Sciencey Wiencey: The Possibilities of the Sonic

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Are any of the Sonic Screwdriver’s many abilities possible? Guest contributor Caleb Howells investigates.

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In this article, I’ll be looking at another very iconic aspect of the show, the Sonic Screwdriver. It’s something that’s been around for quite some time, though it’s used far more in the revived series than in the Classic series. And it’s understandable why the Doctor would use it so much, since recently there seems to be no end to what it’s capable of.

All-powerful sound waves?

The Sonic Screwdriver has been the cause of much controversy lately. Particularly after Series 7, many fans feel that it’s become a cop-out device, gaining new powers almost as quickly as Superman. It does certainly have an impressive range of abilities. But how many of them have any basis in reality? Well, I’ll start with an easy one.

During the climax of Day of the Moon, when the Doctor and River are having a shootout against the Silents, you can see the Doctor shooting “lasers” at the creatures. Here’s a screenshot of one of the instances:

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That is a green beam being shot from the Sonic Screwdriver, which causes the Silent to collapse. Bearing in mind the Sonic Screwdriver uses sound waves to do what it does, rather than any sort of laser or plasma, could this sort of thing actually be done? Yes, yes it could. When something makes a sound, what it actually does is vibrate the air around it. The molecules move in whatever direction they happen to be pushed, causing them to knock into other molecules, in turn pushing them forward before bouncing back to their original position. This wave of pressure travels through the air until it eventually dissipates.

It’s possible to focus sound into a narrow beam using ultrasonic waves. Given sufficient power, you could create a focused pressure wave strong enough to knock someone to the ground. So yes, that’s a reasonable feature. However, you wouldn’t see a green beam, but that’s just visual effects for us to see, so that’s inconsequential.

Sonic Scan?

Another ability that annoys some people is the fact that it can scan people. Is this really that ridiculous?

No. I assume you’ve all heard of ultrasound. It involves a device with a rapidly vibrating crystal inside, which both creates the sound and receives it. It produces high-frequency sound waves which we can’t hear. These travel through different types of tissue with different amounts of ease, so you can “see” inside by detecting and analysing the varying echoes received by the device.

For the Sonic to do that, it would need four things: A sound transmitter, a sound receiver, a computer of sorts, and an interface. I think we can all agree that those are perfectly reasonable. In fact, it would be completely realistic if the Doctor used the Sonic to see round corners (echolocation), though I’m sure the fandom would complain a lot if that happened.

Sonic hacking?

Another thing the Sonic does a lot is hack into computers. I genuinely have no clue at all how this is supposed to work using sound waves (especially since the Doctor tends to scan the monitor rather than the computer). A computer works on electrical signals. It has nothing whatsoever to do with sound waves, and I don’t see how sound waves could possibly have any effect. However, if anyone has any ideas, feel free to explain in the comments. The only thing I can think of is that the sound waves move the disc reader inside the hard drive, causing it to be reading a different part of the disc. Now, I’m no computer expert, but I’m pretty sure you can’t hack into a computer like that.

Master of unlocking

Now for the main feature: Unlocking doors. This is, funnily enough, what a lot of people consider to be the most realistic ability of the Screwdriver. Before I discuss that, I’d just like to establish that the device must use its scanning feature while doing this. Sure, so it can move the pins, but anyone can do that with a needle or paperclip. But you need to know how much to move them. And to do that, the Sonic must scan the lock before it begins moving the pins.

But anyway, that’s beside the point. On the subject of being able to move objects using sound waves, that’s actually a point of research among medical scientists at the moment. They have already managed to move something up and down in a tub of water (using ultrasonic waves, not audible sound, just to be clear). You can see the potential, I’m sure. That isn’t very far off from being able to move the pins in a lock up and down. So yes, that aspect of the device is perfectly feasible.

So, is any of this possible?

This has no clear yes or no answer, since the Sonic has many different functions which may or may not be possible. And admittedly, I haven’t looked at them all in this article. But the main ones, like scanning people and unlocking doors, are definitely within the realms of reality. Some of the other features, however, are right on the other end of the scale – completely impossible.

Still haven’t the foggiest idea why it can’t do wood, though.

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