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The Science of Agents of SHIELD

I was a panelist at Comic Con @ Home! The Fleet Science Center organizes a few panels each year about the real-life science in some of our favorite science fiction. The panel included writers and actors from one of my favorite shows, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, as well as local scientists who study fields covered by the show’s story arcs. It was amazing to be included and I’m pleased to say that I kept my cool while having the privilege to discuss such geeky things with such talented people. Enjoy!

Thanks so much to Andrea Decker at The Fleet for including me. And to the cast and crew of Agents of SHIELD for their diligence in researching the scientific topics they covered. We can accept time travel and super powers, but not people wearing improper PPE in the lab!

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You can’t cancel community

Celebration 2020 in Anaheim was going to be my first Star Wars convention. I bought tickets over a year in advance, booked a hotel, and started to plan my themed outfits for 4 days of geeky bliss. COVID-19 has led to a lot of cancelled events and plenty worse. I was disappointed but not surprised when it was announced that Celebration wasn’t happening this year – and wouldn’t return until 2022. 

The lack of an official virtual replacement led to a group of fans creating their own convention: ForceFest. It was announced within days and took place the same weekend, all fan content and all online. And now Celebration will have to live up to the incredibly high bar ForceFest has set. I could go to every panel without waiting in line. I watched from bed, from my air conditioned living room, even from a kiddie pool in my yard. We can rewatch any panel, any time on YouTube.

I did more than just watch panels. I hosted two over the course of the weekend, at least one of which certainly wouldn’t have happened at Celebration. I had pitched a fan panel to the official convention and will never know if it would have been accepted.

My passion, an overlap between wildlife and Star Wars, culminates in “Wildlife in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.” I had three other scientists lined up to chat about those animals we see in the background (or often foreground during scene changes) and what we can learn about them by studying real critters here on Earth. Angela Zoumplis, Frank Santana, and Traci Degerman were as eager as I was to bring this panel to Celebration and all agreed to present it virtually instead.

My panel was accepted at ForceFest and, due to it being virtual, two extra panelists could be added who previously had to decline my invitation since they wouldn’t be in Anaheim for Celebration: Terryl Whitlatch, concept and creature designer for Episode I and author of the field guide “The Wildlife of Star Wars,” and Jake Lunt Davies, concept artist for the Disney Star Wars movies (Episodes 7-9, Solo, and Rogue One).

It wasn’t easy to stay in the moment as I juggled hosting and moderating duties (for Celebration I had planned to delegate that and be on the panel myself) with wanting to just be a fan getting to listen to the behind the scenes tidbits and fun science facts being woven together. Thank you to all my panelists for their time and enthusiasm!

A few short hours later, I hosted my second panel – a tribute to Grant Imahara, who passed away only a few weeks prior. The panel never would have happened at Celebration. Perhaps there would have been a meetup, some last minute event where fans came together to share stories. And so that’s what I wanted to create space for. 

When I pitched this idea to the ForceFest team, I wrote, “I think this panel should exist. I don’t even need to be on it, but would love to be. I welcome other panelists who could speak to what Grant’s enthusiasm and kindness meant to them, and to Star Wars.” The admin team replied, “We all really felt strongly about your idea…We’ll hold a spot if you need a few days to put something together. It’s a great idea that many fans will appreciate.”

So I got started. I emailed everyone I knew who ever met anyone who worked at ILM. I reached out to strangers on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. I got only a few replies, most saying that they didn’t feel qualified to be on such an important panel. Others who knew him well weren’t ready to talk about it yet. I’m so grateful people felt comfortable telling me no. I felt like an imposter – who was I to host this panel about Grant?

It was weeks before I got my first yes, with only 6 days to go before the panel. Helen Keier, author of the Star Wars book “New Essential Guide to Alien Species,” wanted to share her story. And then Sean Fields, a droid builder, said the same. Gynnie Lindquist of the Golden Gate Garrison of the 501st Legion, who inducted Grant into their ranks at WonderCon 2011, offered to put together a video. And so the hour-long panel began to take shape. If nothing else, I had created a space for fans to talk about what Grant meant to them. 

