Written by: Amanda Schumaker
A couple of years ago, I found myself downtown at the San Diego Convention Center surrounded by crowds of Iron Men, Harry Potters, Wonder Women, and hundreds of other characters I couldn’t even begin to identify. While I’m a casual fan of superhero films and other franchises that have quite the fan base, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when my friends convinced me to go to Comic-Con, and – to be quite honest – I was a little overwhelmed.
Far from the seasoned Con-goer that my friends were, I found myself attending the smaller, less-popular panels as they waited outside Hall H in shifts for the Marvel, Game of Thrones, and Doctor Who “main events.” I’ll admit that there were a few moments when I wished I had the patience to sit through the rain at 2 o’clock in the morning (most notably when I learned that the cast of Black Panther watched the trailer for the first time with the audience or when Gal Gadot walked down the waiting line signing autographs), but my status as a novice Con-goer did have some advantages.
As 6,500 fans funneled into Hall H and many more stood outside hoping to fill any open seats, I attended a special demonstration of Richard Browning’s real-life Iron Man suit, sampled new cupcake flavors from Duff Goldman’s Charm City Cakes, and listened to how women writers and creators have challenged stereotypes in the entertainment industry. My biggest take-away from my Comic-Con experience, however, was the conversations that were happening across so many different disciplines to bring these fantastic stories and ideas to life.
This was most obvious at the last panel I attended: “More Science in Your Fiction with the League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers.” Despite the long title, I remember it well. I listened to oceanographers, marine biologists, ecologists, conceptual scientists, and NASA engineers as they analyzed the technology in wildly popular films. The scene these experts spent the most time dissecting was from Iron Man, when Tony Stark is safely back at his Malibu workshop building a new suit. Stark puts on the final piece – the face mask – and begins talking to J.A.R.V.I.S., Stark’s natural-language user interface computer system (yes, I did have to look that up). With this final piece in place, the audience gets to see what Stark sees: glowing blue words and diagrams showing atmospheric pressure, body scans, and more. Stark runs diagnostics for his suit, all the while exchanging witty banter with J.A.R.V.I.S.
Until this panel, I always thought of this technology as some far-off gadget that could be developed in the future. As it turns out, I learned from the NASA engineers that they had been working on their own projects to create this type of technology for astronauts. Indeed, they had a rudimentary program that allowed astronauts to read their body temperature and oxygen levels right on the visors of their helmets. This is far from Stark’s “super suit,” but the concepts are the same. The panelists discussed several other parallels between our favorite superhero films and real-life science and technology. In fact, the panelists were quite adamant that these parallels are no coincidence. In fact, experts in the entertainment industry frequently consult experts in science and technology (including many of these panelists) to make sure they “get it right.” And, it turns out, this knowledge-sharing goes both ways. The NASA expert said there were several ideas “in the pipeline” that scientists and engineers “borrowed” from film.
Recently, as I re-watched Wonder Woman, I found myself thinking about this back-and-forth between two industries you wouldn’t typically expect to be in conversation with one another. If you pause to think about it for a second, this interdisciplinary approach seems obvious. Wonder Woman, for example, draws from Greek mythology, military history, linguistics, women’s studies, and philosophy. Iron Man incorporates then-current events, technology, business, and psychology.
At Hamilton, we incorporate a similar interdisciplinary approach into our Enrichment classes. In the last few months, our Reading & Rhetoric Seminar has studied how city planning impacted the spread of cholera in 1850s London (Ghost Map), the psychological impact of war (Catch-22), and the inequalities in our justice system (Just Mercy). This month, we will look at questions such as “Why does the United States suck at soccer?” using statistics and economic principles (Soccernomics).
It’s important for students to know that there is more than one way to look at events, issues, and problems. This way of thinking makes our students well-rounded scholars, but it also prepares them for life after their calculus and literature courses. It sets them up for success in whichever career path they choose. I can’t guarantee that they will walk away from our class capable of producing a billion-dollar box office blockbuster, but, with our students, you never know!