The Thirteenth Doctor: Jodie Whittaker

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The BBC announced yesterday that next year, the thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor (not including the War Doctor) of Doctor Who after Peter Capaldi leaves the show will be Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to headline the iconic series. I don’t know anything about Jodie Whittaker. I haven’t seen or even really heard of any of her previous film credits, the same as all the previous Doctors before I saw them in action. I do wish her luck in her new role.

However, I wanted to address what I saw as a strange reaction, namely, that “some fans of the show” are unhappy that the new Doctor is a woman. There are several pieces of this I want to unpack to explain why this should not be controversial, and also, in my opinion, why it may be partially manufactured.

I’ll take the last point first. These kinds of stories crop up every few months when some new movie or television show causes controversy with its perceived diversity casting. The thing is, I’m not convinced I see it. In most cases (the exception being when historical accuracy is a factor), I strongly suspect that this response comes from a small minority of the fan base.

Consider: “a minority of fans” objected to casting black actor Michael B. Jordan as the traditionally white character Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four. But most fans merely shrugged and judged that the film was awful on its merits, and it now sits at 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. It takes more than one bad casting call to do that. In contrast, “a flurry of racist tweets” decried Star Wars Episode VII for casting black actor John Boyega as the Stormtrooper Finn. Most fans shrugged and judged that it was pretty good, and it was wildly successful. Beauty and the Beast (which I did not see) caused “international controversy” for including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene featuring a gay character. It was also wildly successful. And on and on. It always seems to be a small, but vocal group of people speaking out, and the bottom line is, most fans don’t care.

Now, on the subject of the Doctor in particular being a woman, this shouldn’t be a big deal for the simple reason that Doctor Who has been teasing this since New Year’s Day of 2010 when the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) mistakenly proclaimed “I’m a girl!” upon noticing his “long” hair in “The End of Time”. Later, in “The Doctor’s Wife” in 2011, we heard mention of a Time Lord regenerating into the opposite gender offscreen. And long-time villain the Master reappeared as the female Missy (and spectacularly, at that) in 2014, and I didn’t hear much complaining then. This should not be a surprise.

Finally, and most importantly, the whole point of the Doctor is that you can replace the actor every few years, and the show stays the same. The Doctor is a space alien who regenerates when he dies into a new person with a different personality, but with the same basic drive: “Planets to save, civilisations to rescue, creatures to defeat and an awful lot of running to do.”

That’s what has kept the show running and beloved by fans for over fifty years. Doctor Who isn’t about a man. It’s about an immensely powerful alien being who condescends to spend his time with us humans, take us with him to explore the universe, and saves anyone who needs help, and that’s something much bigger than an individual actor’s or actress’s portrayal. And if it sounds like I’m spinning in a few religious overtones, that’s no accident. See my previous post on that subject.

At the end of the day, even if this is a case of jumping on the feminist bandwagon, it works in Doctor Who. I would even go so far as to say the show is uniquely suited to it because it doesn’t matter if the Doctor is a man or a woman as long as they are the Doctor. So again, I say to Ms. Whittaker: Good luck.

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And don’t blink.

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Television Review: Doctor Who Series 10

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Doctor Who’s tenth series has just concluded (the new Doctor Who, that is), and I would be remiss if I did not mark it with a review here. All in all, this was a pretty good season. It wasn’t the absolute best of the show, but it was still classic Doctor Who in great form, with no real failures in terms of episodes and a couple of great character arcs.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Spoilers

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Movie Review: Cars 3

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It might sound surprising, but I’m a pretty big Pixar (and Disney) fan. If you’ve been on the Internet for a while, you might have seen others; you can find quite a few on YouTube. I particularly recommend the Super Carlin Brothers for all sorts of fan theories on those franchises and much, much more.

My own interest came about for several reasons over the past few years. One was writing my own children’s fantasy novel, which I’ve written about before. Another was having several good friends at Princeton who were huge Disney fans and were also into Pixar. And the last reason was Big Hero 6, which I saw on general principle because it was a Marvel film. So I didn’t want to pass up Cars 3, and since I’m trying to be more dedicated about reviewing all the movies I see, here’s my take on it. The upshot is, I thought it was pretty good—not Pixar’s best, but easily equal to Cars 1.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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Movie Review: Wonder Woman

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DC Comics, home of Batman, Superman, Justice League, and others, has had a lackluster track record with its (live-action) films. Compared with Marvel, which has produced mostly hits, the typical DC superhero movie is just average at best…until now! I haven’t seen every DC film, but I think I can safely say that the new Wonder Woman is the best DC Comics film of all time, with the possible exception of The Dark Knight.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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Days 3 and 4 at the #AAS230: Galaxies, Supernovae, and Space Weather

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The famous Crab Nebula supernova remnant.

The AAS Conference has concluded, but there’s still a lot of exciting science going on. Here are the big stories from the final day and a half.

Sadly, I missed the first talk on Wednesday because I had to get my own presentation ready. It was by Manfred Schüssler of the Max Planck Institute on the Solar magnetic field.

I did, however, see David Koo of UC Santa Cruz give his talk on the CANDELS Survey*. CANDELS is a massive Hubble Space Telescope survey to image as many distant galaxies as possible in areas of the sky that have already been extensively studied in other wavelengths such as the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It will be one of the biggest studies ever on the evolution of galaxies and rare types of galaxies, covering 250,000 in total.