Things changed again when Don Bies, head of the droid department for Episodes 2 and 3, responded to one of my posts soliciting panelists. He quickly connected me with Nelson Hall, former ILM model maker and LucasFilm archivist. Both had known Grant for 27 years and had a treasure trove of photos and memories to share. A few hours later, Don sent me an email, “Adam Savage has tentatively agreed to join us, but I’m awaiting final confirmation.”

Suddenly the prospect of the panel was enormous, with the literal millions of followers Adam has on social media. I felt a rush of doubt – certainly, with only three selfies with Grant to my name, I wasn’t qualified to host a panel of some of his oldest friends and most noteworthy colleagues. I decided to ignore that fear – reminding myself this wasn’t about me – and press forward. 

Again, the panel itself passed in a blur. This time I was curating a photo slideshow, organizing onscreen panelists, trusting the fans to be kind in the live chat, and trying not to cry while also asking the occasional question. 

Over 40,000 people have watched the panel. Adam promoted and shared it, as did Grant’s official Facebook page, now run by his mom. Don announced the creation of The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation. Nelson shared ways we can all “live like Grant.”

I had been ready to cancel the panel a week in advance, not wanting to disappoint anyone who showed up. Instead, we got 90 minutes of happy memories and lessons for how to honor this wonderful man. “Thank You, Grant Imahara,” indeed.

Many wonderful things came out of ForceFest. I met amazing fans and connected to a community I didn’t know existed. If you are “the Star Wars fan” of your family or friend group, you don’t stand out in this crowd. There was no sign of the toxic fandom I’ve heard so much about. There were panels about the role that mental health, humor, lawyers, and even moms play in Star Wars stories and fandoms. I subscribe to a whole new slate of podcasts now, other nerds who intersect Star Wars with any and all of their own interests.

Of course I held on to my Celebration passes, I will be there in 2022. And I know the ForceFest people will have a meetup, we’ll wear our swag. We’ll get to see each other in person, perhaps for the first time ever. I’ll stand in lines, be denied entry to a popular panel, and have aching feet. It will be worth it and it will be wonderful – but it won’t be ForceFest.

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Wildlife in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

I hosted a panel about the natural history of Star Wars critters at ForceFest, a Star Wars fan convention. It’s my geeky dream to get other scientists to answer ridiculous questions about the animals seen on screen. And an amazing bonus to have two concept artists who worked on the movies! Watch the panel and let me know if you have any questions about your favorite animals in the Star Wars galaxy and I’ll find an expert to weigh in!

Here’s a video of the amazing concept and creature art from the talented artists on the panel, Terryl Whitlatch and Jake Lunt Davies. And also some photos and other visuals from the scientists.

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Thank You, Grant Imahara

I had the honor of hosting a Grant Imahara tribute panel at ForceFest, a Star Wars fan celebration. Thank you so much to Adam Savage, Don Bies, Nelson Hall, Helen Keier, and Sean Fields for being on the panel. And to the ForceFest admins and volunteers for making it possible!

Here’s the video of photos that plays in the background of the panel. So many great behind the scenes shots of Grant’s life and career.

And here’s the video from the Golden Gate Garrison of the 501st Legion. Thank you to Gynnie Lindquist and all involved in that wonderful tribute.

Now go out and “live like Grant.”

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Hollywood Vs. Reality

I’ve written some blog posts for the wonderful Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California about how science and scientists are portrayed on screen. Check them out!

Forensic Science: https://www.fleetscience.org/science-blog/reality-vs-hollywood-forensic-science

Oceanography: https://www.fleetscience.org/science-blog/reality-vs-hollywood-oceanography

Chemistry: https://www.fleetscience.org/science-blog/reality-vs-hollywood-chemistry

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Time Loops

This post doesn’t get into the science of time loops, this is more of an appreciation post of the genre. The movie Palm Springs is a wonderful addition to the time loop genre. A scientist was consulted, read an interview with him here!

I love science fiction, either straight up (Star Trek) or when it’s just a dash in an otherwise normal project (Groundhog Day). I refer to the premise as a whole as “Groundhog Day,” somehow that’s the most popular or universal example. This got me wondering though – who did it first?

