relentless skepticism to perfect his invention: the wireless, a prime catalyst for the emergence of the world we know today. Meanwhile, Crippen, “the kindest of men,” nearly commits the perfect crime.

Gripping from the first word and rich with fascinating detail about the time, the people, and the new inventions that connect and divide us, Thunderstruck is splendid narrative history from a master of the form.

As in The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck offers parallel tales of highest achievement and foulest crime. The book begins by showing how the invention of wireless telegraphy will be responsible, in 1910, for the capture of wanted murderer Harvey Crippen who has fled England on a ship bound for Canada. This gives the reader a nice hook to be reading towards as the narrative then cycles back a dozen years or so to show how things all began.

While it’s interesting to follow the progress of wireless telegraphy and the deterioration of Crippen’s marriage, I felt that sometimes the author was a little too proud of including random details his research had unearthed. One particular instance that sticks in my mind is a description of the childhood home of Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless, down to the kind of plants that grew in the tubs that flanked the front door of the residence. He does, however, do a very good job describing the flawed personalities of those involved, particularly Marconi and his seeming inability to understand how his actions might hurt or impact others.

While the history is a little slow going at times—I never really understood the technical and scientific issues—by virtue of its construction, it gets more exciting as it goes along. In fact, I’d venture to say that the final chapters, featuring a Scotland Yard detective who hops a fast steamer in an attempt to intercept Crippen’s vessel before he can reach Canada and the world’s breathless anticipation of the results, are positively riveting.

Too, I liked the epilogue that mentioned what the central players ended up doing with their lives after these exciting events. It’s unfortunate that the whole book ends with an irritatingly unanswered question, though. I’m not sure why the author thought that necessary or desirable.

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.: B+

From the back cover:
On the morning of December 10, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard-trained brain scientist, experienced a massive stroke when a blood vessel exploded in the left side of her brain. A neuroanatomist by profession, she observed her own mind completely deteriorate to the point that she could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life, all within the space of four brief hours. As the damaged left side of her brain—the rational, grounded, detail- and time-oriented side—swung in and out of function, Taylor alternated between two distinct and opposite realities: the euphoric nirvana of the intuitive and kinesthetic right brain, in which she felt a sense of complete well-being and peace, and the logical, sequential left brain, which recognized Jill was having a a stroke and enabled her to seek help before she was lost completely.

A fascinating journey into the mechanics of the human mind, My Stroke of Insight is both a valuable recovery guide for anyone touched by a brain injury and an emotionally stirring testimony that deep internal peace truly is accessible to anyone at any time.

My Stroke of Insight can be divided into three main topics, each of which prompted different reactions from me.

It begins by focusing on the science of the brain—how it works, what the hemispheres do, the types of stroke. Although this section proved to be essential later on, I found it pretty difficiult to slog through initially. I think my own brain has pretty much rejected the idea of learning facts and terms by lecture now that I am so many years out of school.

I felt I learned much more in the section where Dr. Taylor recounts her own personal story, which is the second main topic of the book. She recreates the morning of the stroke in vivid detail and it’s quite fascinating. Additionally, she chronicles the steps of her recovery and informs readers of things they should and should not do when caring for someone recovering from stroke.

* Be calm. Tone of voice and body language can still be interpreted by someone whose left brain is damaged, even if the words themselves aren’t understood.
* Make eye contact.
* Be patient. This person is not deaf nor stupid; they’re wounded.
* Be optimistic. Your faith in this person’s ability to recover will help them to believe it, too.
* Correct the person if they make a mistake.

* Evince trepidation at approaching this person.
* Become exasperated when repetition of tasks is necessary.
* Finish sentences or prompt when this person hesitates to search their brain for the right word. If their brain is to heal, it must be challenged and reforge new connections to the information hidden within.
* Ask simple yes/no questions. Providing a variety of options instead will force the brain to attempt to identify the potential choices.

My only real complaint about this middle section is that it is often repetitive, dwelling beyond the point of necessity on the differences between the brain hemispheres and how she lost the sense of her body’s physical boundaries and felt “at one with the universe.”

The last section is kind of like a self-help book, again talking about the differences between the hemispheres and how one may choose to overcome negativity and find the “deep inner peace” afforded by the right hemisphere. Sometimes, this section recommends actions I deem silly, like when Dr. Taylor talks about her nightly ritual for verbally congratulating her cells for doing their job (“You go, girls!”) or advises readers to meditate with the mantra “I am an innocent and peaceful child of the universe,” but she does actually have some interesting ideas about diverting one’s brain’s attention when it threatens to get caught in an unwanted loop of stress or worry.

Ultimately, the most useful and interesting section of the book is the story of the stroke and the recovery. Not only can it help readers distinguish what’s happening if they find themselves experiencing similar symptoms, but it’s an excellent resource for the caregiver of a stroke victim who wishes to provide their loved one with the best support possible.