A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Putting the science in science fiction

11/14/08

This weekend, people from around the world will travel to Lombard, Ill., for the WindyCon science fiction convention. For some guests, the convention is more about science than fiction.

At least 10 physicists and technicians from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., regularly attend science fiction conventions. Many of them are drawn together by a mutual fascination with the playful side of technology--the science fair experiment, all grown up. These are the kinds of people who, like senior technician Jeff Larson, build seven-foot-tall singing Tesla coils in their garages. With such unusual hobbies, it seems natural they might also have at least a passing interest in reading science fiction.

"Science fiction is the literature of technoculture," says Bill Higgins, a radiation safety physicist at Fermilab who has been attending conventions since he was in college.

Higgins, an enthusiast of rocket packs and flying cars, will give a lecture at this year's convention explaining how the scientific study of antimatter inspired science fiction authors.

"I'm a science guy," Higgins says. "At some point in my life, I realized I knew about a lot of neat things and could tell others about them."

Higgins has found a cache of people who want to listen and who can teach him as well.

Larson also found a receptive audience. He had been building Tesla coils since high school, but later, once he started working and raising a family, he devoted less and less time to his hobby. He regained interest when friends asked him to demonstrate a Tesla coil for a science fiction convention.

"It was fun to have people have an appreciation for this thing I could do," Larson says.

Fermilab physicist Todd Johnson found a place in the science fiction convention community through his art and invention. He began attending conventions during college and since has developed a group of friends who share his love of using science creatively.

Johnson specializes in making holograms and Lichtenberg figures, blocks of acrylic with what resemble miniature lightning bolts etched into them in a snowflake pattern. He creates them by using an accelerator to send about a million billion electrons into a piece of insulated plastic. Johnson then pierces the plastic, which releases the electrons. They flood out of the block in a flash of light and leave a pattern of forked trails behind.

Sometimes Johnson gives presentations at the conventions, but often his real motivation for attending is the chance to share new inventions and tweaked gadgetry in his own circle.

"[The convention] is an excuse to get together with friends from out of town," he says.

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