Science, Science Fiction, and Superheroes
Jim Olthoff, Director, NIST Physical Measurement Laboratory
I’m a physicist, and as anyone who watches the popular TV series “The Big Bang Theory” knows, it’s a commonly held conception that there is a strong connection between being a scientist and being enthralled with all things science fiction, fantasy, and superheroes. Anyone who walks into my office at NIST and notices the TARDIS, Enterprise-D, and Admiral “It’s a trap!” Ackbar mug on my bookshelf could draw the same conclusion about me. And if there was any doubt remaining, the picture of me at Comic-Con absolutely confirms the hypothesis.
So what’s somewhat amazing to me is that I just very publicly admitted to attending Comic-Con. This is rather extraordinary since up until recently most people felt that the Comic-Con attendance was limited to the ultra-geeks of society at best or socially maladjusted middle-aged men still living in their parents’ basement at worst.
Although neither of these stereotypes describe me (at least, I don’t live in my parents’ basement), I have attended Comic-Con twice. The first time was in 2013 with my oldest son, Peter, because he claimed I never took him any place really good, and again in 2014 with Peter, my younger son Ryan, and my son-in-law Josh because Peter and I had such a blast in 2013.
And I would go again in a heartbeat.
Granted, in order to fully enjoy Comic-Con, you have to check reality at the door. Only by doing so can you fully enjoy having heated debates about whether Spock or Yoda has a better philosophy of life (Spock, obviously), cheering madly with 7,000 other people when you find out that Coulson really didn’t die in the first Avengers movie, asking Joss Whedon when the best time to kill off major characters is, or literally sleeping on a sidewalk to see the entire Avengers cast.
(Unfortunately, sleeping on concrete is my kryptonite, so I left the boys to it and went back to the hotel.)
Conventions like these are a bit like Disney World to someone like me who has been a voracious reader of science fiction since the fourth grade, watched all of the original Star Trek series as it aired, and daydreamed of rockets and being able to levitate myself. I guess all of this is just proof that I am a quintessential example of the young person who was inspired to pursue science because of this subculture.
But the world has changed immensely since I was in the fourth grade. The fact that I now can tell people I went to Comic-Con and usually get a response of interest or even jealousy clearly shows that science fiction and superheroes have become mainstream. They’re everywhere. Just look at all of the major hit movies in the theaters. Or the new shows on television.
Even NIST has gotten into the act with the League of SI Superheroes.
The cultural acceptance and celebration of these once exclusively geeky domains is reflected in how conventions like Comic-Con have grown over the past few years. Last year over 160,000 people attended Comic-Con in San Diego, and over 300,000 tried to get tickets.
It’s also reflected in who you see at these conventions. You don’t see hordes of socially maladjusted people: You see families, professionals and folks on the more mature end of the age spectrum like myself, and tons of young people. The influence this subculture had on me was significant back in the 60s and 70s when it was only embraced by a very small portion of society, so I can only imagine how broadly influential it is on young people today. Whether the widespread impact of the currently popular science fiction and fantasy is positive or negative remains to be seen, but the science fiction of my generation certainly had a positive effect on me.
I was enthralled with the science of science fiction when I was young, but my son Peter was enthralled by the human stories the comic books told. He loves the backstories of superheroes, of how they overcame adversity to do great things. He dreamt of being a superhero so that he could right the wrongs of the world. And while he never developed mutant superpowers with which he could fight evil, his dream did come true in a way. Peter works at a family crisis center counseling survivors of domestic violence. His office is packed with superhero memorabilia and toys that he uses to break down communication barriers with young men and boys. He has transformed his love of comic books into something that really helps people. That’s amazing to me.
So, as we approach the upcoming Awesome Con this weekend (June 3–5, 2016) in Washington, D.C., and as I volunteer to serve at the NIST booth, I’m excited by the idea of using young people’s fascination with Iron Man or the Millennium Falcon or Doctor Who to inspire them. Maybe they’ll end up pursuing science or maybe counseling or maybe art. Who knows? I just love the idea that I can do something so fun as participating in Awesome Con and also maybe, just maybe, encourage a young person to do something great.
Are you going to AwesomeCon this weekend? Come find us at booth #1207!
This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on June 2, 2016.
About the Author
Jim Olthoff is the director of the NIST Physical Measurement Laboratory, which provides the basis for all physical measurements in the United States. He received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Maryland and did postdoctoral research at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine before coming to NIST 29 years ago. Jim is currently binge-watching Enterprise and FarScape, a couple of series he missed while busy with family and career.