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Doctor Who and the Silver Spiral

Update 10th Feb: The Darker Projects team have produced a rather excellent audio drama version of Silver Spiral that you can download here.
Read the preamble (why this story exists), and the aftermath.

Far across the universe, something big was about to happen. The explosion would outshine an entire galaxy and be visible billions of kilometres away. Its light would travel across the universe for millions of years but, aside from a few astronomers, it would go unnoticed on the Earth.

With a grating, wheezing noise, a small blue box flickered into existence.

NGC1058 - a spiral galaxy in Perseus and the host of SN 2007gr CREDIT: Bob Ferguson and Richard Desruisseau/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

"So, where are we?"
"Have a look..." the Doctor replied, tapping a control, "but... don't step outside."
The door of the TARDIS clicked open, and Martha gave him a quizzical look. "Why, what's out there?"
"Take a look" he said, a lopsided grin on his face.
Gingerly, she pulled open the door of the police box and looked out.
"Oh my God," exclaimed Martha. "Is that real?" She was looking out at a vast star-scape, hundreds of stars embedded in swirling clouds of gas, stretching out as far as she could see.
"What? Of course it's real!" he laughed, looking out over her shoulder.
"It's amazing! Where are we?"
"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." he quoted thoughtfully.
"Sorry. We're in a galaxy the local species call the 'Silver Spiral'. From Earth, it's a tiny, faint speck in the sky, somewhere in the constellation of Perseus. You'd never even notice it without a telescope. These stars are part of a cluster formed just a few million years ago, out in one of the spiral arms."
"It's beautiful. But... why are we here?"
"Why not?" he said. "Have you ever seen a star explode?!"
She stared at him.

"You see that one?" he said, pointing to a large red star to one side of the cluster. "It's just one ordinary star doing what it does but, any minute now, for a tiny fraction of time, it will become brighter than this entire galaxy! The explosion will be visible in the skies of thousands of species across hundreds of galaxies. To most of them it's just another transient star, but not you humans, oh no! Scientists on your planet point as many telescopes as they can at it. They even give it a name: 2007gr."
She grimaced.
"No, not very poetic really," he admitted. "Logical though - because they discover it in 2007. You lot, all you've got to understand the universe are the photons you collect, those tiny little pathetic scraps of energy that travel on through the universe until they hit something. And yet you know so much! That's what I love about you humans, always curious, always trying to understand, study and catalogue the universe, and, even when you don't know all the facts, always blundering on..."
"You can talk!" retorted Martha.
"Yeah... gets me into trouble," he said with a grin that stretched from ear to ear, "but that's half the fun!"

"So it's a star that's actually going to explode?"
"Yep!" he paused. "Well, technically, there's a collapse first, then an explosion."
"Oh." She looked worried. "Hang on, aren't we a bit close? Shouldn't we, well, move out of the way?"
"Nah! We'll be fine."
"But it's made of wood!"
"Trust me, she's tougher than she looks."
Pressing buttons, shifting levers and twisting knobs, the Doctor danced around the console. You'd never guess he was 900 years old, she thought, he acts more like an excitable five year old half the time.