I’ve listed the movies and TV episodes that I know of in the order that they came out. Each new project brings something new to the genre, but each is also a product of its time. This is part of why I love Palm Springs so much – as with Lonely Island’s other projects, I feel seen and represented because I grew up in the same time and place as Andy, Jorma, and Akiva so appreciate their jokes and references. 

Spoilers abound below!

Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect” season 5, episode 18 (1992). This is almost certainly my introduction to time loops, as I was a faithful viewer. What’s interesting about the re-watch now is that rather than any one character knowing about the time loop, they all have increasing deja vu or weird experiences and decide to investigate. The writers even manage an explanation for why Data wouldn’t remember things, though he is able to pass a message to himself that ends up saving them. The crew of the Enterprise manages to save not only themselves but another Starfleet ship, the USS Bozeman, which has been stuck in the loop for over 90 years. Though it’s only a brief scene (with Kelsey Grammer as captain!), there’s no indication that Bozeman’s crew have noticed anything going on, once again proving the Enterprise crew is the best of the best. Jonathan Frakes directed and while he is now a prolific and accomplished director, this was only his 4th episode. It must have been a monumental task. The subtle changes in camera angles in each loop does a great job of unnerving the audience.

Awesome addition to the genre: No special, untouched character who keeps their memory and has to convince the others to help them.  

Groundhog Day (1993): The classic, and what most people reference when it comes to talking about time loops. Bill Murray at his best, in my opinion. The writer’s did a great job coming up with the moods Phil Conners would scroll through under such circumstances. There’s the harrowing idea that this is happening to Phil as a way to make him a better person, though in the end he helps nearly everyone in town. No scientific explanation for how it started or ended, just a touch of magic or religion or whatever you want to call it in a setting that otherwise could be the real world. 

Awesome addition to the genre: Montages. As a child of the 80s, I love a montage. This movie has one for every mood. As much screen time is dedicated to Phil learning piano as is spent coming up with new ways for him to kill himself, and I appreciate that balance. See the Broadway show (2017) below for its wonderful updates.

The X-Files episode “Monday” season 6, episode 14 (1999). I watched The X-Files once or twice and it terrified me so I missed this one, I learned about it when a character in the Buffy episode mentions it. There’s no real explanation for how we got in or out of the time loop, which fits the mythology of the show as I understand it. The timing ripples in this episode are fascinating. Also, the audience is given almost no time with the character (Pam) who knows the time loop is happening. It’s clear she feels powerless, but we don’t get to see her going through the process to know whether she had more active or hopeful loops. As with the TNG episode, this one must have had a great trailer, being able to show Mulder dying or the Enterprise blowing up is great for ratings.

Awesome addition to the genre: I really like that there are changes that happen without any prompting. There are so many unimportant decisions people make in the course of a day so characters not making the same action or saying the same thing over and over is a thoughtful addition to the genre. Though it’s always satisfying to keep track of the repeated background moments, it was exciting to see a time loop where we acknowledge that if we had it to do over, even without the knowledge that we were doing it over, little things would change. This is most evident in Mulder tripping over his shoes from various angles and the fact that Mulder and Scully’s dialogue is different each loop.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Life Serial” season 6, episode 5 (2001). This one comes about from a magic spell, not a timey-wimey space paradox or karma. A spell is cast on Buffy, by the season’s “big bad” – The Trio, a group of mediocre white dudes with a grudge. To mess with her, they declared she had to satisfy a customer at The Magic Box, so there was a clear beginning and end point. Buffy knows she’s repeating time, but not the goal, so it’s too bad we didn’t get loops of her doing other things. It’s only part of the episode but I would have watched it for much longer. 

Awesome addition to the genre: The characters acknowledge the time loop genre exists even while having their characters live through it. I love that meta knowledge, and it’s how I learned of the existence of the X-Files episode. The Librarians and Legends of Tomorrow (see below) follow this lead and I love it every time.

Source Code (2011). This one is a time loop with a purpose, there’s a set mystery to solve. I love a whodunnit, so enjoy the premise. I’m still not sure how I feel about the twist, that solving the mystery actually keeps it from happening in the first place. Instead of just continuing time (finally) a whole different day happens. And instead of hundreds of people dying, the only casualty is one man’s consciousness that gets overwritten – but I get the impression the writer’s don’t want us to think too hard about that.

