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Tilting at Windmills

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February 20, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

INVISIBILITY....When I first read this I thought it sounded very cool:

But scientists are not satisfied. Using other new materials, some are trying to manufacture rudimentary Harry Potter-like cloaks that make objects inside of them literally invisible under the right conditions — the pinnacle of stealthy technology.

Both advances reflect researchers' growing ability to manipulate light, the fleetest and most evanescent of nature's offerings. The nascent invisibility cloak now being tested, for example, is made of a material that bends light rays "backward," a weird phenomenon thought to be impossible just a few years ago.

Known as transformation optics, the phenomenon compels some wavelengths of light to flow around an object like water around a stone. As a result, things behind the object become visible while the object itself disappears from view.

But then I thought twice about it. After all, there are two sides to this (no pun intended): the coolness of invisibility for me vs. the extreme annoyance of invisibility for all the rest of you. How does this balance out?

In my case, pretty clearly on the non-invisibility side. After all, I don't really have much use for being invisible, do I? I work at home, I'm not excited by the prospect of risk-free shoplifting, and it would probably scare the hell out of the cats. On the downside, other people being invisible could become a very serious pain very quickly. Just imagine what Michelle Malkin could do with it.

So here's today's question for you. Not "Would you like the power of invisibility?" Rather, "Would you like other people to have the power of invisibility?" Well, would you?

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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Comments

I only wish that Michelle Malkin had the power of inaudibility.

Posted by: Joe S. on February 20, 2008 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

It would be very cool for theatre, especially puppet shows. Other than that....

It will be like caller id. It will just spawn counter-gadgets. You buy invisibility cloaks, I buy anti-invisibility cloak eyewear.

I suspect that in practice invisibility cloaks would be blurry. I would be able to tell someone was there but I wouldnt be able to tell who.

This would be make bars like internet chatrooms. You wouldnt be able to tell what people look like.

Posted by: jimmy on February 20, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

This, in a small way, illustrates the problems with people who think clairvoyance would be "cool."

Fun to read other people's minds, sure. Fun to have them read yours? Well...

Not that either clairvoyance or an immaterial object called "mind" or "consciousness" exist, of course.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 20, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, for ugly people - who needs to see that!

Posted by: rusrus on February 20, 2008 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

Absolutely.

I mean, imagine never having to look at Anne Coulter's adam's apple ever again!

Posted by: Quinn on February 20, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Well, if such a cloak were developed, there undoubtedly would be counter-measures for the detection of hidden objects created or employed as well (stores would employ infrared or heat-imaging detectors, for example, to prevent the "invisible" from entering or shoplifting), and we'd end up with a invisibility arms-race of sorts.

Posted by: Steve F on February 20, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

I'm more worried about what Larry Craig would do with invisibility.

Posted by: fostert on February 20, 2008 at 1:23 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter Kevin: Get off my lawn!

Posted by: Boronx on February 20, 2008 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

In my case, pretty clearly on the non-invisibility side. After all, I don't really have much use for being invisible, do I?

And I thought you were the type to sneak into the girls locker room while invisible. *snicker*

Posted by: Al on February 20, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

With all the security cameras used in public places, don't we already have invisible people watching us?

Posted by: emmarose on February 20, 2008 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Someone with better knowledge of optics should back me up or smack me down on this, but if I was under an invisibility cloak that "bends light waves backward", wouldn't my eyes have to be visible to others for me to be able to see (that is, by taking in light waves)? Being under an invisibility cloak without being able to see anything outside the cloak really seems a lot less cool. I guess I would still be able to hear and smell people undetected. . .

Posted by: antiflimflammatory on February 20, 2008 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

The technology here is being more than a little overstated. "Certain wavelengths" is the key element here- it's true that objects can be made that bend specific wavelengths of light, but the visible spectrum is pretty huge and technology able to bend all of them at once is very far away. More likely, you'd be able to make things that were invisible to certain, important wavelengths, but not anything resembling a "Harry Potter-like cloak."

Posted by: Ruck on February 20, 2008 at 1:32 PM | PERMALINK

Most people have no really urgent need for invisibility. The only people who do... probably shouldn't have it.

Posted by: gkoutnik on February 20, 2008 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

Invisibility, just another weapon for the military industrial complex.

How many weapons are there that could have been developed for the good of mankind? I know, it’s a secret.

And, how is that poor secret satellite doing today?

Posted by: testing on February 20, 2008 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Surely you don't imagine an invisibility cloak would work against cats, do you?

Posted by: EmmaAnne on February 20, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

I would steal a copy of The Republic with it...or maybe sneak into a dragon's lair.

Posted by: demisod on February 20, 2008 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

This could be the new version of putting a brown bag over someone's head.

