Fanatic Frontier: Treks to Comic-Con 2017

Iron Man fan at Comic-Con International - San Diego 2016
A fan dressed up as Iron Man at the 2016 Comic-Con International in San Diego. At the 2017 con, a panel discussed real-world Iron Man-like technologies. (Image credit: Matt Cowan/Getty Images)

Updated 7/24 at 6:30 p.m. EDT

SAN DIEGO -- Greetings from the happiest place on Earth for fans of comic books and science fiction — Comic-Con International in San Diego! 

I'm here at the convention to report on some of the science fiction and real-world science being discussed. We'll be updating this page with small tidbits from the convention, so check back in to get more updates. 

And for truly extensive coverage of the con, be sure to check out our sister site Newsarama, your source of comic book news, reviews and all things genre entertainment. [Comic-Con 2017: A Space Fan's Guide]

Science and Comics

Participants in a Comic-Con panel about comics and education. From left: Russell Shilling (Digital Promise, former DARPA PM), Neil Cohn (assistant professor, Tilburg University), Josh Elder (executive director, Reading with Pictures), Rebecca Thompson (creator, APS Spectra Comics), Jeff Barbanell (president, Scholastic Innovations, Inc.), Jorge Cham (author and creator, PhD Comics). (Image credit: Calla Cofield/

There were at least three panels at Comic-Con about how to use comics for educational purposes, including one on Saturday (July 22) called "Superheroes and Comics Can Transform Learning." One of the panelists was Jorge Chan, the writer and cartoonist behind "PhD Comics." Chan has also done some amazing video illustrations of scientific concepts like gravitational waves and extra dimensions. His new book, created in partnership with physicist Daniel Whiteson, is called "We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe" (Riverhead Books, 2017).

During the panel, the moderator asked Chan why comics are a useful tool for explaining science and mathematics to a nonscientific audience.

Reflecting the title of the new book, Chan said he liked how comics could be used to discuss "the things we don't know — the frontier.

"I think that's absolutely people's main curiosity [about science]," Chan said. "Maybe [to understand science] folks need a question, rather than 'Here's something you can read in an encyclopedia.'"

Josh Elder, a graphic novelist and founder of the nonprofit Reading with Pictures, also spoke on the panel, and addressed why he thinks comics are useful specifically for teaching kids about mathematics and science.

"Comics are all about accessibility, right? They're easy in a very fundamental sense," he said. "A good chunk of any student body is going to be scared out of their minds at math class, physics class, chemistry or biology. [With comics,] you make it accessible … and the concepts become easier. They become relatable. You turn them into a narrative."

Elder said learning science without understanding how it can be used is "like learning a bunch of dates in history class with no context."

In history class, context means "this thing happened on this day, and that's why this date is significant, and here's the thing that happened after and here's the thing that happened before," Elder said. "You establish a sequence of events. You establish a narrative. [Humans] remember narrative, we remember stories, we're wired to do that. When you turn math and science concepts into a relatable narrative, then the concepts that are being expressed … are embedded in this thing we're better-wired to remember than just a dry math formula."

But even with the power of comics, conveying complex science and math concepts to a lay audience presents challenges, he said. A group of quantum physicists contacted Chan because they wanted him to do an explainer for their work, he said.

"I have to say it was almost impossible for me to convey some of these topics or at least to translate them from the brains of these physicists to something that regular people could understand," Chan said. "It literally got to a point where I was like, 'Can you explain that in a more accessible way?' And they were like, 'no.'"

Also on the panel was Rebecca Thompson, head of public outreach for the American Physical Society* and creator of the "Spectra" comic book series, which follows the adventures of a teenage girl who is also a human laser. Thompson, who holds a Ph.D. in physics, said she ran into the same problem as Chan while working on a quantum issue of "Spectra."

"It was a lot of figuring out a lot of what intro quantum mechanics things I wanted to present and … how I was going to do it in a way with the least pushback from physicists," she said. "Because one of the huge barriers in [working with] people that haven't been trained in science communication [is conveying to them] that there is such a thing as 'good enough.' … There's the amount [of information] that's important for someone to know. There is the amount I'm able to explain, and then there is the amount the physicists want. And those are all very different.

"One of the things I've found that has worked spectacularly well [is when] I give the comics to [the physicists'] kids, and then [the kids] will very intelligently explain how a laser works," Thompson said. "And that's been effective ,because when it comes from kids [the physicists] then understand that now that kid has more knowledge of this than they would have in any other way."

No tow trucks on Mars

At a panel on Sunday (July 23) titled "No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars," four NASA scientists did a fantastic job of showing the human side of space exploration by sharing all the things that can go wrong with a space mission.

David Rosing, a systems engineer for NASA's proposed Mars Sample Return mission, talked about how NASA mission teams have to find creative ways to save money. Case in point: When he was working on an instrument for the Mars Curiosity rover, he scavenged a vacuum pump that he needed from a museum display at Marshall Space Flight Center. The vacuum pump had a cover over it, which was left intact, so the museum visitors wouldn't notice the missing hardware.

