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Salt Lake Comic Con Provides Intersection for Sci-Fi and STEM

Salt Lake City—Science fiction and actual science might not have a lot in common, but the two have been happily coexisting at Salt Lake Comic Con.

The wildly popular convention, which this year featured Star Wars’ Mark Hamill and Star Trek’s William Shatner,  has had a steadily growing STEM presence since the event’s inception three years ago. The most notable dive into hard science came at last spring’s Salt Lake Comic Con Fan Xperience, which featured former astronaut Buzz Aldrin as a headlining guest.

Salt Lake Comic Con co-founder Bryan Brandenberg said in an interview last March that bringing Aldrin in was a purposeful move to appeal to the root of fans’ interest in science fiction—an interest in science.

“We’d love to have Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson come to our event because the reason people are interested and fascinated with things like science fiction is because they are interested in science, and science fiction is an entertaining way to engage in that kind of science, so we think this is the right move for us,” he said.

On the convention floor, a few of the booths were taken up by universities and tech companies looking for a like-minded audience. Among them was New Charter University, an online, competency-based accredited university based in Salt Lake City. Debbie Austin, executive director of business operations, said the school was hoping to recruit students not afraid to think outside the box.

“We’re a nontraditional university. We’re online and we’re competency based. That means we’re very different than a traditional university and we think this is a nontraditional crowd,” she said. “Competency-based online education is still kind of at the forefront of its emergence. People who take online education and competency based kind of are a little bit more of risk takers, because they have to believe in the future of education changing from the traditional models. So, we think this crowd is quite nontraditional, and they might think and see things differently. So we thought we would come and try to appeal to this market.”

It was the school’s first attempt at recruiting at a comic convention. Austin said they found some missteps in their approach—their banner, for example, didn’t advertise the school as being online, so out-of-towners didn’t feel the school could apply to them—but were otherwise encouraged and wanted to try recruiting at conventions around the country.

“It’s been a good experience. We’re finding that people are here for a fantasy world. Of course, we’re a little concerned about being their buzzkill,” she said. “Obviously, they’re here to play, and going to a university is not playing. But people come through and they do have questions, and then we get into a much deeper conversation. It’s been a little bit surprising, for me, anyway, that we have quite a bit of interest here, actually.”

While the bulk of the events and panels at the convention were still solidly based in the fictional world, there were a few tailored for fans who wanted to learn more about the science behind their favorite stories. Members of the Utah Valley Astronomy Club, a group of amateur astronomy enthusiasts, were brought in to give one of these panels, on the science behind the discovery of planets beyond our solar system.

The panel was packed, with even the standing room all taken up by convention-goers, said Arthur Saraiva, a member of the Utah Valley Astronomy Club. Most of the attendees seemed to be very interested in the subject matter, he said, based on the detailed questions they were asking afterwards. The slew of planets discovered over the last few years in particular drew a lot of interest, including a new Earth-like planet orbiting the closest star to our sun, he said.

The shared interest in science fiction and fantasy and real science is a natural one, he said, especially considering the recent breakthroughs in technology that are allowing scientists to validate or disprove theories pop culture creators have been coming up with for decades. Saraiva pointed to Star Wars, in which the fictional planet Tatooine orbits around two suns.

“Most people that attend comic con grew up watching sci-fi [shows],” he said. “I think a lot of sci fi is being confirmed as plausible by these discoveries, so I think that’s one of the reasons. People were asking questions about what a planet’s orbit look like around a binary star system, and that obviously comes from watching sci-fi. Discovering planets around these stars is showing that these things are plausible that were just dreamed up by authors.”

John Lundwall, a founding member and member of the board of directors of the Utah Valley Astronomy Club, pitched several more scholarly panel topics to event organizers months ago, and got the green light on two: the panel on finding planets, and another on the history of astronomy. Because Salt Lake Comic Con hasn’t had many panel discussions about hard science or hard history topics, he was unsure of how well they would go. But like the planetary discovery panel, the history of astronomy panel was a huge hit, and some people were even turned away for lack of space.

“We were as surprised as anyone. There wasn’t an empty seat in our room—it was packed. It tells me people are interested in hard science. It tells me people aren’t interested in just going to comic con and finding out what’s coming up on the next season of Game of Thrones; they want to learn how things are discovered. I think people will always be thirsty for that,” he said.

Lundwall said he hopes the success of those panels shows there is an interest among convention-goers for scholarly discussions about things related to their favorite fandoms, and that will prompt more hard science-based panels in the future. There is a strong relationship between fiction and fact, Lundwall said, and pop culture and academics tend to inform each other.

“I think people are interested in learning about hard facts, hard science,” he said. “Good science fiction is based on hard science and hard facts, so they’re partners. Very often what is written in science fiction finds itself in real science and vice versa, so there’s a very fluid barrier between the two.”