Awesome addition to the genre: It’s a simulation, essentially really good VR. This is the most logical explanation for a time loop (according to the world we actually live in) and I like that there’s no magic involved, it’s more of an engineering feat.  It’s also a bit spooky as a commentary on taking the war on terror too far, personal liberties, and what the government may be up to without us knowing.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, based on the 2004 “light novel” “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka). I love this movie and recommend it to everyone, pitching it as “Groundhog Day with aliens.” I like that this one gives a “scientific” reason for the loop, even if it’s an easy out because, once aliens are involved, the writers can decide anything is true and we just have to accept it. It’s enjoyable not to root for Tom Cruise at the beginning – his character (like Bill Murray’s in Groundhog Day) sucks and we get to go on the hero’s journey. Unlike Groundhog Day, it’s an action movie with a raging war so the character has less choices in terms of what to do with his day. Honestly, there’s something pleasing about watching Tom Cruise die over and over again, especially when Emily Blunt just shoots him to restart the time loop. 

Awesome addition to the genre: Emily Blunt’s arms. No, really. But the real answer is the idea of having a guide. Emily Blunt’s character has been in the time loop before but isn’t now. He has to find her every time, convince her to help him. Sadly, we don’t get to see any of her loops. But her attitude at their first meeting (every time) is fantastic.

The Librarians episode “And the Point of Salvation” season 2, episode 8 (2015). Also directed by Jonathan Frakes! This time a mixture of magic and science create the time loop. I thoroughly enjoy this campy, wholesome show and rewatch this episode often. The character who is aware of the time loop was long overdue for some character development and he got it. Bonus: We don’t know whether he’s telling the truth about not remembering the whole incident, in which case all that personal growth he went through has been erased. My guess is that he remembers but prefers to keep his reputation as is. 

Awesome addition to the genre: It’s actually a computer game the characters are stuck in! This doesn’t change the premise at all, but is a great update and helps the characters, even the ones with no memory of the loop, figure out how to escape. It also leads to fun video game tropes, like save points, med packs, and physics not working properly.

Groundhog Day, the Broadway Musical (2017). Obviously an adaptation of the movie, I saw this in New York and, as if trapped in a time loop myself, went to see it again the very next night. Though nominated for multiple Tony awards (in a year when Dear Evan Hanson won most), it sadly had a short run and the promised traveling version hasn’t come to be yet. See it if you get a chance. It gets some 2017 updates including inner thoughts from the female lead (Barrett Doss, swoon) and gay characters (Phil even tries it out). Also, the staging was impressive. The montages and car chase are still there, but done live by actors on a stage. Remarkable. Also, Andy Karl has more charisma than Bill Murray.

Awesome addition to the genre: The songs, written by Tim Minchin, are wonderful and get stuck in my head often. 

I wrote about the show on my personal blog, if you want to read that.

Happy Death Day (2017): Finally, a time loop through the eyes of a female! I know the Buffy episode came first but the circumstances didn’t really provide time (unintentional pun, I swear) for the whole range of emotions and reactions to occur. This one is a horror movie, which I generally never see, but I heard about it and decided to give it a try, in broad daylight with a blanket ready to throw over my head if necessary. The actress is incredible and it’s a solid mystery despite the silly premise about a sorority girl with a lot of enemies. I love the pseudo-science explanation for the time loop. Though there are jump scares and a creepy mask, I will watch this movie again.

Awesome addition to the genre: There’s a set number of times she can go through the time loop! Her health is fading on each try, so it’s clear she doesn’t have endless loops and thus has to stay focused. I love to see a woman on screen face slim odds and just commit herself to getting through it. 

Legends of Tomorrow episode “Here I Go Again” season 3, episode 11 (2018). Like TNG, the time loop ends with the ship exploding, which must have made for a good “next time on…” Like The Librarians, it’s an arc for an as of yet under-explored character. Zari has only just been introduced and this is a short cut for her to get to know the team and for the audience to get to know her. We get more than homages, as Zari finally connects with Nate, who of course believes her (they live on a time ship after all) and tells her to simply say “Groundhog Day” to him on the next loop and he’ll help her. There are twists though, the writers set up that Zari keeps her memory because of some time sludge, but that doesn’t end up being the case. Like Source Code, it’s actually a simulation.

