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ASU faculty and student researchers help put the science in science fiction and the fact in fantasy at the annual Phoenix Comicon.

Spider-Man and a Tusken Raider pose for a selfie in front of the Millennium Falcon at Phoenix Comicon 2015. Photo by Francis Farrelly/Phoenix Comicon under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/)

By Erin Barton

May 16, 2016

From the mutant-making X-genes and Tony Stark’s gold-titanium alloy suit to Jedi lightsabers and Star Trek’s alien races, science—or at least the idea of it—has long been a staple of comic books, movies and TV shows. Even Superman, a font of impossible powers, offers pseudo-scientific reasons for what he can do, mostly involving the differences between his home planet Krypton and Earth.

But how much of that “science” is real? Could be real? Has any sort of grounding in reality?

Scientists and researchers from Arizona State University will answer these and other questions in June at the annual Phoenix Comicon as part of the event’s science track.

They will have their work cut out for them. Ever since Lev Horodyskyj, a senior instructional designer in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, “took it from the grave” four years ago, Comicon’s science programming has boomed in popularity. About 150 people attended each science panel last year and 120 researchers participated, according to Bekah Brubaker, one of the event’s volunteer organizers.

“We want to get people to realize that science is everywhere,” she says. This includes her own hands. Brubaker’s long, pointed nails are painted black and red, with one finger on each hand decorated with an atom and another with a DNA strand.

An ASU alumna and molecular biologist, Brubaker recently gave a talk on the science of villainy. She thought it was appropriate given that her field frequently falls into pop-culture disrepute—think of the experimental serums that create some of the superhero world’s most-wanted.

Comi-what?

A comic con, short for comic convention, is an event where artists, actors, writers, media producers and directors, businesses and fans of all geeky flavors come together to celebrate and promote popular culture.

As the name suggests, comic books are a prominent part of a comic con, but the bigger events also highlight novels, TV shows, movies and games in seemingly infinite subgenres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Many attendees come elaborately dressed as their favorite characters. You might find Batman sharing a pizza with the Joker in the food court while a horde of zombies lurch toward the next anime panel.

In 2015, Phoenix Comicon welcomed more than 75,000 attendees. Putting the focus on the science (or lack thereof) in pop fiction is one way the organizers in Phoenix have put a unique spin on our native con. With the event’s proximity to ASU, the university’s researchers are heavily represented on the science panels, but they are joined by scientists and scholars from Arizona’s other public universities, medical facilities, professional organizations and more.

This year is the first in which the event’s science panels are operating as a separate entity, giving the event the distinction of being the only U.S. comic con to have a dedicated science track. It is also the only one to offer professional development certificates to K-12 educators, with the approval of the Arizona Department of Education. That’s because a talk may ostensibly be about how gamma radiation could not actually create the Incredible Hulk, but in the process of hearing physicists debunk Bruce Banner’s scientific mishaps you can learn a lot about what gamma radiation actually can do.

The education is not just for the attendees, however.

“The goal is to promote science literacy and science communication,” Brubaker says. That means literacy for the public and communication for the scientists themselves. “We want balance, not just the big guys on the panels.”

Ironclad science

Heni Ben Amor, a manga enthusiast and roboticist at ASU’s School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, will be participating in a panel on the science behind Iron Man. He is also bringing one or two students with him to help them hone the ability to convey their work to the public.

“Whether it's in the beginning, when you communicate your ideas and try to get feedback from your peers and reviews, or whether it's at the end after you finish the experiment and you want to convey why this experiment and the results are important and how they fit into the global picture—all of that is a communication process,” he says. “I hope that in this less formal set-up students can learn that without any hesitation.”

Picture of Heni Ben Amor and a cartoon depiction of him
Heni Ben Amor, an associate professor of engineering at ASU, builds robots and will participate in a panel about the science of Iron Man at Phoenix Comicon in June. He also enjoys reading and drawing manga, and produced the illustration on the right. 

Of course, the learning opportunity is not the only draw for Ben Amor and his students.

“To be honest,” he says, “it's fun and it's cool.”

Ben Amor’s work is pretty cool, too. He explores machine learning and human-robot cooperation and was inspired to pursue a robotics career in part through his love of comics and sci-fi. In particular, he was influenced by the manga, Grendizer, about a scientist who builds robots to protect the Earth from invasion, and—unsurprisingly—the Iron Man movie.

“That movie had a very strong effect on me and a lot of other robotic scientists. Because it very nicely depicted a situation where robotics, virtual reality, human-machine interaction—all of this came together in order to create one vision of how these can be integrated together, which is very appealing and makes sense,” Ben Amor says. “Quite often I actually motivate my talks with scenes from Iron Man. Even in my scientific talks, I would basically start with a video from Tony Stark and say, ‘Okay how do we get there? What do we need as a technology?’”

This year the science track organizers have planned about 45 panels. In addition to “Science of Iron Man: The Real Tony Stark,” there will be “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat: The Science of Jaws,” “Human Enhancement in Captain America Civil War,” “Eye in the Sky: The Science of Drones,” and “X-Men, Mutations, and You,” to name just a few.

See more videos of Heni Ben Amors' robots in action here, here and here.

The most foreign language

The organizers are also diversifying the panel experts and topics by bringing in more humanities and social science scholars. This year, such panels include “Good and evil: What Science and Humanism Have to Say About How to Save the World” and “Qapla’! How to Make Your Own Language.”

In the latter panel, Carrie Gillon, an ASU assistant professor of English, will talk about alien languages and what they might look like.

“Language is biological,” says Gillon. “Languages share certain properties in common. There are many rules that language could have, but doesn't. If you were asking a question, you don't just reverse the word order. No language does that to create a question. But maybe an alien language would. Maybe aliens have different brains and have different ways of structuring their language. And maybe we wouldn't even recognize it.”

Like Ben Amor, Gillion has invited two students from her language creation class to join her. In the class, students are required to create their own languages, a la the master language-smith himself, J. R. R. Tolkien. This year, the diverse creations included a Sith language, a goblin language and an Underground Railroad language.

Gillon says that participating in Comicon is not just about answering people’s burning questions about Klingon versus Quenya. It also benefits her field.

“For one thing, it's one way of getting linguistics out there. Because for a long time, nobody even knew what linguistics was and it's just now becoming popular enough to be in TV shows. So it's a good way to get the field out there, get people excited about language and to dispel some myths,” she says, adding, “But also it's just kind of fun to hang out with other nerds.”

Nerding out with Gillon is certainly fun. For instance, she offers sage advice on how to become a fellow Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, noting that the secret is to skip the first season and start with the second. She also points out the show’s linguistic value, with clever word play and a Shakespearian tendency toward interesting lexical creations. 

If you too would like to get your geek on with folks like Gillon and Ben Amor, assemble your posse of preferred superheroes and head over to the Phoenix Convention Center July 2–5. Even if you aren’t much of a comic book fan, you’re sure to enjoy the science. Because science is cool. Just like bowties. 

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