Column Date 2006-06-04

The joy of being invisible

Ready or not, here it comes: scientists have just figured out how to make things invisible.

That’s right – invisible – as in, it’s there but you can’t see it.

Invisibility, they tell us, is simply a matter of diverting light around an object -- so that all the light slides around the object and goes on its merry way, instead of reflecting off the object.

(Quick Physics 101 Review Course: we only see things because light reflects off them and bounces back to our eyes. If all the light goes around an object, and none of it reflects back to our eyes, we see nothing. Ergo, the object is invisible.)

The stuff that makes light slide around it is called “metamaterial.” And some serious, well-respected scientists have recently written papers about it.*

Right now, this “metamaterial” is only solid stuff, like plastic. But I’m sure American ingenuity will soon come up with “metamaterial II” that doesn’t wrinkle, holds a crease and is machine-washable.

Do you realize how exciting this is?

The invisible Ralph Naders of the world will be able to walk into any corporate board room in America and find out what’s really happening -- to thundering applause from investors.

Invisible citizens can hang around congressional offices to find out what their representative are really up to. They could even tag along to parties given by lobbyists, or on boondoggle fishing trips to Alaska, and nobody would notice.

In fact, there’s no telling what might happen when Washington lawmakers suddenly realize there’s always a constituent looking over their shoulder.

Why, an epidemic of honesty and straight talk could even break out, to the astonishment of the world.

However, there’s also a dark side to invisibility, especially if it winds up in the wrong hands:

Just imagine an invisible IRS agent, lurking around your office as you meet with your accountant.

Or invisible human resources people peering over your shoulder to make sure you aren’t sending out personal e-mail on company time.

The Yankees locker room, of course, will be swarming with invisible Red Sox scouts. And vice-versa.

And when a little voice in your ear says “Buy Southern Cross Uranium at 10,” it’s not a mystical sign from above, it’s probably an invisible stock broker whispering tips to commuters on the 7:15 from Scarsdale.

Now here’s the good news: I’ve come up with a solution to this problem. We need an “Invisible Test Ban Treaty.”

That’s right. We should start immediate negotiations with any country that might have “invisibility potential” -- to stop any testing program, above or below ground.

But since secrets are bound to leak out, we should also push for an “Invisibility Non-proliferation Treaty” (this would be the first treaty in human history that can actually be verified – with invisible inspectors, of course).

Whatever happens, though, you can be sure of one thing: once invisibility catches on, you’ll never walk alone.

*Two separate papers have been written about “metamaterials” and invisibility. One is from David Schurig, a physicist at Duke University, and his partners, David R. Smith, also of Duke, and John B. Pendry of Imperial College, London. The other paper, is from theoretical physicist Ulf Leonhardt at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

©2006 Peter Tannen