"Doctor," she asked, looking out at the star through the open door, "why does it collapse?"
"Hmm?" he said distractedly. "Oh, it runs out of fuel."
"Like an engine?"
"More like a nuclear fusion reactor. The temperature and pressure in the core of a star are so high that hydrogen nuclei fuse together forming helium, that's what creates all that heat and light that keeps Earth from freezing."
"The Sun is a giant fusion reactor?" asked Martha in disbelief.
"Oh yeah, the Sun has been fusing hydrogen for, oooo, five billion years by your time."
"Wow. So when a star runs out of hydrogen.... what, it stops?"
"Then," he said excitedly, "it starts to shrink. The temperature and pressure go up as it collapses until it's hot and dense enough that the helium nuclei start to undergo fusion."
"The helium that was made from fusing the hydrogen?"
"Right. And when it runs out of helium to fuse..."
"It shrinks and gets hotter, right?"
He nodded. "It shrinks, gets hotter, and starts fusing the helium forming carbon, nitrogen, oxygen - the stuff that makes up most of you. Just think, you're made from chemicals that were created in the heart of a star." He grinned at her again.
She looked down at her own hands curiously. "All right, say I believe you, you still haven't explained why it explodes!"
"Ah, well, eventually if a star is heavy enough, that burning process carries on through heavier and heavier elements, going faster and faster until it gets all the way to iron. Once you get to iron, you need a lot of extra energy to keep the fusion going, and there's no where for it to come from. The core starts to collapse again, but uncontrollably this time..."
"Pulled by gravity?"
He nodded again. "... until it reaches the density of nuclear matter, effectively becoming one giant atomic nucleus, but then there's nowhere for it to go but back out the way it came, and KABOOM!" he yelled, causing Martha to jump in surprise, "the material in the core rebounds and causes a shock wave which rips through the star, stopping the inward fall of material and causing an explosion."

"So does every star do that? Oh my God, is that going to happen to the Sun?"
"No," he laughed. "The Sun's not nearly heavy enough. It is quite common though, pretty much every star more than about eight times the mass of the Sun will end its life this way."
"So why is this one so special?" Martha asked, puzzled.
"Aha, wait and see!"

"Look, there, it's about to go! An explosion with the energy of ten octillion megatons of TNT, such a violent comparison..." he paused, with a curious expression on his face. "Ah! I've got it, it's the same energy released in one second as a star like your Sun releases in 30 *billion* years!" he said triumphantly.
"How long?" Martha exclaimed.
"Oh, except the Sun isn't going to last that long. It turns into a red giant in, ooo, about the year five billion. Then it expands and swallows the Earth. I should know, I was there."
Martha gaped at him.
"Oh yeah." He paused, "I met the Face of Boe that day."
"Oh my God, you're serious!"
"Always", he grinned again.

"Any moment now, wait for it.... *there!* And look, there, do you see those jets of material? They're moving at about one hundred and fifty thousand kilometres every second, that's about half the speed of light!"
Martha stared at the spectacle in front of her. Where, a moment ago, there had been a fairly ordinary-looking large red star, there was now such a bright light that it hurt to look at it. Peering down she saw a jet of material shooting away from the site of the explosion. She tried to make out what was in it, but it was just a blur.
"But," she said, turning back to the interior of the TARDIS, "isn't light the fastest thing in the universe?"
"That's right, nothing travels faster, the ultimate speed limit! You need a lot of energy to travel that fast, and there isn't enough energy even in a supernova to do that. This stuff is pretty quick though, and this is the first time astronomers on the Earth have seen an outflow like that happen."

"Hang on," said Martha. "You said astronomers on earth called this explosion 2007gr because they saw it in 2007? But light takes time to travel anywhere, and the Earth must be miles away...."
"Thirty five million light years, or thereabouts." replied the Doctor.
She looked puzzled. "And a light year is...?"
"The distance light travels in an Earth year. One light year is about, oh, nine and a half thousand billion kilometres."
"So does that mean we're way in the past? Are there dinosaurs running around on Earth right now?" Martha asked excitedly.
"Not likely, they mostly got wiped out sixty five million years before your time. That was quite a day," he muttered. "No, thirty five million years ago mammals were running around on land and there were even sharks starting to appear in the oceans." He leaned on the console and looked at Martha. "Now, there's an idea, how would you like to see prehistoric Earth?" He pushed a couple of buttons on the console, then looked up quickly, his eyes sparkling, focussed behind Martha, looking out the open doors. "I've always wanted to try this..." he said quietly.
"Try what?" asked Martha suspiciously.
"This! Here it comes, hang on to something!"

