Now You See Me…Now You Don’t

If you could have one super power, what would it be?

For me, teleportation is the clear winner. Flying, communicating with animals, and producing cheese from my fingertips would also be awesome.

Every time I ask this question to friends or students, most choose the power of invisibility. And why not? Think of all the shenanigans you could pull off. Sure, most of them would be illegal, but we’re talking victimless crimes, right?

Most of us associate invisibility cloaks with fantasy more than with science fiction. Frodo and Harry Potter use them, as do savvy Dungeons and Dragons players. Even Hades had one (well, his was more of a hat, but it’s the same idea). But there are invisibility cloaks in science fiction—they just tend to be bigger and have a slightly more technical name. Cloaking devices can hide entire spaceships, as seen in Star Wars and Star Trek.

Arthur Clarke said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the invisibility cloak is a perfect example.

Scientists have been working on invisibility cloaks for years. Optical camouflage, like the blue screens used to produce fantastical scenes in movies, is one option. Researchers are working on ways to use this technology to make someone look invisible, and to project other images on their bodies.

For a while, invisibility cloaks could only hide microscopic objects. Recent breakthroughs include work with the mineral calcite, which, provided that the light waves are moving in the same direction, can divide and reflect light rays and create spaces that can’t be seen. Using calcite, scientists can hide bigger objects, such as paper clips and rolls of paper. This may not seem like much, but soon we’ll be able to finally pull off with finesse that lame trick of tapping someone on the shoulder and moving so they can’t see who touched them. From there, invisibility pranking will become a new hobby for millions.

Recent research also revolves around metamaterials, a synthetically structured pattern that has different electromagnetic properties than the raw materials. These materials can create a negative refractive index, which essentially bends light around an object, making it seem invisible. This technology is the one most likely to make your space ship invisible. And if they can’t see you, they can’t freeze you in carbonite.

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2 Responses to Now You See Me…Now You Don’t

  1. James says:

    Dearest jrenstro: No cloaking devices in Star Wars movies. Unless you are referring to the expanded universe in which there is a reference to a cloaking device utilized by Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Heir to the Empire series. However interesting article nevertheless…Shagnasty!!!! he he…

    • jrenstro says:

      Thanks for reading! I think there are cloaking devices in Star Wars (not limited to the movies–I’d argue that the universe counts…mostly). Anakin has a stealth ship in the Clone Wars, right? And I think a bunch of others have that technology too, including, Emperor Palpatine’s personal ship…but hey, I’m not going to quibble with my favorite Star Wars nerd!

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