Comic-Con@Home: The Stories & Science Of ‘Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.’
by Erik Amaya
San Diego’s Fleet Science Center sponsored a Comic-Con@Home panel Saturday focused on “the science and stories” of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Star Elizabeth Henrstridge , frequent guest star Joel Stoffer, executive producer & co-showrunner Jeffrey Bell, writer/producer Craig Titley, and writers James & Sharla Oliver were joined by genuine scientists to discuss the way the series uses the cutting edge of physics, biochemistry, and other disciplines to fuel their wild storylines. They also speculated on some of the ideas on the series that could become science fact.
Bell called himself a “lay person” interested in science. And considering S.H.I.E.L.D.’s usage of superpowered Inhumans, cyborgs, time travel, alternate worlds, aliens, and virtual realities, it took what he called “a lot of smart people” to make the program work. At the same time, he felt the success of the series comes from the way the characters relate to one another and overcome their struggles even as they face the boldest scientific concepts.
But Sharla Oliver noted many of the wilder ideas often come from articles the writers read on their lunch break and then discuss back in the writers’ room.
According to Bell, finding those science concepts helped generate a lot of story in lieu of using big Marvel characters like Iron Man. It was, in fact, one of the saving graces of the show when it was still finding its footing early on. He added Henstridge, who has been playing biochemist Dr. Gemma Simmons since the first episode, has a remarkable way for learning the science-speak her character often uses.
The actor credited her family, many of whom work in the sciences, with helping her make Simmons seem like a genuine scientist. “I think it gave me a full sense of entitlement to say those things,” she joked. “I was prepared to go to university for medicine, so I had all sorts of work experience. It’s a field that fascinates me.”
The researchers noted Simmons is a little bit more than a biochemist, but they found the character generally feels “right” — even when she was stuck on an alien world. As Melissa Miller, a scientist and science writer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, noted, its important for modern scientists to be able to communicate with people outside their specialties and have a broader understanding of many disciplines.
“It’s going to apply to your data sets,” added Dr. Troy Sandberg, a postdoctoral researcher at UC San Diego. He said a lot of scientists make their way around Google to learn about things outside their specialty. Although, Sharla Oliver mentioned Google is a risky proposition as it often makes the S.H.I.E.L.D. writing staff feel overconfident to write a scene. And though they do attempt to do right by the science, the story will not always co-operate with their understanding of currently held theories about particle physics or time.
“When in doubt, we throw out the words ‘quantum entanglement,'” joked Bell.
In discussing the various science fiction concepts, the S.H.I.E.L.D. writers noted the problems of overpowering the Inhuman characters. As Bell put it, a character like Yo-Yo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) should be able to end every fight before it begins thanks to her super-speed; which often leaves the writers trying to hobble her and Daisy (Chloe Bennet), the show’s other key Inhuman.
Dr. Sandberg noted a form of directed mutation — of the sort scene in recent S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes — already exists in real life, but it will be some time before a person could engineer a superpower. Theoretically, though, “as long as it doesn’t break the laws of physics,” Dr. Sandberg said powers are possible.
Dr. Anila Kanchan Madiraju, a research associate at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, is already creating mutants — mutant mice as part of ongoing research into genetics. A lot of her work is directed towards studies in diabetes treatment and the mutants displaying a genetic resistance to the disease may lead to an effective treatment for humans. But, she added, most people “don’t recognize how much mutation happens in the population and offers beneficial results.” Everyday, the human genome changes and could produce remarkable results. Returning to the notion of super-speed, though, she admitted it is one of the least likely powers to ever manifest in real life because it breaks various laws of physics; starting with the human body’s inability to cope with such sudden acceleration.
Henstridge noted it is a treat of working on a show like S.H.I.E.L.D. because the audience responds to the speculative science and many consider going into the field. “It resonates with people,” she said.
According to Dr. Virginia De Sa, a professor in the Cognitive Science Department at UC San Diego, pop culture creates many opportunities to bring underrepresented populations into science by making it fun. “Anything that can connect it to something about fun, the kids respond,” she said.
“Most scientists I know where inspired by the media they saw,” added Dr. Sandberg. He noted the concept of light-speed time dilation as something science fiction fans will see in a story and eventually recall as the thing which inspired them to study physics.
The discussion moved to whether or not our reality is a simulation like the Framework of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s fourth season. Dr. Sandberg noted the math suggests it is possible as life is just a series of quarks dealing with four forces — all of which can be modeled in a powerful enough computer.
“These are the science speculations that terrify me,” Bell joked.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs Wednesdays on ABC.