Two Days at San Diego Comic-Con 2019

Avengers cosplayers in the audience of the Friday panel.

It might surprise you to know just how much science gets into the mix at Comic-Con. This never makes it to the news of course – instead its all stories about people dressing up in costumes, and of course features about big movie and TV announcements. Somewhere inside this legendary pop culture maelstrom there’s something for nearly everyone, and that includes science. Which is as it should be. Here’s a look at two days I spent there. [I took some photos! (All except two here – You can click on any photo to enlarge it.]

Day 1 – Friday

I finalized my schedule rather late, and so wasn’t sure of my hotel needs until it was far too late to find two nights in a decent hotel within walking distance of the San Diego Convention Center — well, not for prices that would fit with a typical scientist’s budget. So, I’m staying in a motel that’s about 20 minutes away from the venue if I jump into a Lyft.

My first meeting is over brunch at the Broken Yolk at 10:30am, with my fellow panellists for the panel at noon, “Entertaining Science: The Real, Fake, and Sometimes Ridiculous Ways Science Is Used in Film and TV”. They are Donna J. Nelson, chemist and science advisor for the TV show Breaking Bad (she has a book about it), Rebecca Thompson, Physicist and author of a new book about the science of Game of Thrones, and our moderator Rick Loverd, the director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, an organization set up by the National Academy of Sciences. I’m on the panel also as an author (I wrote and drew a non-fiction graphic novel about science called The Dialogues). My book isn’t connected to a TV show, but I’ve worked on many TV shows and movies as a science advisor, and so this rounds out the panel. All our books are from MIT press, which is not a coincidence – they organised this panel. Joining us at brunch is also Jessica Pellien, who works at the Press. We are meeting to make sure that everybody knows each other before the panel, and to get a sense of what the flow of ideas might be, without going into any detail so as not to kill spontaneity. Time flies as we talk about pretty much everything else but the panel – a few minutes was enough to assure all that we’ve got the inter-personal chemistry and the material to make it fly – and at 11:35 we’re standing on the sidewalk outside the restaurant realising that we should be calling a taxi or Lyft to make sure we get to the venue in time for the noon start!

We make it, with 10 minutes to spare, and the panel goes well. We have a packed double hotel ballroom (The Marriott Marquis next to the convention center), and the audience is full of enthusiasm. It’s a wide-ranging conversation expertly steered by Rick, covering a range of topics.

Photo by MIT Press

There are details like the nature of metallurgy and forging swords, the nature of depicting chemistry of drug manufacture on TV without also becoming a how-to manual, and the fact that gravity makes time flow very differently for people on a planet’s surface as compared those in orbit. I also talk about what I think are two of the most important aspects of being a science advisor: encouraging storytellers to show more of the process of doing science, and to encourage them to show a wider variety of types of people who do science. There are procedural issues about what it is like being an advisor on set of a show or movie, how one interacts with writers and directors, the difference between science advising for TV vs movies, and of course the big question: why some scientists spend time doing this sort of thing at all. I’ll return to this issue at the end. (Some highlights are on video here.)

After the panel there are one-on-one questions from audience members who approach afterwards, including requests to take photos and sign things. After this, I meet with Rick, Rebecca, and some writers and producer friends and acquaintances and listen to talk about the industry for a while, over drinks and snacks in one of the hotel’s restaurants. Here, I learned from Rebecca that the excellent low-key Wonder Woman jacket she’s wearing was obtained at last year’s Con and the makers have a booth here this year. I wander the main exhibition hall in the convention center a little bit, picking up one of those jackets for my wife’s birthday present (it’s the last one they have!), and just soaking up the atmosphere. There’s costumes to see, of course, and movie/TV stuff everywhere, but there’s also books, and yes, comics and comics’ artists displaying their wares and skills.

I enjoy wandering the exhibition hall. It’s full of life, yes, but nowhere have I seen the overcrowding and accompanying unpleasantness that people always seem to report, either on the news, or from personal stories. It’s busy, but there’s room to move around. If you don’t have your heart set on being at some very particular popular event, you can just avoid the long lines for those, and enjoy all the other things there are to do and see. People are pleasant to each other, complimenting each other on costumes, taking selfies together, and so on. There’s no leering or belittling, and everyone seems in good temper. There are all kinds of people of different persuasions, coming together to celebrate fantasy, fiction, dreams of the future, the past, the world as it might have been, and still might be. It’s simply wonderful to see. It strikes me that nobody seems to point out that this event, and cons like it all around the world, are quietly becoming among the most successful celebrations of diversity, inclusiveness, and self-expression anywhere.

