Few things fascinate me more than the intersection of real science with science fiction. I have little formal training in science, but it’s a subject that’s always fascinated me. That’s why I was so excited to see this panel, which premiered Thursday, July 23rd.
Comprised of eight members of the League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers (LXS), plus moderator Jeane Wong, the panel operated a little differently from most of the ones I’ve seen. Rather than a typical Q&A, members of the panel were given just one question to answer in-depth: What’s something that we tend to think of as extraordinary in science fiction that a scientist in your field would actually consider a fairly ordinary occurrence? Here were their answers:
Angela Zoumplis – A scientist who studies extremophiles, Angela’s focus is creatures who live in extreme conditions—specifically, creatures in Antarctica, who thrive in extreme cold. She talked about creatures who can actually live inside a block of ice (without grumbling about it, like Mr. Freeze does), with enzymes that prevent their blood from freezing. These enzymes have potential for use in everything from organ transplants to ice cream.
Ben Frable – A marine biologist, Ben talked about producing electricity. In humans, it’s a comic book superpower, but in fish, it’s fairly commonplace. He showed a few of the fish with electrical capabilities, including electric eels, and talked about how it’s used. In predators, it’s a weapon, but it can also be used for navigation, geolocation, and more.
Jasmine Sadler – Known as the “Dancing Rocket Scientist,” Jasmine told how she grew up focusing on the arts, as a lover of dance and ice skating. She was inspired to get into science after the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. She thought that people shouldn’t die doing “a really cool job,” and dedicated herself to making that job safer. Her background in dance has led her to approach science from an artistic perspective, as she works to inspire more women and people of color to pursue careers in STEM.
Dr. Lisa Zeigler Allen – Dr. Lisa’s field is Microbial Environmental Genomics, and she wants us to know, particularly amid the COVID pandemic, that not ALL viruses are bad. Some are able to interact with carbon in a way that produces stable ecosystems. Studying viruses gives her a unique perspective on evolution and adaptation. Whereas in plants and animals, evolution takes generations, at the microscopic level, it can be observed in real time—over weeks, not years. Viruses are extremely efficient at adapting to their surroundings in order to survive. Unfortunately, this is what makes them so difficult to get rid of.
Dr. Molly Matty – Known as “Dr. DNA,” she’s a big fan of the book Dune—and even applies some of its principles in her work. She studies how to use sound waves to control genes, cells, and possibly even organisms. She talked about how the ability in Dune to control sandworms using sound vibrations isn’t that far-fetched, as earthworms can actually use sound waves to sense thunderstorms. By isolating the bits of DNA that respond to sound, and adding them to cells that don’t have them naturally, it may be possible, one day, to reactivate parts of the brain or muscles that are injured, and repair them without invasive surgery.
Dr. Nicholas Galitzki – Possibly the coolest job title I’ve ever heard, Dr. Nicholas is an Edge of the Universe Explorer and Cosmologist. And his totally common thing that we all think of as sci-fi, is time travel. You probably know that when you look at the stars with a telescope, you’re seeing them as they were hundreds, thousands, even millions of years ago. What you may not know is that, if you look far enough, you can see the beginnings of the universe, just after the Big Bang.
Dr. Sunny Fugate – Working in the field of cyber warfare, Dr. Sunny studies how humans interact with machines, and how humans use machines to interact with one another. He talked about how today’s most powerful supercomputers are actually networks that span the entire planet—and that someday, the almost unfathomable power they wield, will be able to be compacted to the size of today’s smartphones. He also discussed AI and learning computers, which can be used for cyber warfare. By running simulations on these supercomputers, he can determine if a network’s defenses are strong enough to withstand an attack by a learning computer.
Dr. Tom Darlington – Working with biotech and nanotech, Dr. Tom’s cool sci-fi ability is a bit difficult to understand or explain (for me, anyway), but still very cool. Due to certain properties of gold and silver, he can use those metals to create any color of the rainbow. He even showed some vials of silver and gold, which had been processed to become all different colors. These principles can apparently be used to treat things like cancer and acne.
This panel was fascinating. I learned so many great things about all different scientific fields: what researchers are doing now and what they might be able to do in the future. It’s also a great example of why #StoriesMatter. Today’s fantastical stories might become tomorrow’s reality. The possibilities seem like the stuff of science fiction. But to the average scientist, it’s just an ordinary day at the office.
If you’ve enjoyed this Comic-Con @ Home panel coverage, you can check out the panel for yourself at this link!