An open access physics paper that sent ‘Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak’ flying around the world
Flexible metamaterials at visible wavelengths by Andrea Di Falco, Martin
Ploschner and Thomas F Krauss
What is it?
In 2010 Dr Andrea di Falco, of University of St Andrews’ School of Physics and Astronomy, published a paper in the open access journal New Journal Of Physics on “the fabrication and characterisation of plasmonic structures on flexible substrates”. Not, at first sight, the most immediately media-friendly of topics. Yet, combine public access to science with the magic words “Harry Potter”, and it’s time to hang on to your broomstick.
The paper was published in the week that the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows premiered and, while there is no mention of the boy wizard in the paper itself, an enterprising press officer from the university made the connection between Potter and the invisibility cloaking potentially offered by the flexible new ‘smart’ material, that could theoretically appear invisible to the naked eye, developed by Dr di Falco’s team. The innovation brings the world “one step closer to creating a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak,” trumpeted the press release from St Andrews.
How is it a success?
“It’s not surprising that the topic itself would catch the imagination. It stimulates the imagination, for sure – we’re talking about an invisibility cloak here!” says Dr di Falco, laughing. “It’s a buzzword that certainly calls for attention, and this attention has definitely been fueled by the fact that the New Journal of Physics is an open access journal.”
The outcome of the decision to publish in an open access journal did not disappoint. There was an “overwhelming” response from the world’s media. In the UK the story was picked up by the BBC and all the main quality and tabloid newspapers. It travelled across Europe, courtesy of France 24 and Deutsche Well, and was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bangkok Post and featured by the Kenya Broadcasting Company, the Ghana Broadcasting Company and Al Jazeera. It also made the news in the US, Canada and India.
As a result of the coverage, the paper was downloaded more than 50,000 times in the space of just a few months, and it reached an extremely wide and diverse audience for a technical scientific paper.
Dr di Falco was approached, as he expected, by academic colleagues from across the world who had heard about his paper, but also companies with a commercial interest and intrigued, non-academic individuals, including school children.
“It was almost liberating being able to point them directly to the source of the article and say to them, ‘well, you can read the article’, it’s not necessarily too specialised and you will be able to go through it and understand something. Through the open access journal it was possible to establish a dialogue with different readers,” says Dr di Falco, who added that “I was really pleased and amazed by the depth of the questions that were asked by the younger school pupils.”
The attention has not only been good for Dr di Falco and his team, but also his university and, looking at the bigger picture, the UK as a whole.
“It’s been attracting some students to the UK – I’ve been flooded with requests for studentships and I think that has to do with the fact that it was open access because everyone with an internet connection could download it. I constantly receive numerous requests for PhD studentship or Masters thesis projects. It’s been very beneficial for my work, for sure,” says Dr di Falco.
“For me, it has switched on a big spotlight over the possibilities and the advantages of open access. I have frequently used online repositories such as arXiv.org, for example, since I started so I am an advocate of open access but now I am even more convinced.”