But I digress. Later on, I run into my friend the writer Cecil Castellucci, who was on her way to a big press conference and panel with some of the DC top brass. They’ve recently announced a bit of exciting news that she’s had to keep secret for some time: She’s going to be writing Batgirl! This is great news, as her work on various DC titles over the last few years has been a great example of how transformative it can be to introduce new voices and points of view into the creative process. We chat for a minute, break while she gives some of her books to an enthusiastic fan that approached her, and then she flits off to do her thing. (There’s an interview here.)

One of the people who came up at the end of my panel was the bestselling author Blake Crouch. I’d not met him in person before, but I had been science advisor on two of his books, so it was great to see him. At 5:00, I go to a panel entitled “How Our Present Impacts Today’s Speculative Fiction” which he is on along with three other writers. It is pleasant to just be an audience member for a while, and I listen to them discussing how they craft their books, do their research, and tell their stories. Blake is a big science fan, and he talks about how he reads science news stories, and journals, learns of discoveries and ideas, and then sits and thinks about how it can be the basis of a narrative, a cautionary tale, or just a fun adventure. He even mentions how he’s called up a scientist to get guidance on how to shape the science content, mentioning me by name, which was a bit of a surprise.

After that, I wander outside for a bit, watching more costumed people, families, and people old and young enjoying the festivities. After sitting down by the waterfront for a while I wander into the Gaslamp Quarter across from the Convention Center and go to an event I know least about in advance. It’s a reception followed by a dinner and I was invited to go to it by Steve Broback, the organiser of a panel I was asked to be on some weeks before. At the time, it did not fit my schedule and so I’d declined. It’s another organization (Dent the Future) bringing people together to discuss ideas, mostly based on science and technology, and so I was invited to join the social gathering even though I could not do the panel. Cocktails and (later dinner) was with a fascinating group with people like genetic genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter, former CIA agents, cyber defence experts (for a panel on Espionage technology) and Biologists and technologists including Poppy Crum, Shane Campbell-Staton, Nathan Lents, and record-holding free diver Mandy-Rae Krack (for a panel about how modern science is making people more “super”). Oh, and the guest of honour is actor LeVar Burton, a big science fan and literacy advocate, who turns out to be a delight to listen to holding forth on various subjects.

Day 2 – Saturday

A Lyft from the motel puts me at the Convention Center again. My first stop is back at the main exhibit hall since I myself will be an exhibit, in a sense. I’ve got a book signing session at Mysterious Galaxy books, signing my non-fiction graphic book (The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe), while sitting alongside Donna J. Nelson who is signing her book (The Science of Breaking Bad). Pretty soon into the 45 minute session I realize that sitting there with a pile of books looking hopeful and smiling shyly at whoever accidentally catches your eye is not the way to shift much of the product. But English reserve means that initially I’m not able to just tell people to come over and look at this book I made. So I start catching people’s attention by talking about Donna’s book, calling out openers like “Sir! You like Breaking Bad, right?”, or just “Science, over here!”. This actually starts a bit of a buzz, and my inner carnival barker comes out some more over the session, and many books are sold and signed, and even a few science questions are asked and answered.

I wander the floor again, taking in all sorts of new things I’d not seen the day before (including vast amounts of LEGOs left out for people to build with, artists sketching characters on the spot, displays of remarkable sculptures of creatures from Guillermo del Toro movies). I scan the schedule looking to see if there are any more panels I want to sit in on, and thinking about where to go and have lunch. And then a thought occurs to me: I could do a useful bit of preparation for the big panel I’ll be on this evening, all about the physics of time travel and Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, which I’d not seen since its opening week – I could go see the movie again!

Some quick fire googling reveals that the movie theatre in the Fashion Valley mall 20 minutes away that is going to show it in 35 minutes. The mall also has food options. So with the aid of a swift Lyft ride, I’m soon sitting with a tasty sandwich in front of a giant screen with a buzz of excitement all over again as the movie starts. Just as I remembered from my first viewing, it’s an impressively crafted narrative, fun and funny, while also dark and moving. I make a mental note to personally congratulate Christopher Markus (one of the co-writers) on that when I see him in 45 minutes, since he’ll be on the panel with me.

Lyft and some swift footwork get me to the green room at the convention center where I find all my co-panellists: Christopher, and several physicists from UC San Diego (Eric Michelsen, Kim Griest, and Elizabeth Simmons), and Steven Snyder the director of San Diego’s Fleet Science Center, the organization behind this panel: “Time Travel in the Quantum Realm”. After introductions are done, the main bit of news is that it is about to be officially announced that Endgame has just broken the record ($2.79 billion) for the all-time highest box-office takings of a movie. Of course, my immediate joke is that my having bought a ticket for it just a few hours earlier was what put it over the top. It does not occur to me until later that there’s something rather nice about having been a science advisor for a movie that has reached so very many people. Andrea Decker, the person from Fleet who set up the panel, makes sure that we move to the venue without incident, and settle.

