Emily LakdawallaOct 28, 2010

In which I report on w00tstock and wonder how to get nerds more excited about real space exploration

(I promise that this post will get around to the subject of space exploration in a couple of paragraphs.) Last night I attended an event in Los Angeles called "w00tstock." Those of you who use Twitter have probably heard of this phenomenon, but for those of you who do not have your fingers on the clammy, clammy pulse of nerd culture, it is essentially a variety show for geeks, one that's of most interest to the thirty-somethings who grew up in an age of 8-bit video games, who may have played (and may still play!) Dungeons and Dragons using dice and graph paper, whose Star Trek franchise is The Next Generation, and who laugh along with blue comedy but who insist that it be intelligent blue comedy. The event is the brainchild of Discovery Channel "Mythbuster" Adam Savage, former child-actor-turned-writer-and-blogger Wil Wheaton, and the comedy music duo Paul and Storm.

It was a fun night. Very long, but very fun. Did I mention it was long? Five hours long. The guest acts (linked to in the image caption below) were all excellent and kept to three-song sets, but the hosts tended to get a little carried away with themselves. This particular w00tstock honored Doctor Demento, a man who has been on the radio for 40 years, delivering strange and funny music, and who was most certainly an important influence on the development of my sense of humor, so I was thrilled to see him in person, and doubly thrilled when "Weird Al" Yankovic made a brief appearance to support the entire cast performing a tribute to/with the good Doctor.

In celebration of the geekdom that was w00tstock, I present to you an animated gif of the whole cast's Dr. Demento tribute. The photos aren't the greatest but hopefully the motion makes up for that.

w00tstock The entire cast of w00tstock 2.6 crowded the stage for a tribute to Dr. Demento, who has hosted a radio show featuring silly, strange, and funny music for four decades, launching the careers of many a nerd musician. (They were performing "Shaving Cream.")Image: Emily Lakdawalla

From left to right:

So, it was a fun show. But the celebration of geek culture that w00tstock represents made me muse on why there doesn't seem to be more fandom for the actual ships and robots that are exploring space among this geek crowd. If anybody out there in the world should know that Spirit is asleep but Opportunity is still roving, that they and Cassini return new images to Earth nearly every day, that Deep Impact is just days away from flying past the smallest comet that's ever been visited by a spacecraft, it should be this crowd. But I don't think there's much consciousness of active, real space exploration, and I am wondering why that is.

One explanation I can propose is that this crowd of thirtysomethings came of age in the '80s, which were the dark days of planetary exploration, with the brief Voyager 2 encounters with Uranus and Neptune pretty much the only thing Americans noticed (Europeans did have their Comet Halley encounter in '86), and the Challenger disaster making us all question what the heck America was trying to do with human exploration. Fake space was more inspiring than real space, and now as we are all adults finding community in our shared childhood experience as outcast nerds, space exploration was just not part of that experience, so it is not part of this "ascendancy of geek culture" that w00tstock celebrates.

I take two lessons away from this. The first is: get 'em while they're young. If we want the public to care about space exploration, we have to inspire children about space exploration. This is a lesson that the Planetary Society's new boss, Bill Nye the Science Guy, is trying to hammer into the Planetary Society staff and Board, and he is pushing forward for the Society to do more to reach out about space exploration to people who are still forming their lifelong interests.

The second is: I am sure that it's not too late to get to the old geeks (and by "old" I mean "people my age"). But -- how do we get the news about what our robotic emissaries are doing all over the solar system to all these self-styled geeks? I am open to suggestions!

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