Posted by: MS on February 20, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK
I would steal a copy of The Republic with it...

demisod wins the thread.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 20, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

While invisibility was not unheard of in Potter's world his cloak was a one off. No countermeasures had been developed. All the other invisibility magic could be penetrated by the appropriate counter measure. The counter measures were relatively well known so standard Potter world invisibility was not an advantage against a well defended location.

Here is something for you to consider. Say you are a radar operator and you see an object emitting the radar signature of a small bird, but the object is traveling 600 knots at 10,000 meters. Do you ignore it because it is no bigger than a bird or conclude that the object is a stealthy aircraft aircraft? To be truly stealth an object has to be perfectly invisible not just mostly invisible. The new F-22 Raptors have super cruise ability. That means they cruise at faster than the speed of sound. Do they completely mask the sonic boom? Anybody know? If they don't how can you claim they are stealth?

Posted by: corpus juris on February 20, 2008 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

lol @ 1.41. See Kevin, if we had invisibility sure we might be immoral for a time but then we'd realize the hollowness of our immorality and become philosopher kings.

Posted by: Me2d on February 20, 2008 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Not to worry, we will all be commuting in our personal nuclear powered helicopters before we get our invisibility cloaks.

The F-22 is stealthy to radar, but when cruising supersonically it will have readily detectable audible and infrared signatures.

Posted by: fafner1 on February 20, 2008 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK
Say you are a radar operator and you see an object emitting the radar signature of a small bird, but the object is traveling 600 knots at 10,000 meters. Do you ignore it because it is no bigger than a bird or conclude that the object is a stealthy aircraft aircraft?

You may have little choice but to ignore it, because a small bird has a small enough radar cross section that it is unlikely to show up on may radar systems at tactically useful ranges.


The new F-22 Raptors have super cruise ability. That means they cruise at faster than the speed of sound. Do they completely mask the sonic boom? Anybody know? If they don't how can you claim they are stealth?

Tracking the sonic boom is not currently a practical way to track, target, and shoot down an aircraft; anyway, "stealth" is relative, not absolute.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 20, 2008 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, you have got to get a little joie de vivre, honey. You're killing us here. I can think of about 100 cool things to do with an invisibility cloak without even trying. In fact, I've spent large portions of HP movies sitting there munching popcorn and wishing I had one.

Posted by: shortstop on February 20, 2008 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah to EmmaAnne above. Cats could hear and smell you. It might confuse them a bit, but not scare them.

Posted by: Minivet on February 20, 2008 at 2:06 PM | PERMALINK

Another techno gadget that won't survive peak oil.

Posted by: Speed on February 20, 2008 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

I'd make invisibility mandatory for Rubenesque women wearing white spandex and thongs and guys wearing Speedos.

Posted by: Caslon on February 20, 2008 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

Demisod beat me to it. Three words: ring of Giges.

Posted by: lisainvan on February 20, 2008 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

"Would you like other people to have the power of invisibility?"

How do you know we don't?

Posted by: other people on February 20, 2008 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

How do you know we don't?

LOL.

Posted by: shortstop on February 20, 2008 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

I found a book on how to be invisible
On the edge of the labyrinth
Under a veil you must never lift
Pages you must never turn
In the labyrinth
You stand in front of a million doors
Each one holds a million more
Corridors that lead to the world
Of the invisible
Corridors that twist and turn
Corridors that blister and burn

Eye of Braille
Hem of anorak
Stem of wallflower
Hair of doormat

-- Kate Bush, "How To Be Invisible"

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 20, 2008 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

SocraticGadfly: "Not that either clairvoyance or an immaterial object called 'mind' or 'consciousness' exist, of course."

So you yourself have no subjective experience?

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 20, 2008 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

I sure as much as anyone else don't want to be the one who disses burgeoning technology and gets proven wrong, but this time, I pretty confidentally feel this isn't going to happen. I think the second comment on this thread sort of gets it right, and I feel like I've heard of a lot of kinds of infantry-finding and vehicle-finding gadgets that already exist that rely on things like heat and sound and radar that would make an invisibility suit (which, if it ever came into being, we'd probably found out worked only in thick fog or at twilight, or something, anyway) just an expensive waste of time.

But, if it did exist, I would be staunchly opposed to such nigh-omnipotent power! No one person should ever be able to exercise a power like that. The results would be diastrous, no matter what.

Posted by: Swan on February 20, 2008 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

The first major application of this material will be the mass production of burqas. This will be followed shortly thereafter by the mysterious stabbing deaths of all of the religious police enforcing Sharia law, whereupon Sharia law will be amended to mandate all women wear shorts and tank tops (just to be safe), causing everyone in the Muslim world to lighten-the-f@ck-up.

And that's how invisibility cloaks will spur a Renaissance in the Muslim world.

Posted by: Augustus on February 20, 2008 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

Would I want other people to be able to be invisible?

I dunno, would they sell the pictures of what they see?

