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Sciencey Wiencey: Deep Breath

Guest contributor Caleb Howells investigates more Doctor Who science and plausibilities.

As I watched this episode, I was not constantly thinking of things to write about in my Sciencey Wiencey article for it. However, one thing immediately stood out as being inaccurate. The T.rex. The episode shows it as being half the size of the Elizabeth Tower – and its head even becomes more or less level with the top of the tower in some shots. This is a seriously huge exaggeration of that dinosaur’s size. In reality, it was about 4 metres (13ft) tall at the hips (they stood horizontally, remember). The Elizabeth Tower is 96 metres (315ft) tall. The Tyrannosaurus should have been thoroughly dwarfed by that tower. Also, Vastra mentions that most dinosaurs were that big. No, Vastra. No they were not.

A Difference in Atmosphere

doctor-who-deep-breath-trex

But regardless of the size issue, how plausible is the concept of a T.rex roaming through London? And by that, I don’t mean how plausible is it to take a T.rex from the Cretaceous period to the present day, but what would actually be the consequence of such an action? You see, this planet’s environment 100 million years ago was considerably different to how it is now. It was much hotter, for example, and the oxygen levels were likely a lot different. So, if a T.rex was taken from the Cretaceous era to the present day, what would happen to it? Would it be able to survive, and if so, how well would it manage?

The problem with this question is the issue of what the oxygen content of the atmosphere was like back then. Of course, no one knows for sure, but there are ways of getting a reasonably good idea. Sometimes amber (which we all know from Jurassic Park) contains tiny bubbles inside. These, of course, contain the air from the time period in which the amber was formed – provided that the air hasn’t leaked out somehow. Using this method, one would think it would be quite easy to find out what the atmosphere was like in the past. But evidently it isn’t.

You see, it has been commonly believed that the oxygen content of the Earth’s atmosphere in the period of the dinosaurs was much higher than it is now – up to 30%, as opposed to the current 21%. This was backed up by evidence, using the method I described above (and it was welcomed as the explanation for how pterosaurs were able to actually get off the ground; the extra oxygen enabled them to perform with greater vigour). There are numerous articles over the years since the turn of the millennium that refer to this ‘fact’.

However, a recent study from just last year, which has apparently developed a 220 million year history of the Earth’s atmosphere using hundreds of amber samples, has concluded just the opposite. It states that for much of the Earth’s history dating back to the Triassic (beyond, therefore including, the Cretaceous) the oxygen levels have hovered between 10 and 15 percent. And that, of course, is lower than the 21% we have today.

Series-8-TV-launch-trailer-(24)So who’s right? Well, no one can know for sure. Maybe time will tell, but there’s always going to be a high level of uncertainty when dealing with things this far in the past. Playing detective is hard enough, but playing detective when your evidence is millions of years old is another matter entirely. There could be numerous factors about these amber samples that aren’t taken into account, yet would completely change the conclusions. No one knows what exactly was happening around the tree at the time the sap was developing bubbles. Maybe there had been a volcanic eruption nearby, which could have changed the gas content of the air in the vicinity, or even a limnic eruption (a very rare type of natural event involving massive amounts of carbon dioxide suddenly erupting from a deep lake). Or perhaps the dating methods employed were completely off, for one reason or another (for example, potassium-argon dating has the potential to be out by millions of years). The fact is, no one knows what the atmosphere was like back in the time of the dinosaurs. So, let’s look at both scenarios.

What if the atmosphere had contained less oxygen than at present? In that case, the increased oxygen percentage that the T.rex experiences might increase its activity levels. Birds and crocodiles have a higher concentration of haemoglobin (the protein in the blood stream that carry oxygen) than mammals do. If the same applied for dinosaurs, then that would mean that they had a capacity for carrying a greater amount of oxygen than we do. This being the case, it logically follows that increasing the oxygen levels would have more of an effect on dinosaurs than it would on mammals.

Taking in an excessive amount of oxygen does have harmful effects, but it’s unlikely that any of these would act quickly enough to be noticeable during the short period of time that the T.rex was in London.

Regarding the beneficial consequences: Put simply, more oxygen equals more energy. Of course, this only works so much, but a third more oxygen would probably result in relatively significant energy increases. Not that anything very dramatic would happen. The T.rex would simply become somewhat more energetic and wouldn’t get tired as quickly as it normally does. In other words, it would, in theory, be more dangerous in the present day than in the Cretaceous. Of course, the T.rex didn’t really do anything in the episode for this potential effect to become manifest.

