Science!: Science Goes to WonderCon


Last weekend, I took a vacation. I headed to San Francisco’s WonderCon for the sole purpose of meeting the only man on television that has ever made me swoon like a teenaged girl: James Marsters (or, as I best know him: Spike.) Further, I planned on not thinking, talking, or even breathing a single bit of Science! for the entire weekend. I wrote my Monday article early, abandoned my laptop at home and ignored the iPhone page that hosted my many science-related apps. This weekend was for one thing and one thing only: Spike – oh, and basking in the nerdy goodness that is WonderCon. Or, so I thought.

The first plane ride to San Francisco (Note to self: Next time, purchase non-stop flight) seemed promising. The girl next to me was reading “The Philosophy of Buffy,” a book I had read cover to cover multiple times. Pointing at the book, I asked “Wondercon?” and she nodded.

“Spike?” I continued.

She nodded again, and soon we were intently discussing the feminist overtones of the series, the necessity of Faith’s moral ambiguity to strengthen Buffy’s, and why Spike was so gosh-darn attractive. Over-bleached hair + constant cigarette smoking never used to be a turn-on, but damn if Spike doesn’t somehow make it work. It looked like I was heading towards a happy, science-free weekend after all.

I was wrong.

Science, it seems, has a tendency to follow me wherever I go, and it certainly found me at WonderCon. While waiting in line to see the Dr.Who premiere, someone decided that I would be the appropriate person to talk to about ant orgies. No, it wasn’t an odd pick-up line, it was honest to goodness, let’s sit down and talk about the science of ant orgies. And despite myself, I was enthralled. I’ve briefly written about ant reproduction before, but the entomology major I talked to had way more to say about the subject.

So it was that during a thirty minute wait to see Dr.Who, I learned all about ant orgies. See, harvester ants have an annual orgy. At a specified time, like clockwork, tens of thousands of male ants and queens all emerge from colonies miles around and meet at a single location. And there, they fornicate. The male ants jostle to mate with a queen ant who they hope will use their sperm to establish a new colony. As I’ve written before, not every mated male will be successful in this endeavor: male ants excrete a seminal fluid that can be toxic to the sperm of rival male ants. When the orgy is through, the queens fly away to establish new colonies, and the male ants perish on the ground.

As my new line buddy and I talked, we soon realized that perhaps the people standing around us didn’t much care to hear about ant sperm and orgies. So, we changed topics and he asked me what I thought was the cruelest species of ant. Coming from Texas , I immediately answered “fire ants;” that invasive species whose stings burn like fire and can completely swarm your hand in less than a minute. A childhood in Texas often means plenty a dare to “destroy” a fire ant nest, often with the result of multiple, burning ant bites – a hazing, of sorts. However, fire ants have got nothing on driver ants. Driver ants are those insects of legend, rumored to swarm and devour anything in their paths, taking down human babies, tethered horses and anything else too slow or too stupid to get out of the way. Their bite is so strong, that if you attempted to tear one away, their mandibles would rip apart from their body and remain firmly embedded in your skin. These are often used as makeshift stitches within tribes indigenous to East Africa, a la Apocalypto. (or as a puzzle in Return to Mysterious Island 2, if Mel Gibson isn’t your shtick).

The conversation with the Ant Man quickly devolved into which Dr.Who villain was the coolest: Daleks or the Weeping Angels, but science would not be deterred for long.

As for the meeting with James Marsters – well, it was brief and, I’m sorry to say it, not quite the mind-blowing experience I was hoping for. Those who had purchased a photo-op with the Buffy bad-ass were corralled into a line away from the hoopla of WonderCon and processed in threes. I, the friend I was visiting, and another girl with whom we were fretting about our upcoming Spike moment were hustled towards a curtained section where James was awaiting us. One by one, we were led into the room, were subsequently greeted by James before a quick – sometimes unexpected – photo was taken of us and we were hastily herded out of the room. The entire experience lasted 10 seconds, at best. Perhaps I’m just feeling slighted that my fantasy of the meeting – us falling deliriously in love and riding a unicorn off into a vampire-filled sunset – didn’t happen.

During my trip back home, I had the fortunate opportunity to sit next to a molecular biologist. And as we chatted about free radicals and hydroxyl groups, I realized that I don’t really want a vacation from science. In a world that is full of dashed expectations and unrealized dreams, science is a hardy failsafe, offering a world where life mostly follow the rules and is always amazing. When all else fails, I think of science.

Lauren Admire is also amenable to riding off into the sunset on a unicorn with Angel.

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