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Starts With A Bang

Weekend Diversion: Why Cons Matter

If you ever loved something most people didn’t understand, you’ll get it.

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” –Oscar Wilde

What do you like? No, I really mean it: don’t think about the things that you’re supposed to like, or the things you’ll admit to the world that you like, but really ask yourself the question.

Last weekend — as many of you noticed — I wasn’t around online, writing, like I usually am. Instead, I had the opportunity to be around a slew of people doing exactly that, serving as the Science Guest of Honor at MidSouthCon 33, a science fiction/fantasy/costuming/anime/etc. convention (or Con) in Memphis, TN. Have a listen to Golden Smog as they sing about something we all should do (but not too much), Think About Yourself,

while I take you inside the magic, which, surprisingly, can be summed up in as little as exactly two stories.

Image credit: front page of the Monday, March 23, 2015 Memphis Commercial Appeal. Central Photo by Jim Weber, of me, in costume, holding a John Clark lightsaber.

There was a huge mix of people you wouldn’t normally expect to find together: people of all different ages, incomes, body types, religious and political beliefs, people in costume (and not) of a huge variety of craftsmanship levels, and people interested in wildly disparate aspects of the cultures represented at Cons.

There were scientists and NASA engineers alongside paranormal investigators, Dr. Who fans next to aficionados of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Star Wars and Star Trek fans next to Street Fighter 2 fans, Pirates, Anime characters, Comic Book heroes and villains, and representatives from cartoons such as Adventure Time, Frozen, Gravity Falls, My Little Pony, Avatar/Korra, and many more.

Image credit: Cullen Johnson, from MidSouthCon 33.

I myself gave a number of talks and panels on science, the limits of knowledge in the Universe and possibilities for interstellar travel, alien worlds, and the origin and fate of everything we know, as hard, actual science is often well-represented at events like these as well. But the most memorable things that happened?

Image credit: Weezle.

On Saturday, I was dressed up in my Rainbow Dash costume, posing for pictures with a great many people and stopping to talk to anyone and everyone in between my talks, panels and events. A woman — about my age — came up to me with her daughter (one of many Queen Elsas from Frozen), and told me about her son, who looked to be about six or seven, and was dressed as a wizard with a 20-sided-die atop his staff.

She said he loved My Little Pony and that Rainbow Dash was his favorite. He watched all the episodes and called himself a brony. At least, he used to. Because one day, at his martial arts class, the other boys started teasing him and making fun of him for what he liked. And it really got to him. He came home and told his mom that he wasn’t a brony anymore, and he stopped watching the show. And then she asked me if I would talk to him.

Image credit: Carrie Goslin. Not the person in question, mind you.

So (of course) I did. I went up to him, I told him I liked his costume, I asked him if he liked My Little Pony and who his favorite was, I talked to him about liking what you like no matter what anyone else thinks, and not letting other people’s problems take away from you enjoying your own life. You never know what’s going to sink in or have an impact on someone else, so after we were done, I went back and talked to his mom some more. After a few minutes, he came back up to me and the following conversation ensued:

Boy: “Hey, can I ask you something?”
Me: “Sure.”
Boy: “Are you a brony?”
Mom: “Well, look at him! Of course he’s a brony!”
Me (to boy): “Yes. Yes I am a brony.”
Boy (after a long pause): “Me, too.”

Image credit: Cullen Johnson.

Part of the power of a Con is the ability to find and be around other people like you, in the sense that everyone there has a love of something that isn’t conventionally loved in the mainstream. It gives you a safe place to be who you are, to like or love what you like, to express yourself, and to be true to your own passions. It lets you find role models when it comes to costuming to gaming to simply exhibiting that self-confidence that enables you to go out into the world as a positive, powerful presence.

Which is why I was perhaps even more moved by what happened on Sunday.

Image credit: Eric Groff.

I was dressed up as a Manotaur from Gravity Falls, giving a number of panels on topics like the fate of the Universe, interstellar travel, and parallel Universes. Most of the audience consisted of adults, with the occasional baby-in-tow. But in the back row of one of these talks, a girl about 12 years old sat, listening raptly to the conversations about dark matter and dark energy that ensued.

Image credit: Cullen Johnson.

Eventually, she raised her hand and asked a question about the possible nature and properties of dark matter. It was a good question, one that no one else had asked before, and it made me think rather deeply about the limits and constraints of what was possible. I told her what the limits on dark matter was, what her scenario would entail, how we’d be able to look for it, and finally, to concede that what she envisioned was still possible, and might be a property of the dark matter in our Universe.

Her response was awesome: she couldn’t control her laughter as her eyes went wide and said, “That is so cool!”

Image credit: NASA/Chandra X-ray Observatory, of the Musket Ball Cluster.

After the panel ended, I went up to her, introduced myself, and asked her name. We talked for a little bit, and she finally asked me what it was that I did; what that was called. “Astrophysics,” I told her. “I’ve never heard of that,” she said, “but that’s what I want to learn.”

Image credit: Jim Weber for the Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN.

If you, your child, or anyone you care about could sorely use an environment like this, where it’s safe to like the unpopular thing you like, where it’s encouraged to express yourself, and where you can find role models of people doing exactly that, I can’t recommend a Con any more strongly than the one I went to. In general, the mid-sized (about one-to-five thousand attendees) Cons tend to be my favorite, because you really get to know and spend a little bit of time with the guests and panelists, and it’s not too big or unwieldy.

Image credit: Tim Gatewood.

Be yourself, and be confident in that. Find what you love and embrace it. Explore everything that might give you joy in this world and in your mind, and go for it. And if you need a little help in getting there, a Con — the right Con — just might be exactly what you need to help you get there.

Travel the Universe with astrophysicist Ethan Siegel. Subscribers will get the newsletter every Saturday. All aboard!

(And for making it this far, here’s a bonus photo: of someone cosplaying as me in my everyday attire, a super-awesome first!)

Image credit: Weezle (you know who you are), of me and Jeremiah (a.k.a., Fish).

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