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April 29, 2011 / Aaron Cull

Making Fiction a Reality

Turning Implausible Science into a Credible Story
Article: An invisibility cloak hides objects in visible light

An invisibility cloak is an object that resides in our imagination – something reserved for fictional stories like Harry Potter. So when scientists announced they cloaked an object that’s invisible to the naked eye it became Boonsri Dickinson’s job to explain the magic involved.

Unlike fictional stories, science requires explanations about the methods involved for it to be credible. This is where the difficulty lies; the science is complex and hard to explain to those not working directly on the project. Explaining science related to popular fiction has an extra level of difficulty because people already have perceptions on how the result should appear. In this instance, the title invokes visions of throwing on a cloak and vanishing from sight when in actual fact the cloak is only millimetres in size and only works when viewed at the correct angle – not quite as grandeur as the cloaks imagined in our mind.

This then is the first challenge when writing a credible story about a wondrous concept, how can we make it interesting when the results, compared to our imagination, are such a bore? Boonsri finds the answer by detailing how incredibly simple the science can be: “The scientists made carpet cloaks from calcite crystals.” Well that’s easier than expected … cheap too! The difficulty of the task is hidden from view and we’re left with a factual statement that still leaves us curious.

The other method the author uses to create a credible story is to focus on the scientists. In particular, we are introduced to Ulf Leonhardt who has a deadline to create a ‘blueprint’ within two years – a small amount of time for something first thought impossible. Much of the article follows the ideas of the scientists involved in making the cloaks and their challenges and opinions on what the technology could be used for. In this way, we are introduced to people who share a similar fascination on the subject while also gaining an insight into their work and the science involved.

So it turns out writing a story about the actual science of an otherwise fictional concept can be done in a credible way without removing some of the magic. Are there any other technologies being developed based on fictional stories? I’m still waiting for my teleportation machine – how about you?

For those interested, I’ve included a video of Ulf Leonhardt explaining the fundamental principles of his research below.

‘Invisibility’ two years away from University of St Andrews on Vimeo.

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4 Comments

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  1. rohanmsmith / May 3 2011 11:00 am

    Hi Aaron,

    I found your blog post interesting and informative. I think you’ve covered the difficulties of turning an implausible concept into a credible story well.

    Stories like these give the author the ability to capture the readers attention like no other – who isn’t going to read a story about an invisibility cloak, a time machine or life found on mars?

    In these situations, science fiction overcomes our general sense and we are disapointed when we hear the actual science. For a split second I think we all hoped that the invisbility cloak was Harry Potter style, even though we knew how unlikely it was. I think this makes it impossible to avoid losing at least some of the magic, but it can still be an interesting story.

    I think its acceptable to use the readers imagination to increase interest in research, but you can’t leave any misconceptions by the end. Obviously you can’t lie or mislead, and everything has to be presented accurately. If you overstep into the realms of sci-fi you lose both your reader and all credibility.

    To prevent this, focusing on the research and on the researchers are both excellent tools as you’ve suggested, but I think incorporating the fantasy element would be just as effective. Using the misconceptions developed in the readers imagination and explaining the differences between these and reality would make for an interesting story.

    On April 1, 2011 I was excited to be able to control my email using my computers inbuilt camera, albeit briefly.

    In this case, it was an April Fool’s Joke, but I think it serves as a warning for what could happen if you don’t present your research realisitically (this is an extreme case) – people will automatically shrug it off as fake, and stop reading. The author in the original article definitely prevented this from happening.

    cheers
    Rohan

    • Aaron Cull / May 6 2011 7:23 am

      Thanks Rohan – I particularly like your example of when a realistic looking story can backfire in a way. I remember once on Youtube there was a banner showing Hillary Clinton addressing the media about an attack by North Korea. It was only 30 seconds into the video when it became obvious it was an advertisement for a video game. Everyone was leaving very angry comments for being mislead. In this case it’s a matter of taking non-fictional elements and using it to create a fictional story – but similar concepts apply.

  2. Ben Currell / May 5 2011 9:57 am

    Hi Aaron,

    I thought that you covered the most relevent points in your blog well. However, I would have thought that a pop culture reference or fictional tie-in would be a boon to any science communicator, rather than a hinderance.

    Its essentially a pre-written hook and I think it means that people are much more likely to pick that article to read, instead of just passing it off as something unintresting. By starting with something interesting and relevent to the general public, you break through the understanding barrier. For instance it is easier to explain the concept behind an invisibility cloak than the concept behind a particle accelerator.

    I do agree with both you and Rohan, that by the end of the article there needs to be absolutely no doubt about the differences between the actual science and the story, and that this is the difficult part. However by starting with a concept people are already familiar with, an author is able to give themselves a headstart.

    Any thoughts?

    Cheers
    Ben

    • Aaron Cull / May 6 2011 7:39 am

      Thanks Ben – you make an important point about the benefit of capturing the reader’s attention. It becomes much easier to draw a crowd when people already have an interest in the subject. It just seems, in this case, that the audience is more interested in the results rather than the actual science which can hinder the writer’s task when the results are less amazing than the fictional stories portray.

      Perhaps the best example of how it can be a boon is with Dolly the sheep. There were always articles detailing the scientific advances of cloning but when a story exceeds the expectations of the reader then it becomes much easier to retain their attention and talk more freely about the science involved.

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