A Cloak of Invisibility


A metamaterial: source, Southampton University’s Metamaterial site at http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/dmb/metamaterials.php

They’re making prototype cloaks of invisibility, you know.

In real life.

Oh, yes. Because light travels a certain path: and they’re developing metamaterials which can mess with the creation and travel of light waves. They can actually shield something from view.

It is still there: it has not disappeared. It’s just that the waves are guided around them without being affected but the object in question.

So far, groups of scientists in Germany and at Caltech, Academic home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, have managed to divert light rays around a tiny eight inch structure of copper rings, according to eminent Science writer Micho Kaku in the New York Times.

“You shine microwave radiation on it,” he writes, “and the microwaves flow around the object and come out the other end. Just like a boulder in a river, downstream from the boulder, you don’t even know there was a boulder upstream.”

But that was just the proof of principle, done with microwaves. They’re a long way off cloaking a whole human.

Which is a shame, because can you imagine the uses to which we could put real invisibility cloaks?

Though people have been employing ingenious ways to remain invisible for a very long time. Yesterday I was talking to someone I have known for a year or so now: we play the flute together. Resembling a diminutive Disney princess with tumbling chestnut hair with an accent straight out of the top drawer of English society, she dresses impeccably. She has that special something.

And yesterday, talking to her in the green room just before the concert, I learnt something to help me see her in a new way.

She has a very English name. “It’s a new name really, though,” she confided. “My grandparents took it when they came to Canada.”

Your grandparents emigrated to Canada? What an audacious move for a family to make, I marvelled.

And then she told her forbears’ story. It was the story of thousands of aristocrats at the beginning of the twentieth century. For they were Russian, and the 1917 revolution brought only terror for them.

The canny ones managed to flee in time. Her people were among them.

The Russian aristocracy were hated with a revolutionary zeal which went beyond borders, my friend told me. Even when they were out of Russia, they needed to remain invisible.

And without invisibility cloaks they chose another way to evade the notice of anyone who might wish them harm: they would take another name.

“They might glance at a matchbox on the ship and lift the name from the makers of the matches, and take it as their surname,” she told me, “or as the ship came into port they would take the name of a factory they sighted on a hill nearby.”

So, she went on,  there are whole communities where one name – a suitably Anglo-Saxon name- might be very common indeed because hordes of Russian emigrants assumed it with the desperation of one who needed an invisibility cloak.

And my friend stands as proof that that primitive form of invisibility must, in some way, have worked.

There are many other ways to stay invisible without the cutting edge technology of metamaterials: but it seems possible total invisibility might be in the offing.

I wonder, if you had one: what would you use yours for?


45 thoughts on “A Cloak of Invisibility

  1. Reminds me of that tv show, In Plain Sight, about the witness-protection program—how you can become invisible (but the bad guys can find you if you slip up even a bit). I’d love to have an invisibility cloak. It’s that old wish to be a “fly on the wall.”

  2. That is such a good question. I am alarmed to confess that no immediate use comes to mind, which is probably an indication that I am becoming old and boring and losing the healthy chunk of divilment which makes the idea so attractive to the young.

    1. ….or possibly, time has made you devil-may-care about the expectations of society, Col: you do not care whether people see you or not, you tread where you choose? Who needs an invisibility coat then?

    1. My cloak of invisibility has had the opposite effect, Tilly: it has stayed in place, and begun to take over our real lives. When my daughter wanted to market my home made non-alcoholic mulled wine, she called it now after who we really are – but ‘Shrews Brews’….

  3. Hmm, I suppose it would be handy for spying on the children. Tell them I’m going to run errands and then slink around in my cloak to see what the teens really do while I’m gone. 😉

  4. When my grandparents emigrated here from Germany, their last name was “americanized” by the immigration folks doing the paperwork. Now there are three different spellings of my last name and I am not sure what we were really called in Germany!

    1. We played a bit of everything, Nancy, from classical- Faure and so on, though Celtic ballads to to Merry Christmas by Slade. And the name was created by my daughter, who feels as much a Shrewsday as her real name!!