But that’s presuming that the Cretaceous had less oxygen than now. If the reverse is true – if the atmosphere of the Cretaceous period actually had a higher percentage of oxygen than the atmosphere today – then the opposite would happen. The T.rex would probably not just get worn out more easily, but may even find it difficult to breathe. It’s extremely difficult to be specific, but the possibility exists that the oxygen demand for the T.rex would be sufficiently high in comparison to the oxygen it’s taking in that the creature would lose consciousness and eventually die. But such things are difficult to confirm, due to an inconvenient lack of Tyrannosauruses still around.

Spontaneous Human Combustion

dino-dies-deep-breathNow this is an interesting subject. The question of whether or not SHC is a real occurrence has been a heated topic for well over a century. However, most scientists now believe that there is no such thing – each supposed incident is simply a case of death by an external, but unknown, ignition source. The ignition source is usually presumed to be something as simple as a cigarette. The vast majority of SHC cases involve people with low mobility, usually with poor health. Commonly, the person who ‘spontaneously combusted’ could quite easily have died of natural causes, such as a heart attack, or simply wasn’t able to move and save themselves once their clothes caught fire from the cigarette they were smoking.

The reason for the odd way in which the fire completely destroys most of the body – though often not including the extremities – yet leaves the rest of the room mostly undamaged seems to be explained by the wick effect. This is an observed effect and produces pretty much exactly the same results as spontaneous human combustion cases. This is how it works:

The fire is fuelled by the fat inside the human body. Fairly soon into the burning process, the fat gets soaked into the clothes wrapped around the person, essentially creating a wick (which, since the fat is inside the wick, means the human body has basically been turned into an inside-out candle). The burning process takes a long time, but that’s the thing. The flames are quite small, and as fire goes straight up much more than it goes out, it’s no wonder the rest of the room doesn’t burn down.

A common objection to this explanation is that it takes an exceptional amount of heat to reduce bones to ashes. And how could that heat be produced simply by regular burning of the human body? Well, regardless of how amazing it may seem, it does happen. It has been demonstrated in the experiments done to test the wick effect theory. For one thing, the fire created by the peculiar wick effect is very hot, though admittedly not as hot as a crematory. In fact, it seems that the reason it’s able to reduce bones to ashes is due to continual fluctuations in the heat of the fire, causing the bone to become more brittle than it would be if it was burning at a continuous temperature.

It’s also been noted that many of the victims probably had osteoporosis, which makes the bones even more brittle. In any case, it’s been shown that the wick effect can cause bones to turn to ashes, so that’s no longer an issue.

The fact is, there is no known scientific explanation for how anyone could spontaneously combust. There are plenty of theories, but none of them are based on hard scientific evidence. The wick effect seems sufficient to explain the majority of cases (there are other cases that it doesn’t explain, but those are of a completely different nature to the majority and therefore justifiably have a completely different explanation).

Of course, the ‘spontaneous combustion’ in Deep Breath was brought about by alien intervention. The simplest explanation for how that was supposed to be done would just be that the robot placed several devices over the T.rex, which would create high-powered flames (probably including thermite in the mix to thoroughly destroy all the evidence). In this instance, Vastra is correct in calling out the scientific unlikelihood of naturally occurring spontaneous combustion.

Clockwork Droids

doctor-who-half-face-sideThe plausibility of the clockwork droids is fundamentally linked with two issues:

  1. Is it possible in any way for biological organs to work with clockwork machinery?
  2. Would the organic parts still be able to function?

The answer to the first question is both yes and no; it depends on what organ you’re talking about. For example, the heart acts as a pump. It produces relatively large scale movements, which could in theory be linked up to some mechanical device (though what it could be used for is anyone’s guess, since the clockwork droid surely wouldn’t need blood pumped around its body). In contrast, the eyes are a means of receiving information from the outside world, and they transmit that information to the brain via electrical and chemical signals. Clockworks, by their nature, cannot receive and be controlled by electrical signals. It wouldn’t be clockwork if it did.

Of course, you could always add some electrical components that would mediate between those organs and the clockwork parts. But you certainly couldn’t just stick them on and expect them to work.

There’s also the issue of what benefit many of the organs could actually have for the droids. For example, when scanning the Doctor, his liver is mentioned (evidently as a good organ to remove from him). But what good would a liver do for a clockwork droid? Even if there was some liquid, such as oil, that the droid needed to be cleaned, the liver is specifically designed to perform the function it has in our bodies. The droid would have to modify it to such an extent that it might as well build something from scratch. The practicality of the whole concept just doesn’t work.

