Science rocks Comic-Con

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Wednesday, July 15, 2015

You only get this picture, which shows the main hall of the San DIego Convention Center essentially empty, if you have admission on preview day and if you beat the crowds. // All images: Michael E. Bakich
San Diego Comic-Con 2015 is now over. This major pop-culture event ran from July 9 through the 12th, not counting the preview night July 8. Quick summary: It rocked! NASA held two major events, panels concerned with education abounded, and it seemed like every sci-fi and fantasy author was obsessed with “getting the science right.”

Let’s get the big news out of the way first. NASA was back at Comic-Con. The space agency first attended just last year, and the reaction was so overwhelming that administrators decided to return. And the folks at Comic-Con, apparently remembering that a huge crowd couldn’t get into last year’s NASA panel, put these two sessions back to back in their fourth-largest hall, which holds nearly 2,200 people. Both were packed.

Participating panelists in the first session included Aditya Sood, executive producer of The Martian; Adam Nimoy, who is producing a documentary on his late father, Leonard Nimoy; Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at Goddard Space Flight Center; and Kevin Hand, the Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ads for Conan O'Brien's show, including this hotel wrap, were everywhere at Comic-Con. The talk show host originated four shows from San Diego during the convention.
What a great mix of panelists. They provided a well-rounded discussion of the science NASA currently delves into, and they afforded Adam Nimoy time to talk about his father, the documentary, and the many people who told them through the years how Star Trek influenced them to study science.

NASA’s second panel was “Journey to Mars,” and this one focused in on the Red Planet. Participating were Jim Green, director of planetary sciences; Todd May, manager of the Space Launch System Program at Marshall Space Flight Center; Victor Glover, an astronaut at Johnson Space Center), and Andy Weir, author of The Martian.

All were great, but I really liked Victor Glover’s attitude — he had just become an astronaut the day before! Yep, he was one of eight in NASA’s latest graduating class of astronauts. And, man, was he excited. Yet professional. When someone asked him if he planned to be the first person to walk on Mars, rather than say, “You bet” or “Absolutely,” his reply was, “That would be a great honor.” Cool as the other side of the pillow.

Andy Weir added yet another element. The upcoming movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon, is based on his best-selling book of the same name. And although he wasn’t involved in the production of the movie, he was so appreciative that NASA had worked with director Ridley Scott to fact-check everything in the film. It’s a terrific book, and I can’t wait to see the movie.

NASA’s panels weren’t the only science at Comic-Con, not by a long shot. Another was “The Science of Science Fiction: The Science Accuracy Pendulum.” In this one, panelists discussed how a screenwriter can introduce a fantastic notion to the audience — ground the rest of the story in the believable. The seven-member panel featured some big names, including Kevin Murphy, showrunner for Defiance and Caprica; Nicole Perlman, a writer for Guardians of the Galaxy; and Andre Bormanis, a writer for Star Trek and Threshold.

One of the science-related panels I attended in 2015 was "Comics for Impact: STEM Education." The five panelists showed examples of how they've used comics to teach science effectively.
Another excellent panel I attended was “Comics for Impact: STEM Education.” This panel featured five members, but I specifically wanted to chat with Rebecca Thompson, the author of a comic book specifically geared to school-age girls titled, Spectra: The Original Laser Superhero. Thompson was at Comic-Con as part of a group from the American Physical Society, a huge nonprofit group working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics.

The main thrust of this panel was that educators can use comics for teaching science and related fields, but creating such tools requires collaboration between comic authors, scientists, and educators. Each participant discussed an example they had helped create. My goal was to investigate the possibility of creating a comic specifically for educating students about the upcoming August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse. By making contact, I think I got off to a good start.

They say it's not Comic-Con without Stan Lee. I saw the iconic comic-book author (the old dude in the orange sweater) out and about randomly posing with fans. Nice!
Indeed, every year there seems to be more science at Comic-Con. The subject is still a small percentage of goings-on there, but the growth is encouraging. One thing’s for sure: It’ll keep me coming back!

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