Awesome addition to the genre: The same things that make this my absolute favorite show (even before it did a time loop episode). I love how meta it is, the writers get to use their characters to say what the audience is thinking, like “It’s about time we did one of these.” They also put the characters in the most ridiculous outfits (an ABBA / Napoleon crossover mission we sadly never get to see) so that one of the repeated moments is Brandon Routh falling in his platform shoes. The LoT writers don’t just do a montage, they also talk about doing a montage. *chef’s kiss* This is also the episode that introduces Rory’s writing career, which is one of my favorite character beats ever.

Happy Death Day 2 U (2019). A decent sequel, we end up back in a time loop but a different character is stuck in it. The way he gets out throws our main character into an alternate reality, what I refer to as a “Sliding Doors” storyline. What’s billed as a horror movie is closer to a thought experiment. What would you do if you could choose which reality to stay in? There is still the mystery of who the killer is and the only downside of the alternate dimension element is that it’s hard to keep track of the characters and their various motivations.

Awesome addition to the genre: Science montage! The characters use their repeated days to try different experiments. Love it, so nerdy.

The Magicians episode “Oops…I Did It Again” season 5, episode 6 (2020). I’m still a season behind! Can’t wait to see this!! First impression, I love the Britney Spears-inspired title.

Awesome addition to the genre: It’s a safe bet to assume Hale Appleman crushes it.

Palm Springs (2020). Apparently, my husband had told me this was a time loop movie but I have a terrible memory and am so pleased that I forgot and went into it just thinking it was a Lonely Island movie. Though Andy Samberg is allegedly the main character, it’s actually Cristin Milioti’s character Sarah who we get to follow from her first day in the time loop to her last. We get her emotional rollercoaster and her montages. And she’s the one who sciences the shit out of the problem and gets them out. As with the Groundhog Day musical, there’s at least one version where the male character decides to give gay sex a try. I also really enjoyed that certain characters actively or accidentally kill someone, it’s humorous and feels like what would happen in real life.

Awesome addition to the genre: Joining the action part way through. Nyles has already been in the loop for ages, we never get to see his “first day” or even how he ends up in the loop (Does Nana lure him to the cave?). Other characters join the loop partway through and get their own journey. 

Agents of SHIELD episode “As I Have Always Been” season 7, episode 9. This week’s episode so I haven’t seen it yet (loved the trailer!). The actress who plays Jemma Simmons, Elizabeth Henstridge, is making her directorial debut with this time loop episode. This is already one of the best shows ever (and one that gets the representation of science and scientists better than most) and I’m stoked to see their take on a time loop episode. 

Awesome addition to the genre: Fitz (please please please).

In researching this post, I found that the writer of The X-Files episode credits the idea to an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Shadow Play” (season 2, episode 26, 1961). Wikipedia adds that “the episode is likely adapted from writer Charles Beaumont’s short story “Traumerei” which originally appeared in the February, 1956 issue of Infinity Science Fiction.” So I guess there’s more research to do! 

Next up: time to explore the genre of alternate / divergent timelines.

Other great articles about Palm Springs and the time loop genre:

Buzzfeed: Questions I Have About “Palm Springs” The Movie Because I Can’t Stop Thinking About It

Collider: The Best Time Loops of Film, TV, and Video Games (some movies I’ve never heard of, bonus!)

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How Many Scientists Does It Take?

Everyone is an expert in something. And when they see misrepresentation in movies or on TV shows, I’ll bet it drives them crazy. For me, that’s the scientific method.

Especially when characters who work in a laboratory setting misuse PPE (personal protective equipment). Like not wearing lab coats correctly or wearing them outside of the lab, sometimes even into areas with food (this happened on an episode of Veronica Mars)!

So I decided to start this site to talk about those little moments that drive me crazy. But it’s not all negative, there are some shows that represent science and scientists well – and we’ll talk about those too.

It’s also important to understand that it takes an entire team to do most scientific experiments, which is also not represented well onscreen. The belief that just one or two people should be able to fix every problem is detrimental to science as a whole.

Scientists are extremely specialized and it often takes multi-disciplinary teams to get results.