October 20, 2006

Now You See It --

Hatched by Dafydd

The Associated Press rather casually reports that scientists have created a cloak of invisibility. Ho hum.

All right, anybody who didn't leap out of his chair is jaded, jaded, jaded, or has sat in some SuperGlue (try paint thinner to unstick yourself). Come on, look alive there! I said scientists have developed the world's first cloak of invisibility!

"We have built an artificial mirage that can hide something from would-be observers in any direction," said cloak designer David Schurig, a research associate in Duke University's electrical and computer engineering department.

For their first attempt, the researchers designed a cloak that prevents microwaves from detecting objects. Like light and radar waves, microwaves usually bounce off objects, making them visible to instruments and creating a shadow that can be detected.

Okay, okay; so it only shields microwave; you can still see the object via visible light. But the principle is the same: if you can shield an object (and its shadow) from detection by one part of the electromagnetic spectrum, then with a bit of tweaking, you can shield it from the entire EM spectrum, including visible light. But that's just an engineering detail.

We now know that actual invisibility, like Sue Storm, is scientifically possible. (I don't mean Sue Storm herself is possible; the simile was illustrative.)

What fascinates me is that this invisibility uses the same, exact method that I thought up when I was a kid, 11 or 12 years old. I was thinking about the Romulan cloaking device (being a science-fiction fan but not an avid comic-book reader), and I decided that the only way invisibility could work in real life would be to bend lightwaves around an object, so they didn't reflect off of it and into people's eyes.

In theory, if the bending worked in all directions, you would see whatever was behind the object as if there were nothing intervening. Sure enough, that's just what the researchers have done:

Cloaking used special materials to deflect radar or light or other waves around an object, like water flowing around a smooth rock in a stream. It differs from stealth technology, which does not make an aircraft invisible but reduces the cross-section available to radar, making it hard to track.

The new work points the way for an improved version that could hide people and objects from visible light.

Although this sounds like a great idea, especially for military applications -- think of invisible bombers, invisible tanks, and even a platoon of Special Forces with a wall of invisibility around it -- there are some serious problems that the article does not address.

For example: if the invisibility cloak bends light around the object, then how would a human being inside the cloak be able to see out? In order to see, light needs to reflect off of some object into your eyes: but if the light headed towards your eyes is deflected around you, then it doesn't go into your eyes, does it?

Anybody inside the cloak would be blind to anything outside it. Soldiers could make their own light internally and see each other, but they couldn't see the enemy any more than the enemy could see them. Nor could they send or receive radio messages or satellite uplinks (microwaves), as those are also part of the EM spectrum.

It wouldn't affect sound waves, so other units could still communicate with them by bellowing; but some might see that as a dead giveaway. (Soldiers could be trained to randomly shout to nonexistent invisible allies, just to scare the bejesus out of some jihadis, if "bejesus" is really the word I want here.)

However, since the shouter and the listener still couldn't see each other, and GPS wouldn't work inside the cloak, it might be hard to avoid marching actual invisible troops into a cactus patch or off a cliff.

This minor drawback would be especially pesky for an invisible airplane. The pilot could still tell his altitude by a barometric altimeter, thank goodness, because his ground-avoidance radar will be useless and may as well be shut off to save electricity. But forget about GPS, VOR, TACAN, or celestial navigation. For that matter, you couldn't even navigate by VFR, since you wouldn't be able to see the ground.

A compass would still work; so if you were supremely confident in the inertial guidance system (similar to what cruise missiles use) -- I mean really, really confident, since you would literally be flying in the dark, even at high noon on Easter Sunday -- the pilot could kick back and read a Rex Stout mystery until over the target; then he could click off the cloaker, drop his bombs, then turn it back on and instruct the computer to get them the heck out of there.

So it's not entirely unworkable; but it would require a very different kind of warfare: soldiers, aircrew, and ships would spend most of their time inert, like a machine turned off; they would only come to life for a few brief moments of attack (and visibility) before disappearing again. Whew, what a life!