A second later, the shockwave hit. Tossed about like a leaf in a hurricane, the TARDIS bounced around, riding the shock front like an insane surfer. Martha grabbed the edge of the console and clung on for dear life. She looked across at the Doctor, but he didn't look worried. Quite the opposite in fact. He had that expression of childlike excitement and wonder on his face. "Woooo hoooooo!" he yelled. "Now that's the way to travel!"
"You," she exclaimed, "are *completely* mad!"
"Oh yes!" he grinned back as the shock passed by.

The TARDIS slowly righted itself and once more dematerialised.

The TARDIS watches a supernova explosion
The TARDIS watches a supernova explosion CREDIT: SN: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss; TARDIS: BBC; composition: Megan

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgWhat you have just read is a fictional story. Supernova 2007gr was real, however, and the event described is based on the paper "A mildly relativistic radio jet from the normal Type Ic Supernova 2007gr" by Paragi et al, published in Nature on January 28th 2010. Read the press release from JIVE. You can also hear an audio versionof the story I narrated for a laugh.

Thanks to everyone who read and commented on early drafts, especially PS and JB!

Doctor Who and the TARDIS are trademarks of the BBC.

Paragi, Z., Taylor, G., Kouveliotou, C., Granot, J., Ramirez-Ruiz, E., Bietenholz, M., van der Horst, A., Pidopryhora, Y., van Langevelde, H., Garrett, M., Szomoru, A., Argo, M., Bourke, S., & Paczyński, B. (2010). A mildly relativistic radio jet from the otherwise normal type Ic supernova 2007gr Nature, 463 (7280), 516-518 DOI: 10.1038/nature08713

Crockett, R., Maund, J., Smartt, S., Mattila, S., Pastorello, A., Smoker, J., Stephens, A., Fynbo, J., Eldridge, J., Danziger, I., & Benn, C. (2008). The Birth Place of the Type Ic Supernova 2007gr The Astrophysical Journal, 672 (2) DOI: 10.1086/527299

Soderberg, A., Chakraborti, S., Pignata, G., Chevalier, R., Chandra, P., Ray, A., Wieringa, M., Copete, A., Chaplin, V., Connaughton, V., Barthelmy, S., Bietenholz, M., Chugai, N., Stritzinger, M., Hamuy, M., Fransson, C., Fox, O., Levesque, E., Grindlay, J., Challis, P., Foley, R., Kirshner, R., Milne, P., & Torres, M. (2010). A relativistic type Ibc supernova without a detected γ-ray burst Nature, 463 (7280), 513-515 DOI: 10.1038/nature08714

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 27th Jan 2010 (18:21 UTC) | 57 Comments | Permalink

Comments: Doctor Who and the Silver Spiral

Thank you so much for this, Megan.

I loved reading it and look forward to sharing it with as many people as I can.

Posted by 'dicea on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (20:35 UTC)

GREAT work team !

and what a great Doctor Who story !!!! captures the fun of the 10th doctor's era like only a real fan could !!!! THX !!!

Posted by Dallace on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (21:31 UTC)

@'dicea, @Dallace: Hmm, puzzled why your comments appeared at the top instead of the bottom... strange. Anyway, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. :-)

@Rose: Thanks! With the light year question, I decided to write it like an early Martha story. The reason I used her character is that she does have a science background so she's curious, but she's a medic rather than a physicist, so she would ask the right questions!

Posted by Megan on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (23:27 UTC)

This is great- a few grammar errors, but it was still super-awesome. I loved the way you characterized the Doctor.

Posted by Julie on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (01:43 UTC)

Lovely idea! I fully support the popularizing of astronomy info. My only quibble is that I'm rather certain Martha would know basic facts about how the sun burns hydrogen without the Doctor explaining that to her. :( She's very smart, really.

Posted by Angel on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (08:52 UTC)

Great story and informative too, plus Martha, Thank you I realy enjoyed this.

Posted by tomtom on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (12:43 UTC)

Great work on the story, you've probably done more for putting astronomy in the public conscious than any school trying to encourage students to take up science ever could. All the best!

