For those that do not know what a comicon, or a comic book convention, is- let me briefly describe it. A comicon is the amalgamation of pretty much every hobby, toy, cartoon, or pop-culture reference that has been fetishized or obsessed over by the loving public. Think about full grown adults wearing dinosaur costumes, Iron Man outfits and Mad Max-esque sheet metal cups; kids running around getting pictures with their favorite super heroes; people posing with other people wearing costumes (cosplay) to bring together their ultimate superhero/villain mash-up. Some people spend years on their outfits! An exhibitor hall displays products, art, and accessories for sale. A place called the Hall of Heroes offers individuals the opportunity to meet famous comic book stars, artists, or actors/actresses. The Hall of Heroes also offers exhibits for public viewing and interaction, like a Lego village or a complete life-sized reconstruction of famous Star Wars scenes.
There are also two floors of rooms that are for panels. Panels consist of 1-5 people giving a presentation about a given theme, usually determined by their track. For example, anime will have panelists come and give presentations about animation from Asia, Film will have panelists talk about famous movies, Horror will have presentations about famous horror comics etc…
Now, I know what you might be thinking. A comic book convention, yea, sure, that’s scientific. Well, strap yourself in laddie because we’re gonna science the hell outta this one! You see, only a few years ago, some people over at the convention decided that comic book conventions are missing something- they are missing the hard fact science that goes into writing science fiction and comic books. Considering Phoenix Comicon happens twenty minutes away from Arizona State University’s main campus and literally next door to its downtown campus, why not incorporate science into the curriculum?
Since the inception of science programming, every year we have only grown bigger. Historically, my friends Lev Horodyskyj, Brian Johnson, and Bekah Brubaker have been the main driving force behind the planning process. This year, Lev stepped down and the manager of programming, Joe Boudrie, stepped in to fill his place. In addition, science moved out of the “other” category and was assigned its very own track. What this means, essentially, is that this year science went from organizing about twenty panels to organizing over 60. Also, science got an entire room just for interactive exhibits and round table discussions. I was in charge of organizing the interactive room.
The philosophy behind incorporating science into Phoenix Comicon is to help build science literacy and awareness within the general public. The informal setting of Phoenix Comicon allows for people to have open discussions with the science panelists and encourages the public to ask any questions they like. The panelists have the opportunity to present their research in a way that is digestible. Rather than giving lectures, the panelists have open discussions with the audience. In addition, thanks to the efforts of Bekah, all of the science events count towards teacher development credit for K-12 educators.
Of course, we keep these discussions informative, but also a little informal. In other words, science programming tries its best to get as broad a representation of scientific fields as possible. And, we are not afraid to get a little cheeky.
Some examples of panels given in the science track are:
Full Metal Alchemy: The Birth of Science
Dragon Balls: The Science of Reproduction
Astrobiology of the Star Wars Universe
When Poop Hits the Fan: What Happens After You Flush
Good and Evil: What Science and Humanism Have to Say About How to Save the World
Cancer and Immortality: The Science of Captain Deadpool
Why so Siri-us? The Science of Artificial Intelligence
Strange Brewsky: The Science of Homebrewing
Hera Give Me Strength: The Science of Wonder Woman
Om Nom Nom: The Science of Food and Nutrition
Volcanoes IN SPAAAAACE
You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat: The Science of Jaws with Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb
For my interactive space, I worked with a team including my friends Eileen Kane, Burcu Manolya, and Danny Simonet. After about six months of planning, the following organizations were scheduled and participated in the interactive space:
Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) from ASU. These are students and professors at ASU that are interested in space travel, astrophysics, astrobiology, Astro the dog, astro-anything. They brought a game for Xbox One that allowed participants to try to land a rover on Mars. They also brought a 3D headset (the name escapes me), that allowed people to view the galaxy in three dimensional space. The experience was very convincing. I also joined Brooke Kubby and other SEDS members for a long roundtable discussion about astrobiology- since I research extremophiles. Occupying the room at the same time was the Center for Meteorite Studies from ASU. This center houses the largest university based meteorite collection with over 30,000! They brought meteorites for the attendees to touch and feel.
TechShop Arizona followed SEDS. TechShop is a local company that allows its members to access millions of dollars worth of coding and machining equipment. This place is seriously awesome. I’ve gone on a tour of their facility multiple times and am amazed every time I go. They have an area for wood carving, sewing, coding, metallurgy, etc… I’ve even taken my lab there for a tour since all ASU students get in free. At Comicon, TechShop had a much different presence. They brought marble kits and some giant Jenga sets. Their workshop was a great place forparents to sit for a while and let their kids occupy themselves with cheap entertainment; essential for any parent at an all-day convention.
The most popular event in the interactive space was an inflatable planetarium exhibit presented by a former middle school teacher. The whole thing was quite impressive really. She brought in a large cloth and two blower fans. She gently unrolled the large cloth onto the floor and turned on the fans. In less than five minutes, Bam! an inflatable TARDIS. This made the most sense the first night, when the astronomy lesson was based on constellations from Dr. Who. Night two was a planetarium show, in the TARDIS, based on Harry Potter. Everyone absolutely loved it. The most difficult part of the whole event was having to turn people away. Unfortunately, the TARDIS could only hold thirty-five people at a time and the presentations only went on for two hours. Even with an extra show on Saturday night, we still had to turn people away and some of them got a little pissed… which I think is a bit silly.