It would work well for missiles. Cloaking a missile would certainly help shield it from enemy ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. During flight, the missile could click off the cloak every so often so it could take a peek at the ground or a nav signal (such as GPS) to see where it is and make any necessary course corrections. A fraction of a second later, it would click the cloak back on, probably too quick a flash to be noticed.

Defensively, this puts a premium on weapons like the Close-In Weapon System (CIWS, pronounced "sea whiz") on Aegis-equipped ships. This is a very fast Gatling gun (it fires 50 rounds per second) attached to detection devices (radar, visual-light target acquisition devices, or even downlinked from an airborne radar platform like the AWACS) and controlled by computer. When an object suddenly pops up too near to a ship for a missile defense, the CIWS jumps to life, centers on the incoming missile or airplane, and sends up a wall of lead (rather, a wall of depleted Uranium, DU) in its path, destroying whatever is incoming.

Such weapons can be adapted to instantly start shooting at any object that (a) magically appears in the vicinity, but (b) does not squawk the proper code signal for "friendly."

Another, more creative use of the cloak of invisibility is to erect a wall or fence somewhere, then activate a cloak around it. The wall will vanish, and the enemy will only find it by crashing into it. Hah, take that, you border crossers!

(If the bad guys tried to climb the invisible wall, they would be seen to levitate slowly and laboriously into the air. While this might initially be horrifying, I presume soldiers would be trained to find it suspicious, instead.)

This could be a lot of fun in the civilian world, too, if they get it working soon: cop cars could wait invisibly near intersections; a radar gun could be set up outside the cloak, with a shielded wire running inside. When a car passes at 85 mph, the radar guns sends a signal, which causes the cloak to click off, and off the cop roars. (Of course, this could cause some embarassment if the cop were doing something he oughtn't right at that moment; he certainly couldn't see it coming.)

As well, a cloaking device would be excellent for young lovers; they could enjoy each other's company anytime and anywhere. They can't see if it's day or night, but they're probably in that state anyway. Fortunately, however, it wouldn't work very well for voyeurs; high school girls needn't be paranoid in the locker room: the rule of thumb is, if the girl can't see the boy -- then the boy can't see her, either.

However, if one is willing to be caught, then there are possibilities. Adolescents acting like, well, like adolescents could creep into the shower room of the opposite sex, then snap the cloak off to magically appear at the most inopportune moment for the victims. So beware of "phantom giggling" in middle schools.

I seem to have wandered from my original point, but it's your own fault for reading. Who told you to, anyway?

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, October 20, 2006, at the time of 6:45 AM

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The following hissed in response by: Hal

Actually, this has been reported in magazines like Popular Science for several weeks now.

The thing that they say about the current state of the technology is that in order to have materials which bend a broader range of wavelengths, the material would have to be incredibly thick. Application of the technology might not happen on small scales, such as individual people. Most likely, it would be only for buildings and larger vehicles.

Still cool, though.

The above hissed in response by: Hal [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2006 8:07 AM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

Beware of the camera lens casually floating in mid-air, eh? Although I suppose if you have a particularly paranoid buddy, you could get a cheap camera lens and suspend it with thin monofilament wire somewhere outside his house and casually mention seeing it sometime...

I'm a Baaaaaad Lizard... Going to my room now. ;)

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2006 9:12 AM

The following hissed in response by: Stephen Macklin

All the invisible platoon would need is a good GPS fix before they went invisible and some reliable way within the cloak to track direction and distance traveled.

Also, if they could successfully put this off for visible as well as IR why couldn't they leave selected channels of the em spectrum open for communication?

You would have to shift what part of the spectrum you were using to limit detection.

The above hissed in response by: Stephen Macklin [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2006 9:56 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Stephen Macklin:

Well, that brings up another question. Granted that EM radiation from elsewhere does not bounce off the cloak but instead bends around it. But what about radiation generated from inside the cloak, or emitted by the cloak itself?

Every piece of electronic equipment emits, no matter how well shielded (though the emission may be down to background radation levels).

Suppose a soldier inside the cloak turns on a flashlight and points it at a person outside the cloak; wouldn't that be visible?

