The Dayside : Physics at San Diego Comic-Con International III

By: Charles Day
24 July 2013

Last week I was among the 140 000-strong throng that attended San Diego Comic-Con International, the annual celebration of superhero comics, science fiction movies, and other artistic renderings of fanciful worlds.

As was the case for my two previous visits, my goal was to look for physics—but not the same examples I’d found in 2011 and 2012. Indeed, if I failed to uncover new and interesting connections between physics and Comic-Con—connections that I could share with you in my blog—renewing my coveted press pass might prove difficult.

I needn’t have worried. One of the people I met at the con was UCLA physicist David Saltzberg. A member of the team that runs the Compact Muon Solenoid at the Large Hadron Collider, Saltzberg spends half his time at CERN. Back in Los Angeles, he and his research group develop neutrino detectors, which they deploy in balloons floating above Antarctica.

Saltzberg is also the science adviser to the The Big Bang Theory , an award-winning TV comedy series about a group of young physicists and other scientists whose awkward social interactions provide the show’s principal fount of humor. In that advisory capacity, he joined the show’s scriptwriters for a panel discussion in one of the convention center’s largest rooms.

I missed the panel. Saltzberg told me after it had ended that one of the questions he and scriptwriters were asked concerned their sources of inspiration (mostly embarrassing incidents from their own lives, apparently). When Saltzberg’s turn to answer came, he replied "I read Physics Today!" In the following day’s issue of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Karla Peterson reported on the panel:

You know you’re at Comic-Con when: One of the bigger rounds of applause goes to the show’s technical adviser. (Dr David Saltzberg of UCLA, we salute you.)

Physics isn’t prominent—or even present—in every episode of the show. Still, Saltzberg vets all the scripts before shooting. If you’d like to learn more about Saltzberg’s work on The Big Bang Theory, I recommend his interview with Brad Hooker, which appeared last year in Symmetry magazine.

Ender’s Game

In and around the exhibit hall I counted 10 people dressed as Doctor Who. Most opted for the time traveler’s current incarnation, the eleventh, or the tenth. But one Whovian came proudly as the Doctor’s least popular incarnation, the seventh.

Wearing costumes is not the only manifestation of fandom. Some attendees queue for hours to get into popular panels. Among the most sought-after this year was the one devoted to Game of Thrones, HBO’s tale of swords, sorcery, and dynastic strife.

To arouse the same level of enthusiasm for new shows and movies, studios arrange for directors and actors to appear at Comic-Con. Thanks to my press pass, I was invited to a press conference about Ender’s Game, a film based on Orson Scott Card’s eponymous novel. The US release date is 1 November.

To market Ender's Game at Comic-Con, the studio built a house-sized exhibit, The Ultimate Fan Experience, which contained sets and costumes from the movie. The exhibit also offered me (shown here) and other visitors the chance to be photographed seemingly floating in microgravity aboard a space station from the movie. To market Ender’s Game at Comic-Con, the studio built a house-sized exhibit, The Ultimate Fan Experience, which contained sets and costumes from the movie. The exhibit also offered me (shown here) and other visitors the chance to be photographed seemingly floating in microgravity aboard a space station from the movie.

At the kind of press conference I usually attend, scientists present their latest results and science writers ask technical questions. With the exception of a question about Card’s public opposition to gay marriage, the questions put to the stars and director of Ender’s Game tended to be simple and open-ended. Fortunately, the answers were interesting and thoughtful. Harrison Ford, who plays Colonel Hyrum Graff, tied the movie’s central plot element—the recruitment of video-game-playing children to work as military tacticians—to drone strikes in Afghanistan and child soldiers in Africa.

Card’s novel was published in 1985, 12 years before Garry Kasparov lost a chess tournament to IBM’s Deep Blue. I didn’t get the chance to ask Ford and his fellow panelists my question: Whether that feat of 20th-century computer science imperils the plausibility of the movie’s premise. If future humans can build interplanetary spaceships, can’t they also build artificial intelligences whose strategic and tactical abilities far exceed those of any human?

In fact, it’s not unusual for science fiction movies to include future gadgets and weapons that are less capable than their current, real-world counterparts. If Ridley Scott’s 2012 movie Prometheus were your only guide to remote sensing, you wouldn’t know that NASA can already map the surface of Mars, Earth’s Moon and other rocky bodies with a resolution of a few tens of centimeters.

In George Lucas’s 1999 movie Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the Trade Federation’s droid army lines up to battle Jar Jar Binks and his fellow Gungans in neat, Napoleonic formations. George Patton would be appalled. The droids’ handguns and the cannons on their armored fighting vehicles seem only as destructive as the weapons Patton’s 4th Armored Division used in 1944–45 to fight the Battle of the Bulge.


Just before flying to San Diego, I read Teddy Kristiansen and Steven T. Seagle’s graphic novel The Red Diary . By coincidence, the pair were at Comic-Con to promote their latest collaboration, Genius . Whereas The Red Diary concerned a British artist who fought in World War I, Genius is about an American physicist who is burdened with a dark and powerful secret.

Genius was published on 9 July by First Second press. Genius was published on 9 July by First Second Books.

Neither Kristiansen nor Seagle has a background in science, let alone physics. Seagle told me that his editor’s husband, who is a physicist, helped him improve the graphic novel’s verisimilitude in a crucial and surprising way. To make the fictional physicists seem more convincing, Seagle was advised to portray them speaking less about their work and more about quotidian concerns such as mowing the lawn, shopping for groceries, or coping with a disagreeable father-in-law.

Having read up on the language and practice of physics, Seagle was reluctant to abandon some of the fruits of his research. But the advice proved sound. A Caltech physicist who’d read the book congratulated Seagle on his accuracy.

Boston Metaphysical Society

My encounters with Saltzberg, Ford, Kristiansen, and Seagle were all scheduled. I bumped into Madeleine Holly-Rosing, author of the steampunk webcomic Boston Metaphysical Society, by chance. She and her husband were buying lunch at a concession stand in the convention center when I spotted them. Intrigued by their t-shirts, which were emblazoned with the webcomic’s title, I approached them for a chat.

The first two of a planned six chapters of Boston Metaphysical Society are available for download at the comic's website. The first two of a planned six chapters of Boston Metaphysical Society are available for download at the comic’s website.

Set in a version of late-19th-century Boston where airships ply the skies and rudimentary computers are powered by steam, Holly-Rosing’s story pits its three heroes—ex-Pinkerton detective Samuel Hunter, spirit photographer Caitlin O’Sullivan, and scientist Granville Woods—against the Shifter, an evil supernatural entity.

When I admitted to Holly-Rosing that I’m more interested in physics than metaphysics, she told me about one of her previous projects, a short documentary about astronomer Williamina Fleming. Born in 1857 in the Scottish city of Dundee, Fleming emigrated to the US with her husband James in 1878. A year later, he deserted her and their unborn child.

Fleming later found work as the housekeeper of Harvard astronomer Edward Pickering. Recognizing her intelligence, Pickering paid her to perform calculations for the Harvard College Observatory. Her responsibilities and achievements increased. By the time she succumbed to pneumonia in 1911, she had devised a new classification system for stars, served as the curator of the observatory’s astronomical photographs, and, with Pickering and Henry Norris Russell, discovered white dwarfs.

Fleming’s life unfolded like the plot of a Victorian novel. I wonder if it will be made into a movie, graphic novel, or even an educational video game. I’ll look out for her at next year’s Comic-Con.


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Scitation: The Dayside: Physics at San Diego Comic-Con International III