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The Dayside : More physics at San Diego Comic-Con International

By: Charles Day
18 July 2012

San Diego Comic-Con International, to give the annual convention its full name, attracts 130 000 fans of comic books, science-fiction movies, video games, Japanese anime, and other invented worlds. Eager to promote their multimillion-dollar superhero movies to that large, keen, knowledgeable audience, Hollywood studios send their stars to Comic-Con.

This year, if you waited in line for hours, you could have seen—and perhaps even questioned—Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 2), Henry Cavill (Superman, Man of Steel), Ian McKellen (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), to name just four of the celebrities in attendance.

I'm neither patient enough nor eager enough to stand or sit for hours in the hope of glimpsing glamorous actors, not even for Eva Green or Famke Janssen. My mission at Comic-Con, besides having fun, was the same as it was last year: to look for physics. In fact, having found instances at last year's con of physics inspiring comics, actors, and fans, I set out to look for more physics at this year's con.

Echo and the Makerbots

My first hit came in the convention center's hangar-sized exhibit hall. At Abstract Studio's booth I was attracted by a series of comic books that happens to have the same name as my 11-month-old Airedale terrier: Echo. The books' main character, Julie Martin, is a young photographer who becomes enmeshed in a rich plot of secret, high-tech battle suits, particle accelerators, and black holes.

Terry Moore, Echo's writer, illustrator, and publisher, was in the booth. Although he has no physics background, he told me he avidly follows news about physics and other sciences. Throughout the Echo series, quotations from Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and Stephen Hawking appear as epigraphs.

Rheology, the science of gooey fluids, was evident at the MakerBot booth (see photo). There, members of the MakerBot marketing team demonstrated how to use the company's 3D printers (or Replicators, to use MakerBot's Star Trek–inspired name) to make an assortment of objects. For more about the science and technology of 3D printing, check out Jermey Matthews's Physics Today story from last October.

One of the most interesting events I went to during Comic-Con was an outdoor reception hosted by Wired magazine on the roof deck of the nearby Omni hotel. Various technology companies helped sponsor the reception in return, I presume, for the chance to demonstrate their products to the invited guests, a mix of press people and movie people.

Among the sponsors was Nanodots. Belying its name, the company makes bead-sized spherical magnets that you assemble into strings, cubes, and other objects. "It's geometry with magnets," says the company's website. The magnets are made from Nd2Fe14B, a strong ferromagnetic material developed 30 years ago by General Motors and Sumitomo Special Metals. The range of shapes you can make with the spheres is wide, as you can tell from these photos that Nanodots enthusiasts have uploaded to the Dotpedia community site.

Deflector shields

One of the most fascinating aspects of Comic-Con is that its diverse mix of attendees and products seems somehow coherent, as if manifesting a wider, yet hard-to-define community. Just as I was not surprised to encounter a woman dressed as Daenerys Targaryen from HBO's Game of Thrones (replete with stuffed baby dragon on her shoulder), it also made sense to me that the American Physical Society has a regular booth in the exhibit hall. Not only was the APS team promoting physics, it was also giving away copies of its comic Spectra: The Original Laser Superhero, which is now in its fourth installment.

Whether Comic-Con will continue to thrive is the central theme of a new book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012), by futurist and comic-book fan Robert Salkowitz. I read the book before heading to San Diego. To someone like me who's attended just two cons, it provided a helpful and insightful guide to the past, present, and possible futures of Comic-Con.

Although focused more on actual comics than its title might suggest, the book tackles topics that do indeed have implications for pop culture in general, especially the question of how comic books (and for that matter any printed media) will survive in the digital age. My hunch is that the internet, social media, and other aspects of our online world will be good for comics and their relatives in other media. For example, thanks to the TV-streaming service Hulu, fans of The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, a Japanese cartoon series that ran in the early 1980s, can now watch episodes on their iPads.

A flourishing culture of more-or-less science-based comics is good for science itself. Interest in the use of metamaterials to divert electromagnetic radiation has surely been raised by scientists and press officers invoking Harry Potter's invisibility cloak and the Klingons' cloaking device. Just yesterday, I received a press release from the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Here's the first paragraph:

Scientists from RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory have solved a lunar mystery and their results might lead the way to determining if the same mechanism could be artificially manipulated to create safe havens for future space explorers. Their work focussed on the origin of the enigmatic "lunar swirls"—swirling patches of relatively pale lunar soil, some measuring several tens of km across, which have been an unresolved mystery—until now.

To attract the interest of science writers and, through them, the general public, the STFC press office chose a term from Star Trek for the title of the release: "'Deflector shields' protect the lunar surface."

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