One of the things I love most about conferences is how much they inspire me. Science conferences often inspire me to dig in to and write about new topics. But what about fantasy conferences? I just went to one, and it inspired me, too. But instead of inspiring me in science, it made me think about how we can engage people in it.
Dragon Con is a fabulous fest of the nerdy, the geeky, the costumed and the generally fun. With more than 63,000 people (some of them wearing gigantic wings) crowding into downtown Atlanta, spread across five main hotels, the packed sidewalks and hallways will leave you dodging and weaving around huge lines as people wait for hours to enter panels covering Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, anime and…science.
Yes. Dragon Con has a science track. And I was on it. Last weekend I brought my science nerd skills to the table to talk about the mad science of zombies (though you’re better off reading about it here), whether removing River Tam’s amygdala could make her a psychotic ultra-assassin (no) and what the future might hold for drug development (and where I got to go on about opiates being produced in yeast).
Dragon Con mostly inspired me to check out clearly awesome shows, books, games and comics that I have never gotten in to before (in my copious spare time, which is not actually copious. I’m basically about six Doctors behind). But I was on one panel that made me think differently. The panel was called “Engaging the World,” and was about how people go about getting people interested in science through writing, comics, podcasts, webseries, you name it.
During the panel we had a question from the audience, saying basically “black holes and time and physics, this stuff is hard and people think it takes decades to gain an understanding. How do we get people into it?”
This question gave me a flash of inspiration that I attempted to convey through a garbled comparison to Lord of the Rings. It didn’t work and I’m pretty sure I sounded stupid. But I did have a point. Here it is.
Many of the people at Dragon Con were experts. Not necessarily experts in particle physics, but experts nonetheless. Experts in Tolkien, in Magic the Gathering, in Star Wars. People who have watched and re-watched all 366 episodes of Bleach and read and re-read the mangas it is based on. Who know their chosen obsessions well enough not just to debate the finer points with their friends but to learn their original languages (from real languages such as Japanese to Elvish and Klingon) and to design perfect replica costumes.
What they are doing is hard. It may not be as well respected as particle physics. But it still requires time and dedication to complex subjects with often very nuanced interpretations. Often people learn new languages, take up new skills. They write about their fandom fluently and at great length. They are experts. Experts who put in just as much time as it may have taken someone else to get “into” understanding evolution.
What made them devote that time? Something about that world pulled them in. They saw something in, say, the Hobbit, that made them desperate to know more. They read something, and it gave them a sense of awe. A sense of possibility. They had to know what happened next. And they turned the next page, loaded the next episode.
So how do we get people “into” evolution or black holes or neuroscience? Give them that sense of awe. That sense of possibility. Share with them the glory of looking at your hand, and realizing that untold numbers of tiny connections need to be made, tiny chemicals shunted and thousands of cells recruited, for every single letter you type. Share the mindbending beauty of spacetime. You don’t need to get into the math and the detail and nitty gritty of receptor function.
It’s not about telling people “This is hard.” It’s about telling people “This is AMAZING.” Make them wonder…what happens next? Make them load the next episode of Cosmos, pick up a book on neuroscience. Once we want to know, we will seek out the information, help ourselves to the complexity…and what we don’t know yet, we’ll work to discover.
“Inspire awe, inspire wonder. These lead to wisdom.” That’s an Elvish line I just made up. 🙂