Between the Lines: March-April 2007

April 1, 2007

Peter Agre knows his science, and you would expect that of a Nobel Laureate in chemistry. He also knows issues, like stem-cell research, that straddle the realms of science and public policy. Agre argues, in our back-page “Under the Gargoyle,” that scientists need to do a better job at engaging with the public.

The public was certainly engaged with a Duke-led effort to construct an “invisibility cloak,” also treated in these pages. The Pratt School’s David Smith, who led the research team, says the media by and large got the story right—even as media interest “pretty much wiped out months” for him and David Schurig, his postdoctoral associate. The two of them did more than 100 interviews; every segment for broadcast “would take about half a day or more for the thirty seconds of air time.”

A technology-oriented weblog, Engadget, declared, “Duke scientists build theorized invisibility cloak. Sort of.” But even such sober accounts generated exuberant reader postings. “It’s a hell of a lot cooler than that guy in Japan who used a webcam and a projector to make himself ‘invisible,’” one poster remarked, in an intriguing if obscure reference. “Making it work with visible light will be quite a challenge,” wrote another. “But, if you’re going up against an army of robots that can only see microwaves, it might do the trick!”

The research resonated powerfully because of such fantastical associations. Which is not to say that fans of science fiction might not be protective of their territory—just like scientists. In a letter to The Chronicle, Greg Filpus, a Pratt sophomore, said that ascribing an “invisibility cloak” to the Starship Enterprise was an insult to “the Star Trek universe and the United Federation of Planets.” Cloaking technology would have been off limits under interstellar agreements that “span three of the five TV series.”

Spanning as it does science fiction and technological innovation, the “invisibility cloak” visibly produces good storytelling.