Science — No Longer Just Fiction — at Comic-Con

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Knowledge@Wharton technology and media editor Kendall Whitehouse recently returned from San Diego Comic-Con, where he noted the extent to which real-world science was conspicuous at this year’s fan fest.

Comic-Con International: San Diego is overflowing with all things pop culture — comic books, movies, television shows, and video games covering the realms of superheroes, fantasy, and science fiction. At this year’s annual pop culture fest, real-world science was also a prominently featured.

San Diego Comic-Con has long had a multifaceted, ever-morphing array of content, which frequently includes panel discussions on the interplay of science and science fiction, such as this year’s “The Science of Star Wars.” Beyond the fictional trips to a galaxy far, far away, however, Comic-Con also offered a number of panel sessions focusing on science in the real world.

“Science Fiction, Science Future,” hosted by San Diego’s Fleet Science Center brought together science fiction writers, including The Martian‘s Andy Weir, with a NASA research scientist, an aerospace engineer, and a health sciences expert. “No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars” featured three scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “2017: The State of Iron Man Tech,” moderated by Steve Broback of Dent the Future, included Gravity.co founder Richard Browning, who is developing a personal jet suit, and Chris Gerty, an informatics subsystem expert from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

In addition, new this year at Comic-Con was the 9,000 square foot Futurism and Tech Pavilion in the Grand Ballroom of the Omni San Diego. (Comic-Con long ago outgrew the confines of the San Diego Convention Center and has expanded to a number of hotel ballrooms and performance venues around the city.)

‘The Real Geeks Are Here Now’

As the fans and costumed cosplayers from the previous panel exited the Convention Center’s room 6DE on Sunday this year, the 884-seat venue filled up again for the “Science Fiction, Science Future” panel. “The real geeks are here now,” stated Maryann Fuller as she looked around the room. Fuller, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology, was attending the panel with her adult daughter. She recalled the period during the early years of the space program when there was a passion for science education. “I went outside to watch Sputnik,” she recalled. Fuller hopes introducing science fact — not “fake [news], like now” — into a conference that largely focuses on fiction and fantasy will help to revitalize an interest in true science. “Elon Musk is doing today what Sputnik did for me,” in terms of spurring the scientific imagination, she explained.

Beyond the fictional trips to a galaxy far, far away, however, Comic-Con also offered a number of panel sessions focusing on science in the real world.

The reciprocal relationship between science fiction and science fact was frequently acknowledged at these panel sessions. A common theme from many of the speakers was, in the words of Dr. Stuart Lee, a lead research scientist at NASA, the “symbiotic relationship” between science fiction and the advancement of science knowledge.

Author Weir stressed that all the science described in The Martian is real or a fairly straightforward extension of real science. Conversely, NASA scientist Lee noted that when scientists run into a problem they seemingly can’t solve, science fiction often provides “an inspiration to try to do something different.”

Chris Gerty, a NASA aerospace engineer working to develop a heads-up display for a new generation of space flight suit, found practical ideas in the helmet display used by Iron Man in the Marvel Studio films. While some of glitzy features the movie’s effects team concocted were just for show, “other stuff is actually very useful,” according to Gerty.

Lee views “science fiction as goal,” to see things that might be possible, while using science “to figure out what is not particularly plausible.” Jet suit inventor Browning expressed a similar view speaking in the hallway following the “Iron Man Tech” panel. Science fiction writers are people “with wonderful imaginations without the boundaries of commercialism or practicality,” he observed. “It’s unburdened, unbridled imagination and creatively that inspires people [through films and science fiction] and leads to these actual discoveries.”

Lee views “science fiction as goal,” to see things that might be possible, while using science “to figure out what is not particularly plausible.”

While Browning acknowledged the “freedom of thought” that science fiction offers, he also emphasized the need for repeated experimentation. Innovation is about “going down lots of avenues, and most of them not working,” he noted. “Twenty-nine out of 30 of the…ideas don’t work, but the one every now and then changes the game.”

Predicting the Future

When looking back through history, the prognosticatory ability of science fiction seems impressive, indeed. Jules Verne predicted interplanetary travel in his 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon. Verne’s Captain Nemo commanded a submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and The Mysterious Island (1874). Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward describes the future world of 2000 in which payments are made by credit cards. H.G. Wells envisioned “land ironclad” tanks with remote controlled guns in a 1903 story in Strand Magazine. Famed science fiction writer and editor Hugo Gernsback described video conferencing in 1911. Comic strip hero Dick Tracy sported a two-way wrist radio in 1946, long before companies like Apple introduced smart watches.

Predicting the future can be a tricky business, however.

Weir’s meticulously researched work got tripped up by the advancing progress of science. Weir was at pains to make clear that when he wrote The Martian, the prevailing theory was that most of Mars was desert, with very little water (except some at the poles). After the book was published, however, scientists discovered there is roughly 35 liters of water stored as ice in every cubic meter of Martian soil. All Mark Watney, the astronaut trapped on Mars in Weir’s book, needed to do was heat up some of the soil to boil out the water.

Many of the futuristic fantasies of fiction writers — flying cars, boundless energy, time travel — have not come true. (At least, not yet.) Even technologies displayed in impressive public demonstrations decades ago have failed to become reality. The Bell Aerosystems Rocket Belt was demonstrated in the early 1960s, and even made a cameo appearance in the James Bond film Thunderball. But, alas, personal jetpacks are still a future dream.

In the more science-focused panels … a different view of the prospects for humanity emerged.

Which prompted me to ask Richard Browning about the practicality of his flying jet suit. Browning emphasized that he wasn’t motivated by either commercialism or practicality. “I went down this pathway because I love… taking on challenges that look almost impossible,” he said. He admits his device won’t be used for commuting or taking the kids to school in the near future. In addition to currently providing a maximum of only 10 minutes of flight time, “it’s very inefficient and it can be dangerous if you don’t handle it correctly,” he noted. Yet, when you take what he termed a “joy-fueled exploration of what’s possible,” you often uncover practical applications that weren’t initially apparent. With the rate at which the system is advancing, Browning sees applications for emergency services and military operations that may soon be practical.

The efficiency of the jet suit was dramatically demonstrated at an informal gathering at a local brewery later that evening. Hosted by Dent the Future, the event was billed as a causal get-together with Browning and actor and stunt woman Zoë Bell. During the panel earlier in the day, there were hints that attendees might witness something special at the evening event. And, indeed, midway through the gathering, guests were invited to assemble outside in the parking area and given earplugs (the jet suit is very loud). Browning then lifted off the ground a couple of feet and flew around in his jet suit for several minutes.

Getting Better All the Time

Over on the huge screens in Comic-Con’s largest room, the 6,500-seat Hall H, the future can look rather bleak.

A zombie plague spreads across the globe in The Walking Dead. The perils of artificial intelligence become evident in Westworld. “In a year, there can be no way to sustain human life,” according to the fourth season trailer for TNT’s The Last Ship. Clips from the forthcoming big budget films Blade Runner 2049 and Ready Player One portray a desolate future.

In the more science-focused panels, however, a different view of the prospects for humanity emerged. “Sci-fi seems to have been high jacked by dystopian futures,” Weir stated. “Most of the sci-fi coming out now are these bleak, miserable views of the future.” Weir doesn’t subscribe to that view. While acknowledging the possibilities of negative uses of technology, overall “the quality of life of humanity has just been going up and up and up, and it’s directly related to technology.”

The interplay of science and science fiction may help to advance that progress. As writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke noted in 1962, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Perhaps the melding of science fiction and science fact at San Diego Comic-Con will advance that journey.

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