Posted by Ben on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (13:11 UTC)

Excellent work, really entertaining!

Posted by John on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (13:45 UTC)

Very well done - entertaining AND informative! You caught the tone of Tennant's Doctor perfectly. You might have a 2nd career in fiction waiting for you!

Posted by SeeingI on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (13:55 UTC)

Nicely done! By the way I was reading your comments on Skymania about being inspired by Logopolis to become an astronomer. Part of that story was actually shot at Jodrell Bank where I understand you made this discovery! Full circle!

Posted by Alex on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (13:59 UTC)

Related article: "Doctor Who and the Star of Doom" by Paul Sutherland: over at Skymania.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 27th Jan 2010 (19:06 UTC)

Well done, great job on capturing Tennant's persona. I think some of the critisms regarding Martha's questions are unfair. Very interesting!

Posted by Steve on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (14:26 UTC)

This is wonderful! Every science paper should be accompanied by a Doctor Who story explaining the salient facts for the benefit of the layperson. :)


Posted by John Seavey on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (14:41 UTC)

Very well written! Impressive

Posted by Seth on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (15:27 UTC)

Re: "No, thirty five million years ago mammals were running around on land and there were even sharks starting to appear in the oceans."

Sorry, but didn't sharks appear about 350 million - rather than 35 million - years ago?

Posted by Alec on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (16:27 UTC)


Posted by Scott Blais on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (16:43 UTC)

As a DW fic-er called Megan myself, I really enjoyed that! And it's brilliant that you're making this available to those who are more on Martha's plane of intelligence as opposed to the Doctor's. Or perhaps I should say: Fantastic!

Posted by TheSingingGirl on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (16:44 UTC)

Excellent way to take hard science to the masses!

Well done

Posted by Kristian on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (17:35 UTC)

I listened to your audio recording and was struck by how dead on you captured the 10th Doctor and Martha. And the science information was wonderful to learn about. Bravo!!

Posted by Mark on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (18:37 UTC)

Brilliant and extremely beautiful.

Posted by Adam on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (19:33 UTC)

That was awesome! Thanks for sharing! :)

Posted by Sophia on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (20:40 UTC)

great story!

if only Doctor Who could've been my science teacher!

Posted by vInTaGe VioLeT on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (00:03 UTC)

If my science class lectures were more like this, I probably would've gotten higher marks. This is wonderfully written, both scientifically and creatively. ˆ-ˆ

Also, love your name. XD

Posted by Megan Queen on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (21:24 UTC)

Absolutely brilliant. You've got the Doctor down to a tee, and what a fabulous way to get some real astrophysical info across. I'll be sending this link to a couple of schools.

Posted by Dan Tessier on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (22:13 UTC)

@Angel: I don't see why her being intelligent would preclude her from ignorance of that particular fact :P I am a postgrad research historian; well educated and I think quite intelligent, but when it comes to matters of science I am a total dunce :) I sort of, kind of, knew that hydrogen burning factored in there somewhere...but beyond that I really didn't know any of that stuff.

@Megan: what a brilliant little story. As good as any Short Trip I've read and very informative. I am intrigued by this sort of thing, but have a hard time not glazing over when someone tries to explain the processes at play:P This got through to me. Well done. Entertaining and educative.

Posted by Dani on Friday 29th Jan 2010 (22:40 UTC)



It's just as "Doctor Who" SHOULD be!

All the Best!

Posted by Joey Reynolds on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (05:12 UTC)

You are my favorite person on the internet right now. What a brilliant idea! The Ten and Martha voices are dead on except for the fact that they are giving more than two sentences in a row of accurate scientific information. The show loves the idea of science, but the science information seems to come from distant memories of documentaries aimed at children, not even fact-checked on wikipedia. I studied biology, and I've decided that every time DNA is mentioned on the show I will mentally substitute "magical essence" in order to have their statements make sense. In your hands, though, the Doctor and Martha are able to teach something real and show non-scientist fans how cool it is.

