I've been standing in line next to a green monster for more than an hour. This might sound like a bad situation, but the monster is actually a rather nice human in body paint and stunning, neon-green contact lenses. This is my fourth time at Comic-Con -- San Diego's annual gathering of all things geeky (some people call it "The Nerd Prom"). Lines to get into the various panels are a regular part of the program, especially now that attendance has swelled to well over 100,000. The lines here can actually be kind of fun -- people sit down on the carpeted floors, read comics, enjoy all the costumed creatures and superheroes, and chat with like-minded friends.
Standing in line to see one of Comic-Con's regular heroes -- Joss Whedon, the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and director of the new "Avengers" movie -- I discover that a couple of my line companions and I are even more like-minded than I thought. They also work at JPL in Pasadena. One is an engineer working on the next Mars rover, Curiosity (although he didn't call the rover Curiosity -- like many engineers, he's accustomed to using its original acronym, MSL, which stands for Mars Science Laboratory). The JPL connection doesn't stop there. My new JPL friends just came from a panel that included Kevin Grazier, who works on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn -- he's also science advisor for "Battlestar Galactica" and "Eureka."
It's no surprise that there's crossover between science and science-fiction geeks. Many of the astronomers I work with at JPL were inspired to go into astronomy by sci-fi shows like "Doctor Who" and "Star Trek." Science fiction and superhero stories take us to imagined worlds, while scientists and engineers take us to real worlds that can sometimes be even more surprising and exotic. At Comic-Con, the excitement about what we can do with our minds is more than a buzz, it's a roar.
Mingling with all of us humans (or people like me who still haven't figured out a good costume) are robots and creatures from many worlds. I spot bands of Cylons and stormtroopers, Bender the robot from "Futurama," Sookie Stackhouse from "True Blood," and many more. Superheroes stride proudly through the crowd, stopping about every two feet to pose for more pictures. There are numerous "Wonder Womans." I was particularly impressed by one, a gray-haired woman probably in her 60s, who looked fantastic in her star-spangled short shorts and red vinyl boots. And of course there are lots of zombies. (If there's one thing that became very clear to me this year, it's that vampires are on their way out and zombies are back in.)
I also chat with several artists and writers, and sit in on a few panels teasing us with upcoming storylines for TV shows. In the end, I am left with the impression that there are still so many stories to tell, so much left to explore. The Comic-Con experience inspires me in the same way that astronomy conferences do. We're all pushing into the unknown in unique ways. It would be cool, though, if astronomers also dressed up as what inspires them during their conferences. I'd love to come across a globular cluster of human stars parading across the exhibit-hall floor.