Putting the “Science” in “Science Fiction” – The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman is a superheroine with the ability to turn herself invisible, becoming almost impossible to detect. This ability protects her from enemy attack and allows her to infiltrate guarded areas while remaining unobserved. The Invisible Woman’s powers manifested after she was exposed to cosmic radiation, but this fact has not stopped scientists from trying to find a way to imitate her powers using cutting-edge technology.

Technologies to keep the wearer hidden have been around for a very long time, and have become more and more sophisticated over the years. Soldiers have been painting their faces and exposed skin to help them blend into the environment since warfare began, and continue to do so today. Many modern soldiers also wear uniforms with camouflage patterns to break up their outline and make them more difficult to distinguish from the environment around them. Where camouflage used to be designed in large patterns more recent military uniforms use smaller patterns that are digitally designed to blend together better and make the soldier even harder to see.

Camouflage is not the only technology that militaries use to protect their soldiers however. Many modern warplanes use stealth technology in order to protect them from being detected by radar, heat detecting infrared sensors, and other detection equipment. Planes like the F-22 Raptor and aptly named Stealth Fighter and Stealth Bomber use stealth technology for protection from ground based weapons and other planes. A combination of the unique surface shape and advanced materials work to absorb radar waves or reflect them away from their source. This makes the plane appear much smaller on radar, if it shows up at all. These techniques will be seen in many future planes as well, and some militaries are considering using the same stealth technologies in ground vehicles like tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The ultimate goal of stealth technology has always been making something completely undetectable, but this was always believed to be a dream that could not be realized. However, with modern technology the science fiction idea of true invisibility is coming closer to reality. One branch of stealth research is in a technique called active camouflage. This technology consists of a series of cameras mounted around a person or vehicle that takes real time video of the surrounding area. These cameras are connected to panels that display video from the opposite side. In this way a person looking at the camouflaged object will see what is behind it and not the object itself, making it effectively invisible. Active Camouflage is shown in many science fiction works, including the Halo and Predator series. This technology is still in the prototype stage and will likely never be perfect, but will make the camouflaged object much harder to see. The idea that invisible objects shimmer or flicker, as seen in many works of science fiction, comes from this type of camouflage system as using projected videos will never be quite perfect at preventing detection.

Another system of camouflage that scientists are working on is even more advanced, and will be able to render an object completely invisible if it comes to fruition. This technology uses newly created substances called metamaterials. Metamaterials are artificially made and exhibit properties that do not exist in natural materials, allowing them to create effects that were previously thought impossible. The metamaterials that are being used in invisibility research are constructed in such a way that they bend electromagnetic waves. One of the waves that these materials can bend is light, and therefore anything covered with these metamaterials could become invisible to the naked eye. With proper design and construction the invisibility could be extended to other forms of electromagnetic radiation, such as radar and sonar. The most amazing thing about metamaterials is that they use no power, moving parts, or computer programming, as their simple presence is enough to produce their unique effect. This means if these materials were properly constructed they could be used to create a simple suit, or even a cloak, that could be quickly donned to make the wearer invisible.

Besides their use in creating stealth technology and invisibility devices, metamaterials have many other applications. Scientists believe that the control of light through metamaterials will allow the creation of better microscopes and telescopes, as well as faster computers. The ability to make objects invisible by making them out of metamaterials also has innumerable applications in everyday life. For example, it could be possible to use metamaterials to create the effect of windows by making sections of a wall invisible. This would create windows that are completely transparent while having the same strength as a building’s walls. If this technology comes about it could also be used to make cars, or even aircraft, that give the operator clear visibility without relying on fragile windows. This would be especially useful in cars, as it would decrease the number of accidents that occur each year by removing blindspots and allowing the driver to see all the way around them. Using metamaterials instead of a glass windshield would also mean that if a car did get into an accident the car’s frame would be tougher, and better able to withstand the impact. Once the ability to bend light through the use of metamaterials is mastered it would also be useful in technological fields that use light, ranging from simple household items like flashlights to complex technologies like industrial lasers and holograms.

Metamaterials have so many interesting capabilities and possible applications that it is impossible to predict all of the scientific and technological breakthroughs that they will lead to, and the potential uses will increase as new and even more advanced technologies are invented. Although all the future applications of metamaterials can only be guessed at, their use in creating personal invisibility suits appears to be close at hand. Besides allowing ordinary people to become invisible what other wonders does the future of this technology hold?