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Stranger than fiction

By Margaret Harris

Quick question: are time travel, invisibility cloaks and “tractor beams” that lift objects science fact, or science fiction?

I’d argue that all three are closer to science fact than science fiction. True, Britain’s streets are not lined with time-travelling Tardises (or is it Tardii?), but physical theories of the quantum vacuum indicate that subatomic particles are constantly popping back and forth in time. And although invisibility cloaks aren’t exactly at the Harry Potter stage, negative-refractive index materials are serious science – we’ve written several stories on them, including one just last week. As for tractor beams, the Bristol physicist Mervyn Miles may not be reeling in alien spacecraft, but this amazing video of his work shows that it’s perfectly possible to manipulate small objects with a laser beam.

However, according to this quiz on the BBC website, I’m wrong on two out of the three: time travel and invisibility cloaks are classed as “science fiction”, while Miles’s “tractor beams” are deemed “science fact”. Go figure.

The “news peg” for the quiz is a recent survey conducted by Birmingham Science City which purports to show that many Britons have trouble distinguishing between science fact and fiction. Reports on the survey have mostly heralded its results as proof of the British public’s ignorance, mocking the 30% of respondents who believed that time travel was possible and the 22% who thought that invisibility cloaks were the real deal.

But maybe the real story is that 70% and 78% thought – incorrectly – that they weren’t.

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