When Cutting-Edge Science Meets Science Fiction, It Packs the House

At Future Con, fans of sci-fi, fantasy and comics met the researchers and engineers who are bringing their stories to life

A young padawan asks astrophysicist Erin Macdonald a question at a Future Con panel. This year, Smithsonian's Future Con took place as a special programming track within Awesome Con, leading to a number of serendipitous moments like this. Courtesy of Awesome Con

Real, hard science, it turns out, draws huge crowds. Especially when it’s explaining the truth behind today's biggest pop culture phenomena—and what’s on tap for the very near future.

At Awesome Con, Washington D.C.’s annual comics/pop culture convention, attendees waited in line to get into panel talks on the real science of their favorite sci-fi and fantasy books, comics and movies. A crowd groaned when informed that all 200 seats inside a session on the genetics of the world of Harry Potter had been filled. Around the corner, outside a much-larger room, dozens more waited for the chance to listen to how nanotechnology might make space elevators and targeted cancer therapy a reality.

Presented in parnership with Awesome Con, Smithsonian magazine’s Future Con showcased dozens of sessions on bleeding-edge science, technology, engineering and space exploration. Science panels covered space lasers, faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, cyborgs—a gamut of subjects that were once only fever dreams of creators like Ray Bradbury and Gene Roddenberry.

“Our fans obviously love Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who, and we know they care deeply about real-world scientific advances in the same way they’re fascinated with science fiction,” said Awesome Con founder Ben Penrod, in a release. “Future Con makes Awesome Con a space not just to entertain, but to inspire and educate. We hope we can play a small part in creating the inventors, engineers, educators and astronauts of tomorrow.”

From June 16 to 18, an estimated 60,000 attendees took breaks from relishing each others’ costumes and eagerly standing in celebrity autograph lines to pop into more than 30 Future Con sessions with presenters from NASA, the National Science Foundation, universities, the Science Channel, museums and industry researchers.

Kicked off by a special presentation of StarTalk Live!, a podcast progeny of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popular radio show, guest host and former International Space Station commander Colonel Chris Hadfield set the tone for the weekend by asking probing questions of podcast guests about what will be needed for human exploration of space in the very near future.

“It’s the 500-year anniversary of Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, and now we’re starting to look toward colonizing off-planet,” Hadfield said. “We’ll need the same as all explorers from history: better vehicles, better engines, better human interfaces.”

StarTalk guest Katherine Pratt, a neurosecurity researcher with the University of Washington, spoke about the potential usefulness of a remote-operated surgical robot her lab developed. And Suveen Mathaudhu discussed how his work in ultra-lightweight metals and novel materials at the University of California will help humanity embark on its next big voyage.

“The old explorers took some tools, but then used the resources they found when they got to their destination,” Mathaudhu told Hadfield. “Our whole universe is made up of a few basic things—iron, silicon, nickel—we just need to be able to take what we find and convert it to be able to stay where we go.”

Other requirements, for Mars colonization or anywhere else, show guests suggested, include controlled gravity, high-density power sources, radiation protection, and “potatoes that don’t require poop to grow,” chimed in cohost and Big Hero Six actor Scott Adsit. “Netflix!” added Irish comedian Maeve Higgins.

Mathaudhu and Pratt went into more depth on the work they do during a separate session on augmentation of human abilities through technology, like research underway on brain-computer interfaces. One project, for example, underway at Pratt’s home institution is a brain stimulation project that aims to allow subjects to “feel” sensation from a prosthetic limb, for example.

“I’m interested in how signals get to and from a device to the brain, like Geordi’s [LaForge] visor in "Star Trek," or Furiosa’s arm in Mad Max: Fury Road,” Pratt said. “We can do it now, but it’s clunky and hard to train. There’s a lot of research that’s going into touch—how to figure out surface friction, how much grip you need to pick something up. A lot more needs to be done, but we have a good start.”

