Summer Friday Blog: Wizard World Comic Con in Chicago

wizardworldLet’s put a little fiction in our science this week and take a look at the upcoming Wizard World Comic Con in Chicago. It’s one of the biggest in the U.S., typically drawing an crowd of around 50,000 throughout the weekend. This year the Chicago event takes place August 20th through August 23rd at the Donald E. Stephenson Center in Rosemont, Illinois.

This will be my fourth year attending Wizard World Chicago, and it definitely won’t be my last. It’s more manageable than the famous Comic Con in San Diego, but still big enough to spend the whole weekend wandering aisles and aisles of geeky treasures. There’s no conceivable way to get bored with celebrity autographs, hundreds of booths for browsing, and dozens of panels about pop culture. The people watching’s pretty entertaining, too.

My favorite part of any fan convention is the costumes. Some people spend months making elaborate pieces of armor from foam or painting a perfect replica of Captain America’s shield. Those are the die-hard fans, but most people dress up in some way, even if it’s just a T-Shirt with their favorite super hero printed on it. I love scanning the crowd and catching a glimpse of a character from one of my favorite TV shows. The atmosphere is fun and welcoming for all types of people and all levels of geek. Even entry level.

As comic cons and super heroes become increasingly popular, the guest list for Wizard World Chicago gets longer and more impressive each year. It’s not just for nerds anymore! Some of television and film’s biggest stars make appearances at conventions, and this year Chicago gets Jeremy Renner from Marvel’s The Avengers. You can call him Hawkeye. His autograph line will probably be the longest, people waiting hours for their chance to meet and exchange a few words with him. I’m particularly excited to see Nathan Fillion (Castle, Firefly), Norman Reedus (Walking Dead), Billie Piper (Doctor Who), and Burt Reynolds (no references needed). Meanwhile, upstairs the legendary Bruce Campbell will host his first annual Horror Fest. This year’s show will be star-packed, that’s for sure.


Summer Friday Blog: La Brea Tar Pits in the Heart of Los Angeles

Hyrophilius sp. fossils from La Brea Tar Pits (photo credit: Archaedontosaurus Wikimedia commons
Hyrophilius sp. fossils from La Brea Tar Pits (photo credit: Archaedontosaurus Wikimedia commons
Urban Southern California is one of the last places I associate with archaeological digs. It’s better known for the Hollywood sign and expansive mansions. In reality, central Los Angeles is home to the La Brea Tar Pits, one of the most famous tar deposits in the North America. Situated just south of Beverly Hills and nestled between busy streets is a bubbling lake of black sludge that offers paleontologists important information about the past.

For tens of thousands of years, natural asphalt has oozed from the earth in this part of California. Crude oil seeps up along the 6th Street Fault from the Salt Lake Oil Field, forming pools topside in several locations in the park. The oil becomes sticky asphalt as lighter fractions of petroleum evaporate or biodegrade, though methane gas emerges in uneven bursts and makes the pools look like they’re boiling.

This California tar has preserved the bones of many prehistoric creatures and pieces of plant life, giant and tiny, mostly from the last glacial period. Paleontologists have excavated saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, and a nearly intact mammoth nicknamed Zed. When covered with leaves, dirt, and water, the land became a snare for any animal that wandered too close. Predators then approached the dying prey in hopes of an easy meal, only to become stuck themselves. It was a cruel cycle, so Los Angeles fenced it all in to save today’s wildlife from meeting the same fate. A 2006 dig unearthed six dire wolves, and archaeologists were then able to confidently infer that the creatures hunted in packs like their modern relatives. The on-site George C. Page Museum is dedicated to researching and displaying the animals that have died in the Los Angeles tar.

One lone human specimen has emerged from the La Brea Tar Pits, a partial female skeleton dubbed the La Brea Woman. The remains of the roughly 25-year-old female were first discovered in 1914, and date back around 10,000 years.

Sometimes black tar trickles onto the streets and flowerbeds, so at least one a week the city has to clean and drain the sewers beneath the roads. Playing host to a prehistoric landmark isn’t easy. When I lived out in Los Angeles I rode my bike past the tar pits every day, and I always caught a whiff of fresh asphalt or rotten eggs. It took me a while to realize it was the tar pits, not some nearby construction.

Check out this crash course in fossil excavation from the official La Brea Tar Pits & Museum website:

Summer Friday Blog: Journey into Outer Space for the Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower

11156716_lThis week we travel to outer space, the Final Frontier, to catch a glimpse of the Southern Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower. But don’t worry, you don’t have to leave your backyard. Just grab a blanket and find a place without too much light pollution, and you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of this worldwide phenomenon.

The Southern Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower is an annual summer occurrence that spans July and August, but this weekend marks its nominal peak in activity. From July 26th through August 1st, give or take a couple of days because nature is lovably fickle, we can expect a maximum hourly rate of 15-20 meteors. That might not sound like much, but a special angle of atmospheric entry gives Delta Aquarid meteors long, lingering trails that seriously set this shower apart.

Most meteor showers are created by comets. As a comet circles our Sun, it sheds a rocky dust stream along its orbit. When Earth travels through this space litter, the result is a meteor shower. Astronomers believe that the Southern Delta Aquarids originated from the breakup of two sungrazing comets, Marsden and Kracht.

Shooting stars, as they’re lovingly called, can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace the tails it becomes clear that each shower has a definite epicenter. The showers are named after these radiant points, taking the name of the constellation dominating that particular region of the sky. The Delta Aquarids, as you can probably guess, pay homage to the constellation Aquarius. Look for the star Skat within the “water bearer” constellation, the point where Delta Aquari meteors are born.

For every time zone and all continents, the hours between midnight and dawn will be the best time to glimpse these brief celestial bodies. Those of you in the southern hemisphere and southerly latitudes in the northern hemisphere will get a better show, as is typical with this particular shower, though all observers are bound to see activity. Unfortunately, this year the waning crescent moon rises around midnight and will drown out dimmer meteors. But we’ll still see the big ones, and those are arguably the most thrilling.

Meteors are really just bits of interplanetary debris traveling tens of thousands of miles per hour, igniting as they vaporize in Earth’s upper atmosphere, but they sure are pretty. For a preview, take a look at this video of last year’s meteor shower, filmed August 2 by Canadian Geographic.