A Super Experience

September 17, 2013

As origin stories go, the one behind Duke electrical engineering graduate student Nathan Landy’s involvement in a White House-sponsored panel is pretty mundane. No planets exploding. No radioactive insect bites. Just an e-mail request sent from a White House staffer in June.

Of course, July’s “We the Geeks” Web panel featured not superheroes but the kind of people behind them—the Lucius Foxes as opposed to the Batmans, if you will. Whimsically tied to Comic-Con, the comic-book extravaganza held annually in San Diego, the Google Plus Hangout event was part of an outreach effort by the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, an initiative to get the public engaged with materials science.

Nathan Landy

Electrical Engineering concentration: Sensing and waves

Hometown: Weston, Mass. 

“I was curious,” says Landy of his reaction to the invitational e-mail, while sitting at his workspace in his third-floor lair at the Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine, and Applied Sciences. “It was the first time I would be doing any kind of media where I’d be exposed directly to the people without some kind of filter. I thought that was kind of exciting.”

Making the invisible visible: Graduate student Nathan Landy with the cloaking device. Les Todd

On the panel with four other engineers and physicists, Landy took questions about his invisibility-cloak project, a diamond-shaped structure made out of “metamaterials”— artificially structured composites that guide electromagnetic waves around objects, making the objects undetectable by radar. Questions came from the moderators and via Twitter during the forty-five-minute discussion.

For Landy, the experience was painless but different. “Regular people are slightly more frank,” he says. One audience member, for instance, wanted to know how his cloak could be used for good instead of evil. Landy pointed out that there could be benign creative uses; for instance, in a theater a stagehand could be invisible as he makes a fake bird fly around the scene.
The Boston-area native says he enjoyed the teaching aspect of the dynamic. “I learned in basic terms how to explain my research. People bring certain preconceptions to the idea of an invisibility cloak, so it’s very different from hobnobbing with other scientists and engineers.”

In fact, the Spider-Man fan says he hopes he’ll have more opportunities like the “We the Geeks” panel. “There’s a boundary that doesn’t have to exist between people and the understanding of science. When you change the discourse by talking about superheroes, you can answer in a way people can understand.”