This week at Comic-Con International: San Diego there’s going to be a lot of talk about science. Most of it will be science fiction, of course, but a healthy interest in biology, chemistry, astrophysics, or even quantum mechanics enhances many fanboys’ and fangirls’ enjoyment of the pop culture smorgasbord that is “The Con.”
Ramses Agustin, Ph.D., who will be attending his ninth Comic-Con, is a lifelong collector of comics and graphic novels and a lover of science fiction. As a bioengineer and a research partner at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, he knows bad science when he sees it. But it doesn’t bug him—too much. “I try to maintain a healthy suspension of disbelief,” he says. “It's kind of prerequisite for enjoying science fiction, right?”
Even with this healthy attitude, Dr. Agustin can’t ignore the implausibility of the much-maligned 1998 film Armageddon. “I know about how the shuttle space operates (I actually did some research related to space shuttle orbiter aerodynamics), so it really annoyed me to see the shuttles zipping around with the main booster tank still attached after leaving Earth orbit.”
On the other hand, “good” science could be one reason for the enduring popularity of 1982’s Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? “A scene that really impressed me was when Roy and Tyrell discuss ways to extend replicant lifespan.”
Dr. Agustin goes on to point out that fiction has a habit of catching up to reality. “If you look at Star Trek, for example, when that show was first broadcast, none of its technology seemed even remotely possible, right? But now, there's lots of technology and scientific research that seem to take their inspiration from Star Trek. For example, we've got cell phones that look very much like the communicators from the original series. There's Siri on the iPhone, which is like the main computer that can interpret spoken commands. The military has stun guns based on microwaves.”
Dr. Agustin’s own interest in engineering was spurred, in part, by fictional scientist Q (as played by Desmond Llewelyn) in the James Bond films. “His impatience and irritation with Bond was always funny to watch,” he says, “but more importantly, I liked that Q's work was in developing these really cool spy gadgets and cars with secret weapons.” Who doesn’t love spy gadgets? His biggest inspiration, however, when choosing a graduate school program (bioengineering at ) was real-life physicist Michio Kaku, author of Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century and now a fixture on the Science Channel. So perhaps reality should not be underestimated.
At Comic-Con, Dr. Agustin says he’ll mostly be found in panels for TV shows or comic books. “Also, I like to wander around the exhibition hall and take pictures of people in costume. As for myself, I'll wear comics- or video game-related T-shirts in order to stay comfortable. I've only ever gone in costume once (I wore a Starfleet uniform), but it got really, really hot after a few hours, so I applaud all the dedicated fans who stay in costume all day, especially those who make their own.”
One can hardly conclude a discussion with a scientist and comics geek without asking about zombies. Dr. Agustin’s take: “Are we talking actual animated corpses or some apocalyptic viral plague that destroys people's higher brain functions? In either case, I just say always go for the headshot. Double tap to be sure.”