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May 18, 2012 / michaelpetersen1

Credibility in science communication

Science fiction seems to have a tradition of predicting where science will take us in the future. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein gave an insight into the possibility of modern surgery techniques and transplants, and Jules Verne wrote about submarines and Rockets in his novels, however absurd these things seemed at the time. It’s no surprise then that scientists are now working on an invisibility cloak something we see in fantasy novels like Harry Potter .

Boonsri Dickenson explains the efforts of scientist to come up with a material which is able to bend light and make the person cloaked in it invisible. Making this story credible involves explaining the science of how an invisibility cloak would work and how it is made. This means that Boonsri keeps the popular culture references at the start of the article which at first draws us into reading it, and starts discussing the realities of the technology still in its primitive stage this causes any preconceived notions of what an invisibility cloak would do firmly within the fantasy novels as we learn that invisible materials are only a fraction of a millimetre in length and only work in two dimensions.

Focusing on the scientists the author tries to make the story appear more credible including direct quotes by them. In particular, we are introduced to Ulf Leonhardt who must 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.

While the science in the article has to be accurate for the story to be credible this can be difficult when the science behind it (mainly theoretical physics) is very dry and boring. The author strikes a good balance here by using simple statements to make then science sound simpler:

“light changes its path when it travels through air to water. It’s like looking at a mirage on a hot day.”

This also helps make a fascinating concept like the science of invisibility which captivates our imagination a little more interesting than the reality of the technology.

Boonsri writes a credible science story while still retaining the magic of invisibility, as she points out while an invisibility cloak seems implausible now

“New Scientist predicts that by 2039, invisibility cloaks would be part of our everyday life”.

There’s no telling where the technology could be in the future, anything that has a potential military function like invisibility is sure to receive further development the real challenge will be communicating to people people that these experiments are worthwhile and credible.




Leave a Comment
  1. fullclever / May 22 2012 12:27 pm

    Hi, Michael
    I totally agree with you. Whatever abstract tool you use to amaze the reader, the credibility relies in never letting the feet to go out from the earth. The writer shall walk always in secure land not to be seen as a lunatic and still pushing the limits of imagination. Everything he says must be well scientifically documented but provoke the the beliefs, walking in the shadows of the knowledge.
    It was a great post and I enjoyed specially the richness of your introduction. You practically described the Dickenson’s technique as a wedding between Verne’s and Einstein’s ideas to give the former a nacionality in the country of the accepted science.
    Congratulations for the precious contribution. Cheers!

    • michaelpetersen1 / May 23 2012 6:19 am

      Thanks for the kind comment, I definately think your right about authors pushing the limits of the imagination. This is why people love to read science fiction its believable (although not credible) because its still based on some abstract science.

  2. muza2009 / May 23 2012 12:39 am

    Great post! It is very well structured providing a detailed analysis of the reading and nicely illustrated with examples. Technology is increasingly complex and as science writers our challenge is to keep up with the times and simplify this complexity without dumbing down the science in such areas like nanotechnology, LHC, bending bullets, mining asteroids, genetics etc….

  3. muza2009 / May 23 2012 12:41 am

    Is there a reason why C in credibiity in the title isn’t capitalized?

    • michaelpetersen1 / May 23 2012 2:23 am

      No, that was an oversight I will fix that

  4. mmaideni / May 30 2012 4:07 pm

    This is really a good post and the comments from the other bloggers makes it even easier to understand what Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein meant for us to learn. Though she rightly cautions the reader not to get too excited in the fantasy that the invisible cloaks will do in our everyday life in the this twenty first century, the examples given of the contact lenses and submarines and how they came into being is quite interesting. Though some of the antincipation of the things to come sound like another fairy tale still manages to give us a good and reliable science story.

  5. tobiasgrey / Jun 8 2012 12:16 pm

    I agree with this post. I think one of the best ways to make science credible is to tell everyone ‘don’t get too excited’. Science is a process of chipping away at the facts and inconsistencies, especially when it comes to progress towards something like invisibility. That’s playing right on the edge of the rules of physics.
    I like the allusions to the past of science fiction – they definitely set the scene for the future of science. Just like more recent sci-fi has set the stage for things being looked into now – like space elevators and ideas akin to Dysen spheres/swarms. The future is limitless. We’re in the gutters, looking at the stars, and all that.

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