Now on to the second point. How well would the organs be able to function outside the human body? You’re probably aware of the principle that if someone’s air supply or blood flow gets cut off… they die. The blood transports the oxygen collected by the lungs to the cells in the human body. Without this supply of oxygen, the cells will eventually die. Whole organs certainly aren’t still functional hours after death at room temperature.

Again, you could perhaps keep these things running if you had special equipment designed for it; you would need some means of continuously distributing nutrients and oxygen to the cells (like, you know, a circulatory system). Admittedly, that could be one reason for the droids having a heart – except no blood vessels were shown in the exposed part of the face. The whole concept of taking an organ and attaching it to a piece of clockwork machinery simply doesn’t work.

Do bear in mind that these aren’t necessarily criticisms of the episode. I am simply assessing the scientific plausibility of the show purely for entertainment reasons. I’ve always considered Doctor Who to be soft sci-fi, especially in the Moffat era, so there are no hard feelings when it includes something that is completely and utterly absurd and contrary to all reason and logic. It’s all good fun.

Catch-up on other articles in this series:

Step back in time...

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56 comments
JONNY KROTON
JONNY KROTON

I don't think it was ever claimed to be a T  Rex? It was always referred to as a dinosaur. Also there are probably species of Therapod, we won't even discover.

XanderH
XanderH

The T-rex might have looked bigger on the outside, but that's because it got exposed to the time vortex. Inside it was still the same size. So there.  




Dimitrije Mandic
Dimitrije Mandic

Hey! Vastra was there, you weren't. Something must've shrunk the remains, for all we know.

Clara Laurinda
Clara Laurinda

I love these sciencey wiencey articles of yours, Calexby, but this one is my favourite because it raises some fascinating points (such as the oxygen content of the atmosphere during the age of dinaorsaurs and now, whether clockwork mechanisms can keep human organs functioning and how fat in the burning human body can have the wick effect! FASCINATING!! And thought provoking. Well done. More! (Please?)

AndrewNEaton
AndrewNEaton

I would have thought that a far greater atmospheric problem for the "Big Woman" would be pollution. This was an era before smokeless fuels when the smoke from a million chimneys mixed with fog to form the "pea-souper's" referred to by Mr Holmes and others. Many people who spent all of their lives there died from it. The poor dinosaur wouldn't stand a chance.







Ladydetemps
Ladydetemps

Another thought what if the t-rex caught a virus etc. from the thames (which at that era would have been basically sewage) or brought back something which would make people ill?

AussieWho
AussieWho

No one seems to have thought that the T. rex may have originated from one of the embryos that the Rani had been experimenting on in Classic Who.  I know that one of the embryos grew into an adult and crushed its spine as it grew too large for the Rani's TARDIS, but there were other T rex embryos that may have survived.  If the Rani had been experimenting with T. rex embryos, then maybe she had adapted them to living in atmospheres that had lower oxygen content.  We don't know where and when the Doctor came into contact with London's T. rex.  We are just assuming that it was during the Cretaceous Period, but what if the T. rex is one of the Rani's experimental dinosaurs? I think Peter Capaldi's Doctor has already come into contact with the Rani, which is why I think Missy could be her.   

Polyphase
Polyphase

It's not the only time they have struggled with scale. I The Empty Child the bombers over London were flying at about 500ft instead 15000ft which I found a bit silly :)

pinkjaguar12
pinkjaguar12

I freaking love these articles :D  I would love it if you did one for each week!

Riversmith
Riversmith

I loved this article. It is really interesting and,for me, does not detract from the episode at all!

As for the spontaneous combustion...I did not think it was supposed to be plausible in the episode; merely a dramatic Victorian newspaper reporting of the "unexplained" fires caused by the droid.