Posted by tardis_stowaway on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (06:36 UTC)

What a brilliant way to explain science. I really enjoyed that and learnt something also.

Posted by Kevin Mullen on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (11:16 UTC)

This is exactly the kind of thing the founding fathers of Who had in mind when they created the show. I think it would make them very happy. Bravo.

Posted by Awix on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (11:29 UTC)

Only one complaint: "With a grating, wheezing noise, a small blue box flickered into existence." I thought sound doesn't travel in a vacuum? Yeah, yeah, I know I'm nitpicking. :D

I can't help wondering if you could sell this to the BBC for say, a Children In Need special. It's a great way to introduce children to science.

I also can't help wondering: if Dr Argo had been an American, would this have been a Star Trek story?

Posted by TOOO on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (11:51 UTC)

Wow, I can't keep up with all this! Thanks for all the great comments everyone, glad you like the story. I'll post a follow-up at some point, but in the mean time look out for an audio version of this courtesy of the Darker Projects crew....

Posted by Megan on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (11:55 UTC)

Marvellous – just the kind of thing I'd like to see in the series – information and entertainment at the same time. A nice handle on the 10th Doctor.

I also was entranced by the concepts in Logopolis (only 9 at the time so a while before it came up in physics). Who has an amazing capacity to engage the brain. I just hope they continue to take the opportunity!

Thanks again!

Posted by Daniel on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (14:21 UTC)

Meg. You rock. :)

Posted by Invader Xan on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (01:32 UTC)

Thanks, that's lovely.

Personally, I grew out of reading Nature years ago and now get all my gamma-ray astronomy news from Doctor Who Magazine.

(Afraid I noticed the quibbles too: I think sharks first appeared way back in the Ordovician as relatively primitive vertebrates. And wouldn't Martha have enough physics to know of nuclear fusion, and also have personally seen the consequences of the end of the Earth?)

Congratulations on the discovery. Keep watching the skies.

Posted by Cedders on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (17:17 UTC)

Thanks, that was great! As a lifelong fan of both Doctor Who and astronomy, I loved it. I also loved the novelisation of Logopolis - I seriously doubt I'd have ever heard of entropy or Maxwell's Second Law of Thermodynamics if not for growing up with my head stuck in a Target book...

Oh, and I enjoyed your reading of it too!

Posted by Mark on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (17:19 UTC)

thanks so much for this, i am one of those people who fell in love with physics partly due to doctor who, and this is just brilliant! what a great way to show and explain it all! and i will definately go and read the official study, it looks so interesting!

Posted by Issy on Saturday 30th Jan 2010 (19:50 UTC)

I too thought you characterised both Martha and the Doctor very well and in the process taught me something new and interesting. Thankyou, what a lovely thing to have done.

Posted by Ricky on Sunday 31st Jan 2010 (01:20 UTC)

Heard about this over at Gallifrey News Base. I love it! Taking the show back to its science roots while still keeping it up to date. I do like me some Martha (often for the wrong reasons), but outside of Martha not knowing a light year (unless she's just getting caught up in things--I heard them both quite clearly in my head) and using the console to open the doors (that was the old series) it's all spot on.

Ace job!

Posted by ShadowWing Tronix on Sunday 31st Jan 2010 (20:34 UTC)

Brava. :) Clever way to put it all in layman's terms, and still have some fun with it.

Posted by cygirlkat on Monday 01st Feb 2010 (20:03 UTC)

I like it, except making Martha the "straight man" (in this case, woman). Martha would have known the answers to a lot of those questions, I think. Still, very cute, and your descriptions of Tennant are great.

Posted by george on Monday 01st Feb 2010 (20:03 UTC)

Thanks :)

Posted by Matt on Monday 01st Feb 2010 (21:26 UTC)

WOW.... quite "brilliant!" Job well done!

Posted by Amanda on Tuesday 02nd Feb 2010 (21:28 UTC)

What a fantastic way to explain a cool astronomical event!

Nicely done!

