The day you’ve been waiting all year for is finally here. The doors open and you get the best seat in the house, front and center. You’ve prepared a question or two, hoping you get the opportunity to ask one of the speakers. Finally the lights dim and the panel begins. What’s the topic? Star Wars, naturally. Question one – could the Ewoks sustain themselves by eating Storm Troopers? I bet you didn’t see that coming. The special guests today are scientists, prepared to talk Star Wars science. They're speaking on just one of dozens of science-related panels at Dragon Con.
Dragon Con, one of the largest science fiction/fantasy conventions worldwide, takes place September 2-5 in Atlanta, Georgia. Every year since 1987 Dragon Con brings together tens of thousands of people excited to share, discuss, and learn more about their favorite shows, films, comics, books, and more. Dragon Con stands out from the plethora of pop culture conventions from their dedication to talking about science. The 4-day convention boasts well over one hundred hours of science-related content split across five tracks: the Science Track, the Space Track, the Robotics and Makers Track, the Skeptics Track, and the Electronic Frontiers Forum.
The Science Track is organized by Dr. Stephen Granade, who has been an integral part of Dragon Con for many years. Granade is a physicist who develops sensors and laser communication systems for robotic vehicles. He has worked on NASA projects like the video-based sensor which is important for guiding the Space Shuttle to the Hubble Space Telescope and is the host of NASA’s No Small Steps YouTube series. He started out as volunteer working with Technical Operations, the group who handles all the lighting, sound, and other technical stuff for events at Dragon Con. By the time he was asked to become the new Science Track director in 2014, Granade had already participated in a number of Science Track events, including giving talks and participating in a number of panel discussions.
Granade, like so many of those who attend Dragon Con, enjoys science fiction and fantasy. A driving reason for him wanting to get so involved in organizing the Science Track “was the chance to talk about science with audiences that were interested in science.” Each year Granade, panelists, and volunteers “get to come up with around forty hours of content that [ranges from] science topics to education topics to straight-up science-themed entertainment,” making for an eclectic mix of programming.
For Granade, the Science Track is more than just a means for generating entertaining science-related content. It’s a way “to show science for what it is: a human endeavor that, for good and bad, is performed by people trying to increase our knowledge about the universe.” Rather than science “being a remote thing done by people who don’t interact with the world,” this is an opportunity to show that scientists are just like everyone else, and who often share a love for science fiction and fantasy too. This year, for example, the Science Track has content ranging from discussions on how living in space might be or how to build high-tech robots, to things of a more fictional nature like how one might create Captain America’s super soldier serum using real-world technology. There is also a wide range of panels devoted to writing and communicating science, and others that cover hot scientific topics in the news like Zika virus. What makes each panel stand out is that they are made up of scientists who are experts in their respective fields, and attendees have an opportunity to interact with them directly.
In the long term, Granade would like to see the Dragon Con Science Track become more enmeshed in the growing field of science communication. Knowing that there’s a “huge pool of people putting on science festivals, creating YouTube series about science, and creating science storytelling shows” motivates him to want the Dragon Con Science Track to be “in conversation with that world.” They are also making strides in assessing how effective informal science education really is. The purpose of the Dragon Con Science Track is to “communicate a love of science and the joy you can take in it.” Much like our favorite science fiction and fantasy characters already do, the science programming at Dragon Con is meant to inspire. So don't be bashful – be the one sitting front and center, be the one asking questions and satisfying your scientific curiosity. Whether you're a robot, an alien, or something else altogether, it's an opportunity to connect with scientists who aren't that different from you after all.
Dr. Stephen Granade is the Science Track director at Dragon Con. Dragon Con takes place every year over the Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia and brings together one of the largest groups of scientists and science communicators in the country to talk all things science.
-Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology