Monday, August 11, 2008

The Visible and the Invisible

From I Can Has Cheezburger?

No, this isn't a post about the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, though I ripped off his title. It's about some really cool science news: Researchers now have the tools to make you invisible. Not just hide you from radar (in case you were worrying about that; I know I was) but really, truly, sci-fi-fantastically invisible.

The AP reports (via the Columbus Dispatch):
Researchers have demonstrated for the first time they were able to cloak three-dimensional objects using artificially engineered materials that redirect light around the objects. Previously, they only have been able to cloak very thin two-dimensional objects.

The findings, by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, led by Xiang Zhang, are to be released later this week in the journals Nature and Science.

The new work moves scientists a step closer to hiding people and objects from visible light, which could have broad applications, including military ones.

People can see objects because they scatter the light that strikes them, reflecting some of it back to the eye. Cloaking uses materials, known as metamaterials, to deflect radar, light or other waves around an object, like water flowing around a smooth rock in a stream.

Metamaterials are mixtures of metal and circuit board materials such as ceramic, Teflon or fiber composite. They are designed to bend visible light in a way that ordinary materials don't. Scientists are trying to use them to bend light around objects so they don't create reflections or shadows.

(Source: Associated Press)
If these cloaks actually became widespread beyond the military sphere, they would radically change our perception of space and embodiment. If you saw someone before you, you could be pretty sure they were for real. But empty space might be empty ... or might conceal another person. Our ideas of privacy would be radically transformed. So would the opportunities for outdoor sex.

So here's my question. If you had an invisibility cloak, what would you do with it?

I made the mistake of telling my kids about this story, in a vain effort to stave off pre-bedtime meltdowns, and now they naturally want an invisibility cloak for Christmas. The Bear says he'd use it to play hide and seek. The Tiger said, "If you was a little kid, you could walk around alone." I asked him if he really meant that - I still have waking nightmares of him running away in crowds, which really only ended this summer - and he said yep, he would like to get around without having to hold onto any grow-mutt (aka grown-up).

I'd like to have an invisibility cloak so I could listen in on the goofy things the kids say and believe when they don't think the grow-mutts can hear. Like the time the Bear and a couple of his friends were talking about what would happen if your brain was too big and your head exploded.

If you had an invisibility cloak, what would you choose to do with it?

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