The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


April 11, 2013

Invisibility cloak is a visible burden on physicists



While none of these advances promises complete invisibility from all probes, progress in increasing the range of wavelengths, and the size of objects that can be shielded, is impressive. So even though true complete invisibility isn't within our reach, the next question is: Is all of this work important enough on its own to merit the press coverage, or is the Harry Potter hook too enticing for journalists to ignore?

For researchers to try to get their work noticed amid the barrage of scientific literature isn't new, and tying their labors to popular culture franchises like "Harry Potter" and "Star Trek" can, after all, be particularly effective. When so-called "Quantum Teleportation" was first developed well over a decade ago, I remember getting a call in the middle of the night from a German newspaper eager to explore whether we would soon be "beaming" one another around as an alternative to air travel. I suspect that were it not for "Star Trek," it might not have made news.

The more interesting question is whether inspiration from fiction helps spur scientific research. Here the answer is not so clear.

Science fiction, as Stephen Hawking said in the preface of my "Star Trek" book, inspires the human imagination. But the same can be said for all good fiction. Just because one finds parallels between fictional technologies and real ones doesn't mean there is necessarily a causal relationship. Often creative people in different fields can come up with similar solutions to problems — just as the benefits of diagnosing human illnesses without cutting people open motivated the tricorder in "Star Trek," and everything from ultrasound to MRI scanning in real life.

Whatever the interplay between fictional inspiration and creativity in science, there is little doubt that the real universe is generally far more fascinating than the imaginary universes of science fiction and fantasy. The job of scientists, and writers, too, is to keep pushing the boundaries. We can then be reasonably sure that nature will keep surprising us.

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