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August 2014

Five Times the 2014 San Diego Comic Con Referenced True Science

Here at Automation GT, we are very close to the headquarters of the San Diego Comic Con. Though none of our staff was able to attend the event this year (tickets are famously difficult to get, even for those of us living locally!), there has been plenty of press to keep us all updated on the goings-on in our area.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the San Diego Comic Con is that it does not limit itself to creating press for comic books and publishers. It does not even limit itself to comic-related subject matter across a variety of media types. Rather, SDCC has become a focal point for what might be considered all types of “nerd culture.” This means that each year at SDCC, major studios, publishers, merchandise manufacturers, artists, and video game companies use the convention as an opportunity to make important announcements about their plans for the coming year and to release new products and trailers to the public.

The result is that SDCC plays an important role in the world of science fiction, fantasy, and comics as it provides a reflection of where we are in the world right now and how we understand ourselves through our media, and how we seem to be trying to work through our concerns through our fiction. Because the relationship between science fiction, and real science and technology has been symbiotic in many ways, true science often provides lots of inspiration for science fiction writers, while science fiction provides a means for us to filter and analyze our feelings on scientific advancements, while also sometimes providing inspiration for scientists who want to know what kinds of projects and achievements most capture the public’s imagination (consider the scientifically prescient novels of Jules Verne or the technological foreshadowing in Star Trek).

And SDCC reflected this mutual relationship in many ways:


The 75th Anniversary of Batman

(and our fascination with man enhanced by technology)

This year’s SDCC coincided with the 75th anniversary of the introduction of Batman in comics. Batman is one of the relatively small pool of comic book characters who has survived with origins almost completely intact — that is, Batman has not had his origin story, costume, persona, and characters list radically changed since he was introduced, and while his popularity has fluctuated, he has managed to either stay relevant or return to relevancy for many years.

Batman strikes a particular chord with the popular imagination because underneath his gadgetry and wealth, he is just a human. Unlike Superman or Spider-Man, he does not have any apparent supernatural abilities and he is not anything other than a flesh-and-blood human. This point was highlighted in the recent movies directed by Christopher Nolan. In fact, the movies in Nolan’s series provided a very evident mirror for our opinions on technology and the problems with certain technologies, especially in American politics today.

However, while Batman may appear to be the most realistic type of superhero, in reality it would be effectively impossible for a person to ever be as physically fit and as technologically capable as Batman. In his book, Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero, researcher E. Paul Zehr says that between the physical training and the training to handle all of the expensive and deadly gear that Batman uses, it would take a person between 15 and 18 years of training to reach Batman’s level of success. Zehr estimates that to determine the likelihood that a person could ever become Batman, we would have to multiply the percentage of people who are billionaires by the percentage of people who are decathletes to even get low enough to start considering this as a possibility.

However, many of the gadgets that Batman uses are now a reality including grapling guns, the “batarang,” utility belts, and smoke bombs. In addition, if you have a lot of money sitting around, you can also own motorcycles and cars inspired by Batman’s designs.


Marvel Releases Concept Art for the Next Avengers Movie

(continuing our fascination with chemically, genetically, and physically altered humans)

On the same theme as the idea that Batman is a technologically enhanced human, we have release of the new poster for The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which will feature several visions of altered humans.

The Hulk is a nuclear age monster, a physicist who was transformed into the incredibly strong but uncontrollable creature after accidental exposure to a bomb he had developed. Quite appropriately, the Hulk has become a bit of an icon as a “Cold War creation,” as he was likely born of our fears of uncertainty of the true effects of the nuclear age.

Iron Man, like Batman, is an incredibly rich, troubled playboy with the time and money at hand to develop an extremely advanced technological suit that gives him the strength and power he needs to fight crime. As with Batman, we seem to be unable to conceive of a person who is both rich and powerful without also imagining that they are deeply troubled.

Captain America’s origin story says that he was a soldier who underwent chemical experiments to become the most completely enhanced soldier America could make during World War II (the ironies of his status as a type of Übermensch have not been lost on comic historians).