When Cutting-Edge Science Meets Science Fiction, It Packs the House
Future Con offered a chance to see StarTalk Live! with guest host Chris Hadfield (center). Also pictured: co-host Scott Adsit, Katherine Pratt, Suveen Mathadhu, Maeve Higgins. Courtesy of Awesome Con

Separate sessions delved deeper. One particularly popular panel was about space lasers. While the Death Star isn’t on the near horizon, lasers, according to NASA outreach specialist Kate Ramsayer, are currently starring in missions to map Earth and the moon in chiseled detail.

They’re also on the cusp of revolutionizing communications. A 2013 laser communication demonstration from LADEE, NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, beamed a high-definition video down to Earth at 622 megabits per second with a half-watt laser. It took only a few seconds to transmit the video, compared to the two hours it typically takes to send that much data from the moon. The experiment was an important step towards realizing broadband-like speeds for deep-space communication as well as here on Earth.

“The amount of data we were able to downlink from the moon is astounding,” said Jennifer Sager, a NASA engineer and LADEE mission lead. “If we’d used our regular radio-frequency system, it would have taken us two hours. You will see capabilities in your home improve based on these advancements in laser communications.”

Cryospheric scientist Brooke Medley also explained why the lasers on ICESat-2 that will be measuring Antarctic topography after its launch in 2018 are so important: to gain a clearer view of what happens to all that ice as seas warm.

“Antarctica is two times the size of the continental U.S.,” Medley said. “We can’t possibly measure the sheets from the ground or even a plane. You wouldn’t go to San Diego and think that because it’s sunny here, it must be sunny in New York as well—it’s the same thing with the ice in Antarctica. The ice is changing differently according to different forces, so we must measure it with satellites.”

ICESat-2 will provide data on Earth’s polar and temperate regions for ice scientists, forest ecologists and atmospheric scientists to analyze. Though the satellite is designed for a three-year lifespan, it will continue to transmit data as long as it’s working properly, Ramsayer added.

Thomas Bicknell, 14, of Haymarket, Virginia, attended the session with his mother, Arwen, for the reason many people gave when asked what drew their interest: it looked cool.

“I do subscribe to a YouTube channel by a guy who makes lasers and shows how much energy they each use,” Bicknell said. “The panel just seemed interesting.”

“It’s lasers in space,” his mother added. “How can you go wrong?”

Elsewhere, visitors cheered as former "Doctor Who" star David Tennant took the main stage for a chat with scientists about his character’s fictional travels through space and time and what we know about the real edges of our galaxy and universe. In two other jam-packed sessions, astrophysicist Erin Macdonald explored similar themes, describing how multiverses, artificial gravity, holes in spacetime and time travel may or may not be possible based on current observations, theories and mathematical models.

Macdonald, a former researcher at the Laser Inferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)—before it announced last year that gravitational waves had been detected for the first time—cracked "Futurama" jokes and played snippets from popular video games like Mass Effect to help even the youngest members of her audience wrap their minds around the tough stuff.

“There’s such a passion for the science fiction fandoms themselves that people like to learn whatever they can about them,” Macdonald said of the popularity of the science sessions at a sci-fi/pop culture convention. “And parents… might not be able to answer questions their kids have or want to spend a Thursday night at a university lecture on physics. If you’re here and you have an hour to kill,” it’s an easy way to learn something new, she added.

Books, television, video games, movies and comic books will continue to play an important role in exposing science to a whole new generation of thinkers and tinkerers, said Ann Merchant, deputy director of communications at the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange. The office connects Hollywood directors and producers with the scientific community, which offers advice and guidance on how to increase the use of science in movies while making it more interesting and authentic.

And, added Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, all these different forms of media—along with the hidden science they may carry—also often leads to something intrinsically necessary for progress.

“You never know how inspiration comes to people,” Green said. “It could be from a movie, or from talking to a teacher—or an astronaut. If it’s a movie that sparks an interest in finding out more about the Higgs Boson particle, that’s the start of a journey. It gives us an opportunity to dream, and without dreams, you’ll never be able to live them. Dreaming to go to Mars will become a reality.

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