Personally I have nothing to hide and not much to steal and I doubt many people would really like to see me naked so bring it on invisible people. I'd support a law against it though, just for privacy's sake.

Okay, on to the optics. Would someone have to be able to see your eyes or you would be blind? Not necessarily. Two way mirrors, for example, allow one to see one way but not the other.

As for the bending light - well, how much can they bend the light? It seems to me this would only work well on a fairly narrow object, unless one is to walk around inside a cylinder of the material perhaps a foot thick or more.

Posted by: Tripp on February 20, 2008 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

Invisibility vs. flight

Of course, Harry Potter that wanker, had both.

Posted by: jerry on February 20, 2008 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

This is scary. The possibilities for using this as a weapon, both by armies and criminals, or for undetected surveillance, are very worrying.

Posted by: Doug on February 20, 2008 at 3:02 PM | PERMALINK

antiflimflammatory is right.
If light waves don´t reach your eyes you´d be practically blind. Have fun stumbling around. And everybody outside could still detect you by sound, radar or infrared.

Posted by: Detlef on February 20, 2008 at 3:14 PM | PERMALINK

As I understand it, the way these devices would work is by redirecting the light behind the cloak so that it ends up, going the same direction as it did before, in front of the cloak.

Successful invisibility would then require that almost all the light would be redirected, or else the cloak would look like a mysterious dark spot.

If almost all the light is redirected *around* the cloak, then very little of it can get *inside* the cloak. In other words, you can be invisible, but you can't see outside your own cloak.

Cuts down the worry about live surveillance, although if they could design a cloak that redirected visible but not infrared light, they could cloak an infrared camera. Those are already so easy to hide that I don't see much point, though...

Posted by: dal20402 on February 20, 2008 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

There is a Kung Fu training for the development of a sort of invisibility.

You begin by entering a large space crowded with people, such as a busy shopping mall or rail station, and practice moving through it in such a way that you don't attract anyone's notice. So that, for example, if the police were to come through there after you, showing your picture around, no one would recognize you or recall seeing such a person pass through.

With diligent practice, this skill is not too difficult to master.

Once you have mastered that level, you move on to smaller spaces, with fewer people -- perhaps a supermarket, and then smaller shops, less crowded. Again, you practice being so inconspicuous in appearance and action that you don't register on anyone's attention, and if asked later, they will have no recollection of you being there.

Eventually, after many years of practice, you learn to walk in to a small room where there is only one other person, and to be so inconspicuous that they don't notice you or even consciously see you, and if asked later they will have no clear recollection that anyone was there at all. If they do retain some vague impression that perhaps someone came in to the room, they will be strangely unable to recall anything about you.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 20, 2008 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

This particular technology sounds more like a high-tech form of camouflage rather than invisibility. The cloak wouldn't so much make the wearer "invisible" as allow them to blend into their background and be less noticeable.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on February 20, 2008 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

"And I thought you were the type to sneak into the girls locker room while invisible."

You say this as though there were some other type.

Posted by: CJColucci on February 20, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

Please, please...can we make the White House invsisble for another 9 monts?

Posted by: Stewart Dean on February 20, 2008 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not knowledgeable about physics or anything, and perhaps I'm just reacting to some ambiguous wording in the cited article, but: wouldn't a person (or for that matter a video camera) placed in such an "invisibility cloak" be rendered blind?

To wit, if all of the (relevant) light rays headed my way are bent "backward" and/or "flow around [me] like water around a stone," exactly what light is there to bounce off of my retinas?

I think being invisible would be considerably less fun if I couldn't see.

Posted by: Rieux on February 20, 2008 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

As suggested by some comments above, an "invisibility cloak" would look like more like a prism. Different colors of light would bend in different directions, giving a rainbow appearance, and just one color would avoid whatever was inside (and you'd be blind to that color). All colors would be darkened, because the materials absorb some of the light as they bend it. And the "cloak" structures are about as thick as the object inside. All this would be the result of perfecting materials of this sort.

Picture a large block of funny looking, light-distorting material with a hole inside it: would you call this an invisibility cloak?

Hype, hype, hype... The fairytale is so much more marketable than the truth.

Posted by: PhysicsUser on February 20, 2008 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

You had me at "and it would probably scare the hell out of the cats."

What better reason is there?

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on February 20, 2008 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

I suppose this is the Engineer in me but imagine this thought experiment.

What if the cloak allowed, say, 5% of the light to enter your pupils and bent all the other light rays around you. A person observing your back would see just slightly less light where your pupils are.

It wouldn't be perfect but it seems to me it could be (as Engineers say) good enough for all practical purposes.

Letting 5% of sunlight in would be adequate but indoors it would need to let more light in.

Posted by: Tripp on February 20, 2008 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

I have a more basic question: if I become invisible because light rays off other objects flow around me, well, doesn't that also make me blind??