The Arizona Cyber Warfare Range was there for one night only. This operation is quite unique. This company runs with a zero income model. All of their activities are possible because they have a super dedicated following. The contact for the organization was very candid about their activity in thwarting known terror organizations around the world. For their activity at the convention, they set up an array of computers and taught members how to hack into target computers. He divulged a whole lot more, but I’m not comfortable giving out too many details- you’ll have to check them out for yourself.
A group also came to discuss the Internet of Things. This group was interested in teaching people in attendance a little about coding computer software and writing code for Aduinos and Raspberry Pi’s. They wrote a simple code that scanned Twitter for #PhoenixComicon #PHXComicon, etc… and determined whether people were happy or disappointed with the event in real time. This was accomplished by plugging an LED into the computer that illuminated red for disappointed and green for satisfied. Interestingly, the green light turned red right when a visiting celebrity had to leave early!
Let’s change the tune here- let me tell you two little stories. The first story goes something like this: one day, I decided that oh wouldn’t it be neat to attend a Darwin Day lecture at ASU with Lee Dugatkin about altruism in primates. The event was to be introduced by someone who had only learned of the lecture that day. This someone is Andrew Sherwood, a legislator serving on the Arizona State Senate. He ran in a little late and introduced himself- I had no idea who he was. At this lecture, I serendipitous sat next to an elderly couple that was also attending the event. I briefly spoke with them prior to the event and learned that they were in an organization called the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix. “What is a humanist?” I ponder. I add them on an app called Meetup and discover that they have an event coming up that weekend with people who work for a company called Spectrum Experience and make a podcast called the Humanist Experience.
This podcast is a bit of a social experiment in which the two main narrators, Serah Blain and Evan Clark, trek around the United States getting themselves involved in all kinds of cultural antics and experiences. A few examples are attending a nudist colony and assisting women at abortion clinics. You know, real dinner table kinda stuff. I think, “I bet these two know a little bit about touring and blogging, I should attend this thing. And, I’ll learn a little bit more about humanism.”
So I go where the humanists congregate- conveniently located less than five minutes from my house. In this congregation, there are no crosses, no stars, no crescents- just pamphlets about evolution, science, Darwin, etc… Entrance is free (they have ‘non-prophet’ status [Yes, I just made that up]) but they do encourage a donation. And, if you donate, you get to share bread and breakfast with the other members sitting in rows of seats. Before the main speakers come up to give their sermon lecture, a man comes up and talks a little bit about the humanist congregation. He then invites a clever elderly woman to the front of the room to tell some really great, punny jokes.
Serah and Evan give their presentation and I instantly think, “Yea, these two are awesome! They’re out there experiencing the world and its dynamics and sharing that with people to bring understanding and awareness to the world. This would be a great presentation for Comicon. Hell, Comicon is a cultural event, I wonder if they want to blog about that!” We have a little chit chat and both of them are super interested in doing something for Comicon, we agree to meet a few months later.
Come a few months later, I’m sitting at my computer working on a research paper. The phone rings. It’s Serah. Am I still coming she asks. “Fuck!” I think, “Yes, I apologize, I thought we were meeting tomorrow,” I say. I speed to Mill Avenue. We discuss possibilities. They want to give a panel about humanism, they want to invite Andrew Sherwood to moderate, they want to make a podcast. And just like that, we had a panel, a podcast, and state representation.
In an email to Evan and Serah after the event, I wrote:
“Evan and Serah,
Congrats on the Humanist Experience Panel! It was a wonderful success. Attendance was at capacity and the conversation was relevant and riveting.
When I first met you two, I knew that the Humanist Experience would be a great addition to the Comicon Science track. Your team brought the first ever politician (that I can remember) to Phoenix Comicon to have a real discussion about science literacy and the role it plays in our democracy. By coming to Comicon, you have reached an audience that may not necessarily be involved in Arizona politics. My hope is that by continuing panels like this, we can create a more politically involved and scientifically literate community in Arizona.
I look forward to listening to your podcast about the event. Send me the link to it when it is finished- I can't wait to hear it! The Science track at Phoenix Comicon looks forward to working with you again next year!”
On deck, story number two: bringing Carl Gottlieb, the screenwriter of Jaws to Phoenix Comicon.
Bringing the screenwriter of Jaws to Phoenix Comicon was not what one would consider a trivial task. It started with a simple conversation at a local film venue in Phoenix called FilmBar. That night, a professor at ASU named Joe Fortunato was putting on an event he calls Film School. During Film School, Joe plays a movie and pauses in between to explain significant scenes, sets, facts, etc… to the audience. The film he was playing that night was the Graduate. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Graduate, but let me tell you, try watching it soon after graduating. Shit gets terrifyingly real! Anyway, my friend Burcu invited me to the event and before it started, I had a chance to sit down with Joe, the professor and Andrea, a FilmBar employee looking for ways to make FilmBar culturally relevant in Phoenix.
