These Guys Made Something Legit Invisible

By Patrick Henderson

This is what a cup might look like if it were invisible.  Photo by Lynn B

People who like the idea of stealing things and watching people get changed with impunity rejoice: two super-smart guys over in the States seem to have taken an important step in the fight to make things legit invisible.

Dr David Smith and Nathan Landy of Duke University have already managed to conceal a cylinder in the central diamond of that thing he's holding, rendering it completely invisible to the human eye. Apparently it’s science. I caught up with Dr. Smith to make sure he's not really a witch.

VICE: Okay, so I've been trying to work out the theory behind this cloaking device, but it's going massively over my head. Could you humour me and explain it in layman's terms?
Dr David Smith: Well, cloaking an object depends on re-directing beams of light. There are a couple of ways to do that, but either way a material has to be used to manage the light's trajectory and we managed to create a meta-material that controls both the magnetic and electric components of light in such a way that we could achieve the perfect recipe for the cloak. 

Okay, I guess I get that a bit. You've created something that appears to control the flow of light. I’ve heard it only works from one direction though, so I suppose we’re a little way off being able to make ourselves completely invisible?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. The idea of a cloak is that you might poke a hole in space and then push the space away from that to create this concealment region. The rest of the space is just kind of pushed outwards. The cloaking transformation just pushes everything into a flat plate. You can see in the pictures that it looks like a diamond and you can hide stuff in the diamond, but the effective transformation pushes space together to compress it. So it’s kinda like a playing card. If you look at it from the side it’s practically invisible, but if you turn around it turns everything into two dimensions.

It’s obviously a hugely impressive feat, but I'm guessing it's just a link in a chain of research. What do you think the next breakthrough might be?
Yeah, the ideas for this were developed in 2006 and we made a whole bunch of approximations to get to this point – it’s been a challenge and a struggle. As we go forward we really want to make a cloak that’s three-dimensional, but I think we might be pushing the boundaries of what we can do right now. I think we might need to start putting energy into the equation to make things work. As I say, it’s all theoretically possible.

So we could have an invisibility cloak at some point in the future?
I think that remains in the realms of science fiction for the moment. All problems are solvable, but creating something like that is a bit tricky. We might be able to have one in a few decades, so don’t give up hope just yet.

Cloaking things is inherently deceptive and a bit sneaky – do you reckon there’s any risk of it being used for evil?
Well, the idea of the kind of Star Trek invisibility where they’re hiding a whole Klingon ship is maybe a bit far off. There are a lot of cases – for example, in a security screening – when you’re looking for an object on a person that’s relatively small, which they might end up being able to hide. You could maybe hide a knife or a gun in the future, so we might have to start thinking of counter-measures.

What if there’s an accident during the making of the next cloaking device? Do you reckon it could alter your DNA and turn you into a superhero?
Hmm, I guess that could happen. The technology is going to be out there and anything can be used for good or evil means, so it’s definitely not inconceivable.

Scary. What’s next for you?
It’s always a bit of a game for me, but I'll be trying to pursue the next thing in the chain that will get us to the invisibility that we’d all like to see. Any breakthrough we make tends to make a bit of a splash, so I think it’s important people realise that we’re still some distance off perfection.

Yeah, some of the headlines I’ve seen are a bit sensationalist.
Yeah, but this was still a pretty good experiment. We’ve been throwing around the word "perfect" a lot, which means we’ve achieved all of the material parameters. I think it’s pretty fantastic, to be honest.

And so do I. Thanks, David!

Follow Patrick on Twitter: @spirit_of_yoof 

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