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The Mass Media

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February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

Have A “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey” at MIT Museum

On April 23, the cracks between dimensions and ripples in spacetime were felt as Doctor Who fans of all ages (also known as Whovians) came from all over to explore the science behind Doctor Who at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Museum in Cambridge.

The MIT Museum is not completely “hands off the exhibits” as an art museum would be. No, instead they had pieces that encouraged you to engage with them. It’s similar to the Museum of Science (also in Cambridge), but smaller and perhaps more updated.

That night, the floors were decked out for Doctor Who. Not only were there flags and banners of things from the show, such as Cybermen, Daleks, and the faces of the Doctors and his companions, but also with little high tables, upon which were snacks like potato chips, pretzels, and the like.

To start off the night, there were seven research groups visiting to tell fans that all the science fiction in this beloved show was soon to become science fact.

First off was Dr. Scott Hughes, a physics professor at MIT, who claimed he could time travel, like the Doctor’s TARDIS (a telephone box that acts as a time machine). With humor, he had audience close their eyes and open them 5 seconds later. He congratulated them upon opening their eyes: “You’re now five seconds into the future!” He explained how Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity, then later his theory of special relativity, and upon the latter he expanded his research-backed ideas on time travel.

Next was Dr. Alexandra Pontefract, a post-doctoral fellow in the “Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes” project at MIT.  She explained that because the same elements and molecules that compose life on Earth are also abundant everywhere else in the universe, somewhere out in those 200 billion galaxies, there is an arrangement of environmental conditions and ratio of elements that is conducive to life. Just like the Adipose and Zygon aliens in Doctor Who, they all share humanoid features, probably because they come from the same place, or are made up of the same star stuff.

The research behind the work has potential for development in healthcare, as demonstrated by Dr. Marc Kaufman, director of the translational imaging laboratory at McLean Hospital. In Doctor Who, there is an alien variety called “the Silents” who all look the same, don’t really talk, and whenever you look away from them, you forgot they ever existed. Dr. Kaufman presented research claiming that certain levels of exposure to Xenon gas can lead to memory loss. Perhaps when a member of the Silents exhaled, they exhaled dense Xenon gas, a colorless and odorless gas, which their victims inhale in large amounts, and instantly forget their presence.

In the case of the Silents, that spells trouble for us, but in the case of PTSD victims, this can be a very good thing. Research is being done on mice, showing that they can forget a certain association that had been reinforced by exposure to Xenon gas when a certain stimuli is present. The ultimate hope for the research is for PTSD patients to no longer be afflicted by debilitating flashbacks, anxiety, and sleepless nights through Xenon gas therapy.

Dr. Peter Reddien, a professor of biology at MIT, with his graduate student assistant Deniz Atabay, presented their research on Planarians, a kind of flatworm that regenerate whenever and wherever you cut them. The pathway by which the Planarian’s genes tell the pieces to regenerate has many implications for genetic engineering.

Up next were post-doctoral fellows Mohsen Jamali, and Ziev Moses at the Williams Lab and Harvard Medical School. In Doctor Who, there are the evil alien Cybermen who abduct people of all races and turn them into cyborgs, eventually to be upgraded into full-on robots. Is this possible in real life? Well, perhaps not, but Jamali and Moses are working with people suffering with paralysis, giving them robotic appendages to help gain some utility. Using Brain-Machine Interface, or BMI, the patient controls a robotic arm simply with their thoughts. Paralysis affects 5.5 million Americans alone, and the possibility of becoming paralyzed also increases greatly after having a stroke.

Will Langford, Ammelia Ghasser, and Prashant Patil, graduate researchers at the Gershenfeld Lab at MIT, analyzed the development of the TARDIS. Not only is the TARDIS a time machine, but it is also larger inside than it is outside. The three researchers are working with “digital materials,” comparable to Legos and amino acids, since they are buildable and easily taken apart. They are small scale materials with special properties such as self-morphing (changing shape) and self-healing. Currently, the research group is programming software that lets them model how these materials behave. Humans are a long ways off from creating something that is bigger on the inside that on the out, but digital materials like the ones that this group are developing are in the right direction.

The last presentation was made by Dr. Charles Jennings, director of the McGovern Institute neurotechnology program at MIT, called “Brain Mechanisms for Moral Decision-Making (Why the Daleks Don’t Care).” He referenced several research efforts and Davros, the evil villain from the “Genesis of The Daleks” (1975) episode of Doctor Who, was the progenitor of the Daleks, a race of evil aliens whose body is mostly brain matter. Davros used chemicals to alter the brain structure of normal humanoid Kaleds and bred the resulting creatures into hateful, aggressive monsters.

In our universe, however, there have been brain “organoids” (not full brains or anything capable of thought) grown from stem cells, tests on fruit flies to affect aggressiveness, and brain scans that show that different areas of the brain as being active in the comparison with normal people and people affected by psychopathy.  Dr. Jennings ended the presentation saying that the brain is pretty complex and engineering a Dalek is either pointless or wouldn’t work anyways. Humans have evolved to be prosocial, empathetic, and altruistic. These mechanisms have been proven to increase the likelihood of survival for the entire species, and the Dalek’s method just encourages death.

After the last presentation, the audience was released into the museum to try different activities including translating English to Gallifreyan, electronics for neural-prosthetics, building your own adipose, community-knit scarves for The Doctor, and a TARDIS scavenger hunt.