During our conversation, I briefly mention that I am involved in Comicon. Let me sum up the conversation in one word sentences:
And thus through our primitive grunting, occasional flatulence, and rudimentary symbols we had determined that we were going to attempt to screen Jaws in a Film School like session at Comicon with the screen writer of Jaws Carl Gottlieb. Since I was on the team for programming at Comicon, I was eager to get Carl on a Science of Jaws panel. I’ll spare you all the drama that went into getting Carl invited during the four months leading up to the convention, but Carl did eventually get there with sponsorship from ASU Film Spark and FilmBar Phoenix. For this panel, I invited a longtime friend and marine biologist named Amanda Mozilo and Professor Miles Orchinik from ASU to be our fear specialist.
The follow up email I sent was as follows:
“I have received a lot of positive feedback for the Science of Jaws panel and Jaws screening. The panel was close to capacity. The scientific scope of the conversation, in the context of a pop cultural phenomenon like Jaws, is exactly what we want in a science panel.
The Jaws screening was also at capacity. Despite some technical glitches, the audience absolutely loved it. I spoke with one individual that said he could have watched the film with your commentary all day!
Thank you so much for your flexibility and patience during the planning process. Together, our planning provided high entertainment value content. I look forward to working with you at future events.”
I also ran into my adviser during my graduate studies at the event. Months earlier, I had invited him to be on the Strange Brewsky panel and was not sure if he would be able to make it. When I sawCesar Torres at the event, I was absolutely delighted. This guy makes one hell of a mead and I knew he had a ton to offer than panel.
I was on three panels during Comicon:
1. When the Poop Hits the Fan: What Happens After You Flush. I received a follow up email from an audience member that simply reads:
“I apologize that I think may forever address you as Dr Poop.”
2. Mad Scientists part II. Talked about things that upset scientists, like ani-vaccers and climate change deniers.
3. Sci-Fari. Where in the world can science take you?!?
This year’s event was a huge success! Phoenix Comicon had over 70,000 attendees and the science track had nearly 7,000 visitors. Together, we managed to produce content for about 10% of the convention!
Let me leave you with a simple flow chart for how to science the hell outta life:
Go to things
Meet famous people
Science the world together
Sleep (grad-students and postdocs always miss this one)
A special thanks to everyone on the planning team that I worked with directly:
Brian Johnson, Bekah Brubaker, Joe Boudrie, Lev Horodyskyj, Eileen Kane, (it takes an army), Burcu Manolya, Danny Simonet, Serah Blain, Evan Clark, Tony Sabal, Carl Gottlieb, Joe Fortunato, Andrea Canales, Adam Collis and everyone at Film Spark, our volunteers, everyone in media relations, everyone in guest relations, and all of our panelists
And the two sponsors that helped bring Carl Gottlieb to the convention: FilmBar Phoenix and ASU Film Spark.
Me as Spock at PHX Comicon 2014 with Edna and Sam.
Brian as the Bat Burger King (BB King for short) 2016.
Like the cool shirts I wear. I got them from Greg at Miles to Go in the Exhibitor Hall.
The coolest dad in the world at PHX Comicon 2015
T-Rex is recovering from a severe case if taco-neck syndrome at PHX Comicon 2016.
Science Programming crew 2016: Bekah, Brad, Brian
PHX Comicon relies completely on its legion of volunteers.
PHX Comicon expected nearly 80,000 attendees in 2016.
Center for Meteorite Studies in action.
On a trip to space.
Brooke of SEDS talks space travel.
Building marble mazes with TechShop.
TechShop's show cart.
Cramming in Lauren Ard's TARDIS planetarium.
We're hacking into the mainframe!
Internet of Things coding tutorial.
Gearing up for the Science and Humanism panel with Serah Blain and the Humanist Experience.
Andrew Sherwood at the Science and Humanism panel at PHX Comicon 2016.
Me constantly updating social media throughout the event.
The Science crew with some astronauts after the Get Your sARSEf to Mars panel.
The panelists for the Dragon Balls: the Science of Reproduction.
Did someone say space volcano?!?
Carl's littlest biggest fan!
Brains.... (zombie shark)
Burcu Manolya, me, Joe Fortunato, Carl Gottlieb, Amanda Mozilo, Miles Orchinik.
Carl at a completely filled showing of Jaws Film School.
Carl signs autographs for kids and adults alike.
Huge thanks to ASU Film Spark and FilmBar Phoenix.
The Science of Beers panelists!
Dr. Poop talkin' some shit with local teachers.
We nearly made it through without killing each other!
Science /ˈsīəns/ verb the act of partaking in, learning about, or teaching about the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. "We're gonna science the Hell outta this thing!"
Bradley Lusk, PhD
I have embarked on a mission to bridge cultures through science and human discovery. For this mission, I will be visiting innovators, entrepreneurs, and game changers around the world to bring you perspective on how logic and innovation unite our planet in a quest for knowledge.
Join me as we science one individual, one community, one Earth at a time.