As a kid in England I maybe didn't learn a lot of actual facts from Dr. Who (Pertwee then Baker), but I sure asked my Dad a ton of questions that got us both investigating the answers!

Definitely a strong influence in my becoming an aerospace engineer.

Thanks for the story.

Posted by Tom Walker on Wednesday 03rd Feb 2010 (16:09 UTC)

@vInTaGe VioLeT Wouldn't that just be so awesome?! There would never be a dull lesson!

@Invader Xan lol, thanks :-)

Posted by Megan on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (03:40 UTC)

Thanks for all the brilliant comments everyone! I am genuinely amazed at the response to this, and I've posted a follow-up over here. Oh, and I'm working on another story...!

Posted by Megan on Monday 08th Feb 2010 (23:27 UTC)

Love it!

Shame I won't be able to chat about it with you during VLBI in March - enjoy the conference!

(Shaun managed to convince me to be a VLBI observer!)

Posted by Mikayla Keen on Friday 12th Feb 2010 (11:19 UTC)

Hi Mikayla! Thanks! Hope you have fun during VLBI (just remember, "the wiki is always right" ;-)

Posted by Megan on Saturday 13th Feb 2010 (06:40 UTC)

Great way to get the science out there. And it was written in character well enough that I could practically *hear* David Tennant saying the Doctor's lines.

Posted by Genie on Thursday 18th Feb 2010 (04:42 UTC)

Oh, that was brilliant! I got a real kick out of imagining their voices and actions in my head; you have them down pat! Maybe you should write novels for the BBC. :-P

Posted by Liz on Friday 19th Feb 2010 (04:28 UTC)

Nice, but it reads more like a science lesson than an actual story - there's not really much of a plot, is there? Nothing at stake, no conflict, no one in danger, nothing to save. An enjoyable little bauble, but that's all.

Posted by Thomas Beck on Friday 19th Feb 2010 (20:25 UTC)

Yes! Hardcore science education is one of the hearts of Doctor Who.

I'm trying to do that in my fan fic too - I'd be honoured if you felt like checking it out.


‘Then, finally, Doctor—can you tell me the meaning of this?’ The Master Doctor waved his hand rapidly several times before his eyes. ‘Do you see?’ he asked intently. He did it again, closer to the Doctor’s face. . . . ‘What does it mean, Doctor?’ . . .

Ripping Corpse Attack | The Shadow in Eternity, Episode Two.

Podcast midnight, Sunday 21st Feb.



Posted by B.B. on Friday 19th Feb 2010 (20:54 UTC)

@Genie, @Liz Thanks! Tennant's version of the Doctor's character is really fun to write for.

@Thomas Beck Can't the Doctor have a bit of fun from time to time? I wasn't trying to write an episode or a novel, just explain a bit of real new and (I think) exciting science.

@B.B. I'll check it out :-)

Posted by Megan on Saturday 20th Feb 2010 (01:45 UTC)

Hi Megan,

nice story to explain science, keep it up.



Posted by ashish on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (10:10 UTC)

Hi, your story is really cool loving the DR Who twist, just what i needed at 10am to remind me why I am doing astronomy.

Posted by Sadie Jones on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (10:30 UTC)

What a great story Megan and a great way to explain things to us non-science folk! Nicely done!

Posted by Karen Cox on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (11:58 UTC)

@ashish, @Karen: Thanks! Glad it makes sense. It really was a lot of fun to write.

@Sadie: You're not fighting with the dreaded AIPS are you? If so, you have my sympathies.... ;-)

Posted by Megan on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (13:07 UTC)

This is quite brilliant. You've got the Doctor characterised perfectly, and his voice is spot on. I can absolutely hear David in my head as I read the dialogue. This seems very much like the first minute or so of an episode, very honest to the show. I'm slightly curious as to why Martha doesn't know what a light year is, but this is great for a fic this length. 10/10

Posted by Rose on Thursday 28th Jan 2010 (18:26 UTC)

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