And wouldn't the soldiers themselves, or the afterburners of an aircraft, give off a heat signature, which could be made visible through the use of special goggles?

Unless, that is, the cloak were opaque due to inherent physical characteristics of the material.

I've been assuming that it required some electronic effect on the material to make it bend the light. But if it were a property inherent in the material, then you couldn't turn it off or on, except maybe by lowering it (like lowering a Mediaeval shield).

Though that's hard to swallow... what sort of material would have the inherent property of bending EM radiation? No, I think there has to be something more... but what?

There seem to be more questions than you can shake a stick at.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2006 10:32 AM

The following hissed in response by: nk

We could equip the wearer of the invisibility field with goggles that see passively in the infrared (for one example -- whatever invisible electromagenetic radiation can be made visible if you wish) and program the invisibility shield not to bend infrared waves? John Norman, in Gor book #who cares, had the invisibility field doing double duty in that regard. And I have already thought up the answer to your next question: The frequency of the electromagnetic radiation allowed in and the frequency that the goggles receive would change simultaneously and randomly millions of times a second so the enemy could not just use similar goggles to see us?

The above hissed in response by: nk [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2006 1:12 PM

The following hissed in response by: jp phish


My guess is that the molecular make-up of the shield acts like a waveguide.


The above hissed in response by: jp phish [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2006 1:46 PM

The following hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist

Although this sounds like a great idea, especially for military applications -- think of invisible bombers, invisible tanks, and even a platoon of Special Forces with a wall of invisibility around it -- there are some serious problems that the article does not address.

Agreed. So don't waste more money on such. Heck, America didn't even use the Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb...the MOAB on Fallujah, after waving the 'tHrEaT' of it many Months before Fallujah showed up.

If private companies want to invest in such, then fine, but the US Government shouldn't be involved, unless they are willing to use it. BTW, the Duke University's electrical and computer engineering department is looking for US Government handouts, so screw them.

No more money for Weapon Systems that will never be used!!! If someone wants to be invisible, then let them pay for it!!!

When Americans are willing to use the MOAB and/or Nukes, then humble me might listen...listen sorta like the "Dear Leader" listens, but without ears...so to speak of such foolish 'psychological operations' Weapon Systems.

You want to become invisible??? Be a hermit first.


The above hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2006 3:07 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman

The most expensive weapons systems are not the one's we developed and it turned out we really did not need , but the one's we could have developed, but did not, and did need.

It is possible that we may have one shot at developing such a weapons system, because they can have one character trait. When you need them, you REALLY NEED them. Hitler developed a very nice jet fighter-bomber and then instead of emphasising the fighter part and wiping our aircraft from the skies with impunity, he loaded it down with bombs and eliminated its speed advantage.

This is new tech OH and has been reported a LOT longer than a few weeks, but in shall we say specialised information circuits.

Point an antenae does not have to be very large so the ability to communicate is not eliminated, sure we would sacrifice some invisibility but so what? There will be an infared signal being emitted by whatever is inside anyway. A camera can be installed for viewing outside the affected area.

Who says it has to be at eye level?
Who says it even has to be CONNECTED to the person in the invisibility field for simople visual surveilance rather than travel it could be SUAS. Small Unmanned Aircraft Surveilance.

Communication in the field without elaborate equipement between the members of a Team?

A cricket clicker, sound will work just fine.

We are entering the era of 4th Generation Assymetric Warfare.

Stealth tech of all kinds will be needed, developed used and discarded to oppose enemies.

At one time it was pontifically proclaimed that the concept shooting a missle from one side of the world to the other and coming down in the right county was wishful thinking.

Ignoring the fact that the weapons involved don't even need to be within 50 miles of their target to scour the terrain into a smooth glassy covering, it is still fortunate we did not listen to the Paleo-Kamis.

For extra credit.

Who said

"Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done, and why. Then do it. "

The above hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 20, 2006 3:56 PM

The following hissed in response by: OldCoot

Blah, blah, blah. Don't care how it works, just wake me up when I can buy one and waltz into the girl's locker room.

The above hissed in response by: OldCoot [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 21, 2006 6:41 AM

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