Photo by Fleet Science Center

The panel, under the guidance of our moderator, was a huge success, with a massive and enthusiastic audience, and great conversations between the various panellists. Christopher Markus, the writer, started out talking about the process of planning and writing the movie (back in the fall of 2015), and various narrative challenges they had. He then talked about how they landed on the idea of using time travel. They then decided to consult experts on the science of space and time, and that’s where I came in (in fact, they got in touch with the scientists they spoke to through the Science and Entertainment Exchange, that organization I mentioned earlier). Next up, I described the process of brainstorming with the people in the room (writers Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely, one of the directors, Anthony Russo, and various producers) about different modes of time travel as used in other narratives, and as sometimes explored and mused on by scientists. Of course, all such conversations start with the core fact: that time travel into the past is fraught with difficulty and isn’t even close to a reality as far as we know. It may well be completely forbidden by the laws of physics. Given that, my job as a science advisor is to be in service to the story, so I was giving them advice and ideas from the real science of the universe that could help give this fictional scenario an air of authenticity, by at least being inspired by real science, in order to enhance the tale. Their job was to sift through all that advice in order to help build their movie. (In fact, in that session we talked about a lot more than just the science, but also the idea of taking the opportunity to show different kinds of scientist, show problem solving, etc.) The various other panellists, with different kinds of expertise, gave their take on time travel, and how it impacts with the kind of science they are excited about, whether it be subatomic physics, relativistic physics, or combinations of the two. The ensuing discussion was excellent, and fun to be part of, and the audience seemed to enjoy it too, with lot of great questions later on. There’s video of it here if you’re interested.

Panel over, we’re approached by several enthusiastic people with follow-up questions. I do my best to answer my share. Most of them are about the science (some people were intrigued by my statement that you can time travel into the future, using time dilation, so I explain that), but several are about career choices as well, and so I happily answer those too. Then I ran for my Amtrak train, leaving for LA in 30 minutes. It is a stressful business getting a swift response from a taxi or Lyft from that area of San Diego during Saturday night at Comic Con, but I make it, with a few minutes to spare.

You might ask what the point of all of this is. Is it just an elaborate bit of fun for me, or is there some deeper purpose being served? As you might guess, I think that there’s a very important mission being served here, and I actually think that progress is being made too! I often describe my work as “putting science back into the culture, where it belongs”. The idea is that we need, as a culture, to stop treating science as something for nerds, enthusiasts, or special interest groups, and open it up to everyone. Helping with that is part of my duty to our democracy, since science is part of every key decision people make about their lives. So this means making sure that everyone is comfortable with partaking in science of various sorts – showing that they don’t need some sort of special brain in order to do take part in it, or to understand it. Science is for everyone, but we’ll never achieve that goal without fighting the stereotypes in the media about science being difficult and only for geniuses, about scientists being weird. We also need to show how fun and engaging the process of science can be, how curiosity, discovery, and scientific thinking are accessible to all of us. And to inspire with some of the fascinating ideas it can lead to. How do we do all that? Well, if we don’t use media and entertainment tools like movies and TV in this mission (where people spend most of their time looking) then we’re fighting a losing battle. And to do it, we need to be partners with story-tellers. (By the way, the aforementioned Science and Entertainment Exchange was set up in 2008 by the National Academy of Science with the same reasoning in mind, and it has been a game-changer in recent years, helping make thousands of fruitful connections between people working in arts and entertainment and those working in science and engineering.)

This is why it is a big deal that Avengers: Endgame took in over over $2.79 billion (to date). This is a movie that has science at its core – scientist characters using science to solve a problem – while also being the culmination of an impressive sequence of 22 Marvel films (the science even allows us to revisit and re-imagine those films during the narrative). Yes, there’s made-up science, but there’s a lot of nods to real science too, inspiring people to find out more. Finally, scientists were involved in getting it (and many other Marvel films) made, even if only in a small way at times. This all adds up to a lot, since showing that using good science advice in story-telling can pay off in a big way is an important message for the people who make these expensive projects. So we need each other: We can help tell better, new, and more engaging stories, and they help get science, and better portrayals of scientists, in front of massive audiences. This partnership will result in more opportunities to help embed science into all aspects of our culture, and, yes I’m going to say it: Help make the world a better place.


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