Seven science lessons from Doctor Who

Doctor Who’s fictional world isn’t girdled with the basic scientific principles that govern our world. But that doesn’t mean that Doctor Who’s science is total fiction – in fact, most of the extreme science in the show is based on very real, and often very cool, scientific precepts. Here are just a few of them.

6. It’s possible to hide in plain sight

Hou did Houdini do it? The magic is often right in plain sight.

We can’t trust our memories, and we can’t always trust our senses, either. The Tardis, the Doctor's multipurpose time machine, generates what is known as a perception filter, so people passing by simply assimilate it into their surroundings without worrying about it. In one episode, a perception filter cloaks a house’s entire second floor; in another, it hides the room in which an escaped mass murder (and an alien one, at that) has hidden for about a decade.

But what the show is calling a perception filter is just an extreme version of one of our biggest cognitive problems: We can’t notice everything. Magic tricks are infamous for taking advantage of that human weakness. Most illusionist magic works by misdirection, steering our attention away from the less-than-magical mechanics supporting the trick.

For example, pickpocket magician Apollo Robbins swipes a participant’s possessions – hat, glasses, wallet – just by engaging them in a conversation that keeps their attention away from his pilfering hands. As he told the New Yorker, “It’s all about the choreography of people’s attention. Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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