Later, Doug Leonard of San Diego State spoke on supernovae—specifically, supernovae of red supergiants, which are actually about a third of all supernovae (another third or so come from blue supergiants and the rest are Type Ia explosions of white dwarfs). We don’t actually know how supernovae explode because the rest of the star above the exploding core should be too heavy for the explosion to get out. In this entertaining talk, Dr. Leonard explained the evidence that supernovae do not explode symmetrically and how this could actually make them work.

This morning, Dolores Knipp of the University of Colorado Boulder described the current state of space weather. The upshot is that space weather can still cause big disruptions on Earth, but the good news is (and I was very heartened to hear this) that we are finally hardening our infrastructure against a catastrophic solar storm. Hopefully, we won’t have to worry about that by the time the next solar cycle comes around in the mid-2020s.

I gave a short presentation on my research this morning along with some other interesting planet-related talks. Here is a link to my slides.

And finally, Hernán Quintana of the Pontifical Catholic University in Chile related his thirty-year struggle to build a strong home-grown astronomy education program in Chile, a country that had not been able to do so for many years despite hosting some of the best observatories in the world.

Other highlights:

*CANDELS is the correct spelling. Dr. Koo deliberately changed the spelling to make it easier to Google.

**Gravitational lensing, which makes a background star appear brighter, has been used for many years, but this is the first use of an observed change in a background star’s position to measure a star’s mass.

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Day 2 at the #AAS230: Warm Jupiters, Human Spaceflight, and Other Stories

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Artist’s rendition of the mysterious Planet Nine.

The second day of the AAS Conference has concluded with still more fascinating tales from the world of astronomy. We begin with the tale of the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which concluded last year, from Bonnie Buratti of JPL. There were a lot of interesting results here, including that the water on Earth probably did not come from comets, as was previously thought, but from asteroids. But the biggest results are coming out on Thursday, so I’ll come back to that later.

One of the panel discussions tried to put together the pieces of the puzzle that lead to warm, Jupiter-sized planets with elliptical orbits. That’s a long and fascinating tale in itself involving the interaction of close in planets with more distant ones, and I’ll probably do a follow-up on that later.

Chris Impey of the University of Arizona spoke about our future in space. The upshot: despite funding difficulties in the U.S. at the federal level, thanks to commercial space enterprises, the future is bright.

Konstantin Batygin of Caltech is the “partner in crime” of astronomer Mike Brown, the discoverer of Eris and “killer” of Pluto. He described the long and fascinating process of predicting the existence of the as-yet-undiscovered Planet Nine. With new lines of evidence including the bizarre object “Niku” and a model for the axial tilt of the Sun, the evidence is stronger than ever.

Finally, Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts talked about the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*. Of particular interest are the X-ray flares seen around the black hole. The origin of these flares is uncertain, but it could involve magnetic effects in the surrounding gas or even asteroids being torn apart by the black hole’s massive gravity!

Other highlights:

*This is not a footnote. The name of the object is Sagittarius A* (pronounced Sagittarius-A-Star).

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Day 1 at the #AAS230: Dark Matter, Colliding Planets, and More

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The famous Bullet Cluster, the first clear proof of dark matter.

The AAS Conference is underway today with the first round of talks from all branches of astronomy. For us astronomers, the biggest events are probably the plenary sessions, where most everyone attends, but a lot of the most newsworthy results come from the contributed talks and press conferences, so there’s a lot of ground to cover, and I’ll come back later to focus on some of it in more detail, but here’s an overview.

We started the day with a plenary talk on dark matter by Katherine Freese from my own University of Michigan. The plenary talks are really more of a “state of the field” kind of thing, but it was still a very good overview, and I learned lot in a concise form to help me understand the issue of dark matter more clearly. The upshot is the dark matter remains one of the big outstanding questions about the nature of the universe, but we may start to get answers in the next few years.

Later, we heard from Bekki Dawson of Penn State on the subject of inner solar systems—planets that are close to their host stars (which are also most of the exoplanets we know about). I attended several follow-up talks on this subject that went into more detail as well. A big part of this was explaining all of the weirdness we’ve discovered about exoplanets over the years, which I’ve written a fair amount about before. A lot of that has to do with the “nature versus nurture” puzzle—teasing out the different effects of how the planets formed from how they changed and interacted with each other over time. There’s a lot of exciting stuff here, like planets colliding or being gravitationally pushed into their suns—things that may actually happen often during the formation period.

I wasn’t able to attend the afternoon talks today, but they covered interesting topics as well. One described the universe’s most extreme star forming galaxies, which were a major contributor to overall star formation in the early universe. The other presented results from SOFIA—an infrared telescope that flies around on a converted Boeing 747 with a big hole cut out of its side. Yes, seriously!

Other highlights:

*KELT-9b is not actually the hottest planet ever discovered. Kepler-70b and Kepler-70c are believed to be hotter. However, these planets are not original. They are remnants of planets that plowed through the atmosphere of the red giant star they orbited. However, KELT-9b is the hottest unprocessed planet ever discovered.

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