conallmc2013
conallmc2013

1/ The tardis creates an oxygen field around it for a relativity large radius.                                                         2/ The issue is more how did a dinosaur walking outside Westminster remain unrecorded. Sure the argument was that people thought it was a hoax- yet if i saw a giant fake moving dinosaur of incredible realism I would be telling my grand kids. People also argue about the cracks in time but if that is applicable to EVERY major incident in human history then memory would not exist. It's a lazy excuse for something of that magnitude. Even then an argument couldn't be made that it itself fell through a crack in time since there is nothing but ash left. I do understand that is not the main argument for this theory but nonetheless it is a lazy solution. The only thing possible then is for the paternoster gang to clear it all up but they can't erase the memory of hundreds if not thousands of random people and destroy recorded documents it doesn't add up.                                                                                                                                                    3/ The now clockwork cyborg I don't comprehend how that came to pass- why did he start using human parts to fix himself their primary objective is to fix the ship that would override personal upkeep. Irregardless of which surely the corpses, robots and the dead cyborg on top of St Paul's would mean that even that would be in the eyes of the public.                                                                                                 the issue for me is not the physical issue of if the dinosaur would survive etc.. but the linearity of the time stream. It is true of course that time can be rewritten yet the implications of 1- an escape pod with human skin 2- a dinosaur and 3- cyborg/robots etc.. 





TardisKid101
TardisKid101

100% agree with this article. Deep Breath was very good and hopefully Capaldi will get even better. It was interesting about the dinosaur and the atmosphere and stuff. To be fair, that would make sense, but can they get everything right?

MetamorphmagusWho met 7, 8 and Ace
MetamorphmagusWho met 7, 8 and Ace

As someone who is thinking of becoming a zoologist, the Science surrounding the T-Rex and the conditions of the atmosphere when it lived was very insightful and interesting to me.  

Oodkind
Oodkind

I love these articles.  Yeah, I found the T-rex to be a bit irritating. I suppose you could say that the size was due to exposure to the Time Vortex, but that wouldn't explain the incorrect way she stood...

As for the environment, the fact is we don't really know what effect the atmosphere would have on the dinosaur. However, the average temperature was above modern levels, and it was specifically mentioned as a cold day in London. I would guess that the cold temperature would have had a larger effect on the cold-blooded dinosaur than was shown.

MrRazza, Latest Result: Mr Pink is Human
MrRazza, Latest Result: Mr Pink is Human

A great and witty article as usual, Caleb. It grated with me a little that the size of the T Rex was sort of addressed before disregarded by a throwaway line of that being how Vastra remembered them. Otherwise I'd have been happy to write it off as artistic licence (or some weird DW universe stuff - this is the show with a lizard woman) - but perhaps the reference was a deliberate hint at something or in the future? Or, indeed, just a reference to DW past.


Lord Styro the Drashig
Lord Styro the Drashig

This is an awesome article and as a paleontology enthusiast/hopefully soon-to-be-student I especially loved that bit.

Temporal Tomato
Temporal Tomato

As pointed out in the episode, of course Tyrannosauruses were never that big in real life, (in reality they're no bigger than this one's head!) It looked to me like a sneaky reference to The Invasion of Dinosaurs and/or the novelisation of The Silurians, both of which feature unexplained oversized Dinosaurs. Also, to make a dramatic entrance at the beginning of a new season and a new Doctor. 

Hartnell: Policeman walking in fog. 

Davison: Oddly dressed bunch running from security at the Pharos Project. 

Eccleston: Pan on a digital alarm clock. 

Capaldi: DINOSAUR OVER VICTORIAN LONDON SPITS OUT TARDIS NEXT TO BIG BEN. 


This is rivalled only by McCoy's entrance on the strangeness scale. I mean come on, TARDIS attacked by horrible laser beams uses its rainbow powers to crash land in a quarry, watched only by an oddly dressed yellow person in fancy dress who runs in a disturbing fashion, followed by a hairy, multi-eyed bat entering said TARDIS, prompting Sylvester McCoy to remove the wig of his Colin Baker costume with his magic wizard powers. "Leave the girl, it's the man I want." 

Say what you want about Time and the Rani... It one heck of an entrance.


Master Michael Moon
Master Michael Moon

I love the way the Doctor shouts to the dinosaur "Big, sexy woman" or something like that. It highly amuses me. 


The Finn
The Finn

"But such things are difficult to confirm, due to an inconvenient lack of Tyrannosauruses still around." XD Great article, Caleb!


Mark McCullough
Mark McCullough

Excellent article Caleb. I really love these. You present your arguments in a clear and engaging way and one which encourages your reader to think and apply their knowledge to the situation. Of both options for the oxygen thing I would hazard a guess that there was less oxygen now because of the decrease`in natural forest. But I don't think it would kill the dinosaur as it probably would have some sort of Ertythropoetin equivalent, so it would be much the same as ourselves going up a tall mountain. I thought I'd also mention purely for interest's sake that robotic organs are coming in as one of the more innovative (but still a few years off) medical treatments such as the robotic pancreas for Diabetes or Robotic pumps as a temporary measure for those with severe heart failure. So biology and machine can actually work better than most would think.  Once again excellent article Caleb. A joy to read. =)



MrJimiTheFish
MrJimiTheFish

I always enjoy your articles Caleb! This one was as interesting as always!

