Now You See It
This stealth tank can change its surface temperature at will, making it invisible to infrared cameras. Image courtesy BAE.
Ask anyone what their first choice of superpower would be, and it’s a far bet that their response will be “to become invisible.” Vanishing completely is kind of a cool dream, whether you intend to use your powers for good or evil. Science has been moving steadily toward advancements in invisibility over the past few years, with several recent breakthroughs revealing how surprisingly close that sort of technology might be.
A recent Smithsonian Blog identifies five new innovations that’ll change the way we see (or not) the world around us. While a lot of approaches to date have focused on photographic trickery, either bending light just so or using images of what’s behind an object to trick the eyes, new efforts are delving even deeper into the field. A British research company has created a system capable of rendering most objects, even something like a tank, invisible to sensors that depend on the infrared spectrum for detection. Meanwhile, researchers in Spain and Slovakia announced they’ve created a small metal object that effectively renders itself and anything inside invisible to magnetic detection – from airport security to MRI scans – using a sandwich of superconducting layers that repel and attract magnetic fields.
Scientists are also working on devices that take noise-cancelling headphones to a whole new level. Put their new disc-shaped silencer on the ground and no sound waves can penetrate or leave, so anything inside the field is in perfect quiet. One imagines Maxwell Smart carrying on high level spy talk with one of these in his shoe. This kind of wave-bending has been carried over to the study of mirages, which appear when sudden variations in environmental heat bend light perpendicular to its proper course. Duplicating this effect is especially handy underwater, where scientists seek it as a way to cloak submersibles.
Next up: time warp. What we see is light bounced off objects, which is why photos from deep space are actually images of things as they were thousands or even billions of years ago – it’s just that their light only got here now. Scientists at Cornell have figured out a way to stretch a lightwave, creating an infinitesimal pocket inside. Once the wave is squashed back together, anything that occurred inside that pocket (about 40 trillionths of a second, so work fast) is imperceptible to eye or camera.
Tying the promise of modeling and simulation, plus HPC’s natural ability to do lots of calculations in a short time, means that advancements in the realm of invisibility are likely to speed up in the next few years. That cloak of Harry Potter’s may be in your wardrobe before you know it.