Iron Man has been the most popular character associated with this franchise, which supports the idea that right now we are especially fascinated by and concerned with the relative lack of control we have over those with money and access to technology. However, the ongoing and renewed interest in all of these other characters suggests that we have not totally buried our concerns with these other issues, and that many will become relevant at different historical periods when similar subjects come up again.


Christopher Nolan Releases the Trailer for Interstellar

(which reflects on the rising concerns for the personal welfare of future space travelers)

In the trailer for Nolan’s new movie, it appears that a group of space travelers (with lead played by Matthew McConaughey) have to go on an expedition that will take them through a wormhole. The travelers leave with the expectation that they will never see their families again.

Though travel through wormholes doesn’t seem terribly feasible scientifically (as one journalist says, “although the physics says traversable wormholes are improbable, physicists haven’t yet proved they’re impossible”), the story of the personal and psychological hardships experienced by space travelers has plenty of basis in reality.

In recent scientific news, there has been lots of talk on the topic of the immediate future of space travel, with some predicting tourism travels into space by the year 2016, and others suggesting that the first colonists to Mars could leave Earth as early as the year 2020.

While these goals might be technologically feasible, the political and social landscape is quite different. Due to waning political interest in space travel, much of the necessary funding that would be required to back these kinds of projects is conspicuously absent. Further, the social implications of these kinds of travels are very real and will need to be taken seriously.

Astronauts may be able to train physically for the long trip to Mars, but it is a whole other thing to ask a person to accept that they will never see the Earth or their families again, but this will almost certainly be the reality of the situation for the theoretical first travelers to Mars.


Mad Max Gets a Revamp

(and provides the latest look at a post-apocolyptic world, built on the technological remains of our current world)

The original Mad Max envisioned life in a dystopian world in which fuel had become scarce and life reverted to a simpler, more necessarily fuel-efficient way of life. The world’s survivors are terrorized by a power-hungry, murderous bike gang.

The new film has clearly carried over the idea of the fuel-starved, sparsely populated world, though the general look of the world is quite menacing in its re-imagined desert landscape (it’s impossible to miss the political significance of our association of the hunt for fuel with a desert environment). In the trailer, we see Max, the motorcycle gang, and a newly introduced female lead all driving in vehicles and wearing gadget and armor that appear to be welded together from the scraps of other vehicles and gadgets we might recognize from our own world today.

Based on real-world scenarios and statistics of the future of the search for fuel, and on the general feeling held by many people that we will face some serious social problems as fuel becomes scarce, it seems that much of the vision of Mad Max has its basis in our real, and valid, anxieties.


Talk Circulates on the Newly Popularized Legacy of Nikola Tesla

(providing just one instance in which the sci-fi and comics industries seem committed to changing our image of scientists)

As IEEE Spectrum‘s Stephen Cass notes, panelists at this year’s Comic Con seem interested in “how the representation of scientists and engineers has evolved in recent years. While the stereotype of the scientist as a white male awkward nerd, Einstein-esque saint, or super villain is still around…newer characters…are complex, humanized figures.” Further, he notes, there is an increasing number of writers who “are becoming aware of the dramatic possibilities inherent in a character struggling with a scientific or engineering challenge.”

Cass notes the introduction of a Tesla-themed comic book that will come out soon from Red Giant Entertainment that re-imagines Tesla as a super hero figure preventing world takeover from evil masterminds. However, as this comic doesn’t really seem to be doing much to celebrate the actual legacy of the real man, I would prefer to draw attention to the work of Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal who won “Best Digital Award” in the Eisner Awards at Comic Con. Inman has thoroughly established himself as an admirer of Tesla, and even once ran a (successful) crowd-funding campaign to buy Tesla’s laboratory to turn it into a museum.

Cass also noted the presentation of many new technologies at this year’s San Diego Comic Con including prototypes of virtual reality headsets (check out this article on their role in the education tactics of the future), and 3D printers with which attendees could print out action figures. These are some important instances in which science fiction fans and scientists can interact with each other.