The “Science Fiction, Science Future” panel has become a staple of San Diego Comic-Con and the lineup of guests this year was impressive. Andy Weir, author of The Martian, was the first guest in a group of incredible people who work in art and science, from Allison Hutchings who is working on the rover for the mission to Mars in 2020, Dr. Sara Gombatto (who specializes in health), Want author Cindy Pon, Dr. Stuart Lee (a lead research scientist at NASA), and Mike Johnson, the writer of quite a few excellent Star Trek comics.
CEO of the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, Steve Snyder, hosted the event and opened the conversation by asking the panelists to discuss what they were talking about backstage. The subject: the difficulties of traveling to Mars. Lee opened the discussion pointing out the biggest difficulty of traveling to Mars, and having astronauts living in space for extended periods, is the lack of gravity. The human body was made to work with gravity, and Lee detailed how astronauts actually study the effects of microgravity by having them lie in bed for up to 90 days. The research is meant to prepare for a Mars or other planetary mission because, “We don’t want them to do a rehabilitation program for three to six weeks,” Lee said.
“The matter is closed, the research shows humans are not suited to zero g habitation,” Weir said, prefacing that he’s an enthusiast and not a scientist. “Rather than work on 27 avenues to solve the problems, instead we should put them in a room and spin the room.” He went on to say the real problem is getting enough mass in space to do that.
Hunchings jumped in, saying the science is getting there, in part because of 3D printing, of all things. Rocket Lab, for instance, recently launched a rocket made of almost all 3D printed material. Lee said that 3D printing will help in cases where it’s necessary to prepare for anything. In fact, Lee said, preparing for sickness is an even bigger problem. Think about Star Trek: If you have just one doctor, what if they get sick?
“The sickbay should be a huge part of the Enterprise,” Johnson added.” “It should be a major operation!”
“Could you imagine a Star Trek ER?” Gombatto retorted. “I can only pay you in comic books, but I’m stealing everything,” Johnson replied, laughing.
Snyder asked the writers where they get their ideas, to which Weir said, “I’m ripping off the scientists.” Gombatto talked about the other side of things, pointing out, “Writers have the creativity to articulate the needs are of the society.”
The topic of science fiction being out-paced by technology came up next, with Weir pointing out when he wrote The Martian, the idea of any water on Mars was foreign. “Then after The Martian came out, those bastards at APL discovered there is 35 liters of water in every 25 cubic feet of soil.” Pon shared how when she wrote her book Wanted, there was no Apple Watch and no glowing fish either.
Lee took the house down when he took to the mic saying science fiction and science is a symbiotic relationship. “When we’re thinking about the science we run into problems with things we can’t solve. The science fiction and fantasy worlds give us a model to try and do something different. Sometimes I get into a rut where I think about things one-dimensionally. I’m looking for other things but I’m not looking far enough out, and science fiction encourages that kind of thinking.”
“We use the science to find out what is not particularly plausible,” Lee said.
“That was amazing,” Johnson said, noting that he reads Scientific American to learn jargon and find ideas to use in his Star Trek books. “I steal terms — like, I dropped “Hawking radiation into a script the other day. We do the same thing with the science, like on the art side of comics, when I’m trying to think of a cool visual to give the artist to draw, I’ll look at strange life forms.” Strange life forms, Johnson said, like micro-sized insects.
The conversation switched a bit from there, going into how technology these days seems to always be negative and fiction seems to be hung up on dystopian stories. “Technology comes with its flaws,” Weir said,” acknowledging that technophobia is real. “They say when you invented the aircraft, you invented the air crash.”
“There’s nothing good or bad about that, it’s the ethics we employ with that advancement that makes the difference,” Lee said. “The human connection is the thing we want to maintain.”
“Working in Star Trek is good for your mental health,” Johnson said. “First of all, it says we made it to the 23rd century.” That received quite a few laughs from the audience. Science is used in his narratives, Johnson said, but, “Yes, using emotion, because Kirk is the captain.”
“Sometimes using phasers, too,” Weir said.
“Yes, sometimes, but that’s science too,” Johnson retorted. “There’s an inherent optimism in science.”
“Except when you wait for grants to be funded,” Lee shot back, which go a few laughs from the audience.
The conversation switched to how science in fiction is more dystopian, which is unfortunate, since the science itself isn’t at fault — it’s humanity losing its ethical boundaries. Before opening to questions, Snyder asked the panelists what they look forward to most in the future.
“Denser and denser energy storage tech,” Weir said, which would, “enable us to have electric cars you can recharge in the time you can refill a gas tank.” Hutchings said it’s training computers to do things for themselves.
Gombatto agreed with Weir on energy density, in particular with mobile sensor technology for medical purposes, so that you could “get info from patients across their normal day, instead of that little time we see them in a clinic or research lab.” Lee added to that, saying he’d love to see more done with health and medicine, and to bring that nomenclature into everyone’s lives.
Pon was not bashful in saying flying cars were what she wanted most out of the future, and that the current iterations weren’t cutting it.
Johnson wrapped up the answers with VR, and how it will make folks never want to leave their homes. In an anecdote, Johnson detailed how he tried out a Star Trek commander VR which showed how hard it is to be a captain of a spaceship. “In terms of our world now, it’s going to get weird, because you’re not going to want to leave,” Johnson said. “I’m both hopeful and excited about storytelling opportunities.”
From there, audience questions were asked, with the first bringing up the idea of machines taking over jobs. Weir didn’t fully agree, saying someone would have to man the machines. Hutchings made a strong point that with machines sharing the labor with humans, pay is going down, and even her job may be in jeopardy eventually.
After a few softball questions, the panel was asked about whether Venus was the adequate world to inhabit since the temperature was right. Weir revealed to the audience he was, in fact, writing a screenplay about colonizing Venus, to the surprise of the audience, who were greatly excited.
Next up, a middle school teacher asked how she should approach her students who may have trouble learning ideas due to a bias in their household. Hutchings said the best bet was to show and not tell, with experiments and projects. Gombatto said, under the pretense she herself had middle schoolaged kids, that the teacher should show all perspectives. “When teachers only provide one perspective, if that’s not in line with the student’s belief system at the time, they’ll shut down,” Gombatto said. Lee agreed and added she should teach in a way so that the students can see how it impacts them in everyday life.
A question was asked about aliens in the universe. Weir said there’s no doubt there is life, but he didn’t think aliens have ever entered our solar system due to the sheer size of the universe. “You can’t travel faster than light,” Weir said, so there’s just no way.
“The Vulcans get here in a couple decades,” Johnson replied.
The last question asked about technology holding humanity back or is it really politics? “Anything could be developed extremely well if enough money was poured into it,” Weir said, but the politics of economics puts things in a finite structure. Lee pointed out direction is changed with every new president, which can inhibit advancement, but you hope it’s always advancing.
“It may be a drunk walk, but I’d like to think we’re going forward,” Snyder said.