Posted by: Amit Joshi on February 20, 2008 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK
Picture a large block of funny looking, light-distorting material with a hole inside it: would you call this an invisibility cloak?

Assuming it could be made inexpensively, it could be a very effective form of camouflage; sure, you'd know something was there, but not what it was (or even if it was something important or just an empty camouflage cloak set up as a decoy). And highly selective forms of "invisibility" may be effective countermeasures against certain systems (i.e., targeting lasers, etc., operating on known frequencies.)

Posted by: cmdicely on February 20, 2008 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

PhysicsUser,

I agree with you, but it seems to me one might be able to build layers of the material with different angles of refraction for the different wavelengths. I'm just brainstorming though. I'd need to sit down with the math to see if that is feasible.

Posted by: Tripp on February 20, 2008 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

Scarlett Johanssen could walk to my house without being mobbed by paparazzi if she were invisible.

So yes, I'm all for it.

Posted by: Andre on February 20, 2008 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

>"Would you like other people to have the power of invisibility?" Well, would you?

Yo, Kevin. This question has already been answered by the Federation Of Planets, ie, Starfleet Command.

Why do you think Captain Kirk stole the Cloaking Device from the Romulans? Because Starfleet thought it was a good idea to let only one side have that kind of technology?

Sheesh.

(However, To be fair, letting the Klingons use it would have been ok with me.) :P

Posted by: James on February 20, 2008 at 5:56 PM | PERMALINK
Scarlett Johanssen could walk to my house without being mobbed by paparazzi if she were invisible.

You seem to think the main reason Scarlett Johanssen isn't walking to your house now is the threat of the paparazzi.

You may wish to reevaluate that assessment.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 20, 2008 at 5:57 PM | PERMALINK

I am disgusted and appalled by the bias against invisible people that is evident in this thread.

Posted by: Sue Storm on February 20, 2008 at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK

We already have invisibility. Just be a woman over 40.....

Posted by: arteclectic on February 20, 2008 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

Girls locker room babies...like a dream come true.

Posted by: Jimm on February 20, 2008 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

So true areclectic, so true.

The extrapolations some of the folks are making on this thread are mind boggling. Why don't you go and read up on this? It's not that difficult to understand. You don't have to be able to solve Maxwell's equations to get the picture. It's been in the public domain science news for over a year now, and prior to that in the scientific literature.

Posted by: optical weenie on February 20, 2008 at 6:52 PM | PERMALINK

Invisibility comes with age...Being of a certain age, 60 [+ -]you only have to try and interact with the less than 30 somethings, and viola, you don't exist.

Posted by: bobbywally on February 20, 2008 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

You seem to think the main reason Scarlett Johanssen isn't walking to your house now is the threat of the paparazzi.

You may wish to reevaluate that assessment.

It's not my fault she wants to keep things quiet. Women are fickle creatures.

Posted by: Andre on February 20, 2008 at 7:50 PM | PERMALINK

Fat people in spandex should be forced to wear them.

Posted by: AMW on February 20, 2008 at 8:01 PM | PERMALINK

Fat people in spandex would be very dangerous indeed if they were invisible.

I'm not sure an invisibility cloak is any less dangerous than a laser that can make you hear voices in your head:
http://physorg.com/news122567894.html

Posted by: tom.a on February 20, 2008 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

Since you ask, no.

Posted by: allbetsareoff on February 20, 2008 at 8:23 PM | PERMALINK

Go to YouTube and search Rowan Atkinson Invisible Man. In related news, my answer would be no.

Posted by: Shoshana on February 20, 2008 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

"Rather, "Would you like other people to have the power of invisibility?" Well, would you?"

Uh-oh. He's going all Dirty Harry on us.

" and it would probably scare the hell out of the cats. "

As far as I can tell, it just startles them and makes them stare with worrying intensity in its general direction...

(At least, I assume that's the explanation. The alternatives tend to get kinda creepy).

Posted by: Dan S. on February 20, 2008 at 11:23 PM | PERMALINK

Duh. The Bushies have that invisibility thing already - though their device is beginning to run low on battery power or something. We keep getting little lightning flashes of what they'be been doing behind our backs for eight years, and it makes me want to vomit.

Posted by: cmac on February 21, 2008 at 12:39 AM | PERMALINK

A great, funny, book on the subject is Donald Westlake's _Smoke_. Highly recommended.

Posted by: Carl Manaster on February 21, 2008 at 1:22 AM | PERMALINK

Assuming it could be made inexpensively, it could be a very effective form of camouflage; sure, you'd know something was there, but not what it was (or even if it was something important or just an empty camouflage cloak set up as a decoy).

The same effect can be achieved today with the use of a large cardboard box.

Posted by: ajay on February 21, 2008 at 5:11 AM | PERMALINK
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