Laura Kerber is a NASA Mars research scientist who studies geomorphology (how the environment shapes and changes the terrain) and extraterrestrial cave environments, among other things. Kerber studies the Martian landscape using data from robots like the Curiosity Mars rover, but she isn't involved in building or operating those robots.

Some of her colleagues who are working on the Mars 2020 rover were assigned to study "traversability problems" for the rover and look for "inescapable hazards," meaning features of the Martian landscape where the rover might get stuck or trapped (like very sandy soil or at the bottom of a valley). Kerber said that, at first, she quite didn't understand why the Mars 2020 team was so concerned about getting stuck.

"And I was kind of giving them a hard time, because I was like, 'Oh, come on! Just … drive [the rover] a little sporty,'" Kerber said.

But her attitude changed when she went on a trip to the Altiplano in Chile, a high-altitude desert with many geologic features that look similar to features on Mars. While exploring the terrain, she and her colleagues drove down into an interesting-looking valley. When they tried to drive out, the ridge proved too steep and the soil too sandy — they were stuck, and unable to get back to the road. The group was hundreds of miles from civilization (although they did have a satellite phone), and managed to get out of the valley only after finding a path that required them to roll a series of boulders out of the way.

"The lesson to me was … traversability is important," Kerber said, joking that the Mars 2020 rover "won't have a bunch of grad students in the back to move boulders."

"We test a lot of things on Earth before we send them into space," she added. "And we learn a huge amount by just getting out and about on our own planet, and in all of the weird and strange alien landscapes that are available to us."

The state of Iron Man tech

How close is humanity to living in a world where people commute to work in individual flight suits like the one that Iron Man wears? Well, inventor Richard Browning certainly isn't claiming that such a thing is on the horizon, but he has invented a jet-engine-powered flight suit and has used it to levitate above the ground for about 10 seconds at a time. 

During a panel discussion on Thursday (July 20), Browning discussed how he quit a corporate career in the oil and gas industry to create his company, Gravity, which is building the suit. 

"Our technology combines body-mounted [miniaturized] jet engines with a specially designed exoskeleton allowing vertical takeoff and flight," according to the company website. "The 'Daedalus,' our mark 1 jet-engine suit, is pioneering an entirely new category in aviation history."

At the panel, Browning discussed the physical demands of wearing the suit, and said the movie "Iron Man" starring Robert Downey Jr. does a pretty good job of showing what it was like for Browning to try to learn to balance himself in his suit. 

In a TED Talk he delivered in April, Browning showed footage of himself trying to keep his body steady using various arrangements of the miniature jet engines on his arms, legs and back. He said that with the current arrangement, which has a pair of engines on each arm, he must physically balance against about 130 kilograms of force (about 300 lbs. of force) on each side. For that reason, he's started doing intense calisthenics training. 

Unlike the fictional Tony Stark's suit, which runs on an equally fictional device called the Arc Reactor, Browning's suit designs have run on jet fuel or kerosene. They burn about 1 liter (0.26 gallons) of fuel per minute, he said, which would add up quickly over a 20- or 30-minute commute. Browning said he doesn't see any safe way to utilize a more energy-dense fuel, so the next step might to be adding some kind of airfoil that would keep the rider aloft and help the individual move forward without the engine running constantly. 

Also on the panel was Chris Gerty, an informatics system team lead at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Gerty is working on new spacesuit designs for NASA, and he discussed some new ideas he and his colleagues are working on to put digital displays inside spacesuit helmets — not unlike those portrayed inside Tony Star's suits in the "Iron Man" movies. For real-world astronauts, these displays could provide information about how the suit's critical systems are functioning, Gerty said. 

When astronauts on the International Space Station go for spacewalks, teams down on Earth monitor the spacewalkers' suits. But that setup won't work on Mars, because it takes at least a few minutes for a signal to travel from Earth to the Red Planet, Gerty said. The status of an astronaut's suit will have to be monitored by a colleague who is also on Mars, or by the astronaut. 

Gerty and Browning were joined on the panel by stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell — who is the second person to test fly the flight suit — and Adam Draper, founder of Boost VC, an investment firm that focuses on futuristic technology and is backing Gravity. While discussing his reasons for investing in companies like Gravity, Draper said, "The future either looks like 'Mad Max' or 'Star Trek.' Whenever I can make it look a little more like 'Star Trek,' I invest." 

[*Full Disclosure: The writer of this piece was previously employed by the American Physical Society.]

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Calla Cofield
Senior Writer

Calla Cofield joined's crew in October 2014. She enjoys writing about black holes, exploding stars, ripples in space-time, science in comic books, and all the mysteries of the cosmos. Prior to joining Calla worked as a freelance writer, with her work appearing in APS News, Symmetry magazine, Scientific American, Nature News, Physics World, and others. From 2010 to 2014 she was a producer for The Physics Central Podcast. Previously, Calla worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (hands down the best office building ever) and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. Calla studied physics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and is originally from Sandy, Utah. In 2018, Calla left to join NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory media team where she oversees astronomy, physics, exoplanets and the Cold Atom Lab mission. She has been underground at three of the largest particle accelerators in the world and would really like to know what the heck dark matter is. Contact Calla via: E-Mail – Twitter