      1. Sounds like a lovely concert, Kate.

        Until this post, I thought your last name was “Shrewsday.” Now I know it’s just an invisibility shield . . . like those set up by Stealth Bombers. 😉

      2. It’s a high-tech business, this cloaking, Nancy 😀 And no more vital than when you are blogging about your offspring. That said, the same thing seems to be happening as with Bilbo’s ring: we are all Shrewsdays through and through, though we sport an old parliamentary English name in real life….

  5. A. I have always wanted a cloak of invisibility since I was a kid and that is so cool.
    B. I find the story of people whose ancestors moved quite fascinating – once in the Canadian museum on Juno beach I saw the whole history of Canada and the people who emigrated there laid out, fascinating stuff. I had no idea of the half of it. And to think most of us have no clue or remembrance of half this stuff.

    1. Hi Cakes! I guess you’ll be first in line for a metamaterial coat when they exist, then….whole horde of people moving country – each time it happens it’s a unique set of events. I must find more out about the Canadian emigrations: I’m coming over in the Summer. Cannot wait!

  6. Did you know that there has been a cloak of invisibility for many years? It’s called a towel! Give it to a 2 year old and watch them hide their eyes……..

    I want one of those above – there isn’t a towel big enough to hide me 😉

  7. Sometimes, when I’m not much up to conversation, I’ll sit quietly and pretend I’m not “there”, soaking up what others are saying. Once. when I was on an elected school board, I did this in a coffee shop. I was sitting, sipping my latte, next to a table of folks engaged in some sort of meeting. I recognized one as a reporter who covered our board’s business. They talked on and on and I realized they were looking for editorial fodder. I just sat and listened, pretending to do my own work, when someone said “well, what about the school district”. Tee hee. It took a few minutes before Mr. Reporter suddenly recognized me. End of invisibility. Also, end of meeting.

    If I had an invisibility cloak, I would want to sit in on all the heads of state for all the countries, including my own, to hear what they are really saying behind closed doors – and then, hopefully, use it for positive purposes. Oh, wait, isn’t that what emailing does?

    1. What a coincidence, Penny, that reporter right next to you! I think some reporters would give a lot for a cloak of invisibility: yet as an ex reporter myself I feel openness and honesty are so important in that profession.

      E mail is a cloak of sorts, isn’t it? I don’t suppose you remember the pike analogy – I once write a post which compared e mails to the old pikes, because one can administer quite a blow from a distance.

  8. Like Kate Crimmins, my family’s very simple German name was “Americanized.” I’m sure the spellings varied depending on who was checking them thru immigration. Decades ago, on the dating scene, I’d sometimes tell folks my name was “Arianne” from the movie “Love in the Afternoon,” or “Siobhan” (Irish for Joan). A perfect, but cheesy alternative would be: “Susan Danim” or “Sue Danim.”
    Mercedes-Benz’ “Invisible” Mercedes F-Cell is a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle. It is being manufactured in limited qualities. It’s not completely invisible. You can see a moving outline because the LED screen is projecting what’s behind it. I wrote about that in “Vanishing Point” on 3-10-12.

  9. I did think of you and your “Troika” performance, Kate. I hope it was as wonderful an experience as I imagined it to be! It’s almost funny for me to think about an invisibility cloak when in the last year or so I’ve put myself out so publicly on a blog. But I do live in an locale where it is indeed possible to get lost in a crowd! 🙂

    1. Troika did go well, Debra, thank you :-). Getting lost in a crowd is my ideal situation. I was a head teacher in a small Cornish village and I have never felt so visible in my entire life. It was bliss to move and return to anonymity.

  10. Cloak of invisibility… I think it will be helpful in seeing what my son does at school and also for all the travel destinations that are on my list 😛

  11. I think as a woman ages her invisibility grows more pronounced. On one of the hottest days last summer, I was apparently wearing mine quite prominently at the air conditioned multiplex. After paying for one early matinee movie ticket I managed to slip in and out of four more films completely unnoticed by any of the teenage ushers. Hey, I’m not complaining.

  12. Felix and I have been reading the early Harry Potter books aloud lo these many months, and while he is hearing it all with fresh ears, I am reading it with the knowledge of whole, so the invisibility cloak and the idea that it might be a clever man’s request from Death himself is fresh in my mind. And one handed down, like a name, from parent to child…

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