The_Eternal_Dalek
The_Eternal_Dalek

We are looking at technology from the 51st century that has further developed over mills ions of years. Who knows what sort of bizarre technology the droid uses, it clearly works whatever it does.

Green TARDIS
Green TARDIS

Who said the dinosaur was a T-Rex? In the episode it was just called a "dinosaur", unless I'm mistaken. It could easily just be a fictional undiscovered dinosaur

The_Major
The_Major

Who says it was a dinosaur from Earth..?

iMikeZero
iMikeZero

I believe the TARDIS helped T-Rex breathe. The same way it allows people to exit it in space. Remember Amy floating and holding on to The Doctor? It was in the dinosaurs throat so it could have helped. The droids were killing people after taking their parts so there wasn't any true spontaneous combustion. The issue would have been how did the droids get the material from the Dinosaur without killing it or The Doctor hearing the Dinosaur cry out that someone was cutting them from the inside? 

KingoftheOod4450
KingoftheOod4450

More importantly, if the dinosaur travelled through time by having the TARDIS in its mouth, it should have by all accounts have been ripped apart by the time vortex.

Calebxy
Calebxy

@Mark McCullough "so it would be much the same as ourselves going up a tall mountain." Yeah, that's what I was considering, hence why I was trying to be very careful not to say anything definite about its ability to survive with less oxygen. :P And thank you! I'm glad you liked the article! :D 



BeyondThePolice
BeyondThePolice

@The_Eternal_Dalek  His point is that if the technology is able to do what it does, it has no actual need for organic parts like liver, heart, or lung. Especially when you consider that they don't breathe! :D

Lord Styro the Drashig
Lord Styro the Drashig

Well, it definitely looks like a T. rex, and was scripted as such. So I'm assuming its identity is correct. (The heavy armor plating is a definite inconsistency with this picture, but I have a geeky complicated theory about that.)


Calebxy
Calebxy

@iMikeZero And your second point is a very good one! The droid would have had to have taken the part before burning the dinosaur, so why didn't it make a fuss? 

Calebxy
Calebxy

@iMikeZero Well I suppose that's possible, though the whole 'contained atmosphere' thing is another matter entirely. In fact, I cover that point in the first section of this article: http:// www.doctorwhotv.co.uk/sciencey-wiencey-space-mopeds-free-falls-living-heads-51653.htm

VictorWong1
VictorWong1

@KingoftheOod4450 Unless the Tardis had a default setting WRT its force field: "If encapsulated by giant living creature and unable to disengage, do not let it die in time vortex" or some such condition.

TottersLane
TottersLane

Their brains were small and their nervous system were terribly slow - I remember (probably incorrectly) reading as a kid that it could take 24 hours after they died for the brain to register the fact - I'm sure Caleb knows the truth of that!


BeyondThePolice
BeyondThePolice

@Amy says Peter Davison is the Thirteenth Doctor! He wasn't translating. That was the point; at the end, he says something like, "No one can see me...no one can see me," and Clara points out, "I think everyone can see it!" It's at that moment when it becomes clear that the Doctor ISN'T translating for the dinosaur; he's talking about himself. The "no one can see me" bit he mentions later when he talks about how hard it is regenerating and Clara not recognizing him.

KingoftheOod4450
KingoftheOod4450

@VictorWong1 @KingoftheOod4450 Fair point, but logically, consider what creatures in the Whoniverse can encompass the TARDIS - some right nasty ones, I'll bet. Might be better to let them die in the vortex than risk unleashing them on some other part of the universe.

Amy says Peter Davison is the Thirteenth Doctor!
Amy says Peter Davison is the Thirteenth Doctor!

Yes, but that twist relies on the assumption that we'll think he is describing the dinosaur before the reveal comes. So they did acknowledge it for the dinosaur, if only to deceive us.


Amy says Peter Davison is the Thirteenth Doctor!
Amy says Peter Davison is the Thirteenth Doctor!

Alternatively, it could have just extended the force field around it like it did with Clara in the previous episode. Or, the settings could have just gone wonky. It happens with a fair degree of frequency.