The Science of ‘The Invisible Man’

Movies have been exploring the concept of invisibility for decades, but how far have scientists come to make it a reality?
Invisible Man
By  · Published on March 4th, 2020

H.G. Wells published The Invisible Man in 1897, but creators are still mining the story for inspiration to this day. Horror and science fiction tales featuring invisible characters have been churned out regularly throughout the years, several of them either new adaptations or reinterpretations of Wells’ concept about an unseen menace causing havoc. The story’s influence on the world of entertainment is undeniable. However, some people say that all of the best fiction is rooted in realism to some extent. Is that true when it comes to invisibility?

Wells’ novel has never been credited for its scientific accuracy. In the book Physics Can Be Fun, Yakov I. Perelman noted that the method of science used in The Invisible Man would cause someone to go blind as the retina would be flooded with light. That said, science fiction is far-fetched most of the time, but in the years that have followed Wells’s story, scientists have made some impressive breakthroughs in the field of invisibility research.

While scientists have determined that there are barriers that aren’t likely to be broken when it comes to invisibility, they have been able to cause some objects to disappear through the manipulation of light. The human eye is able to see because of light, and when it reflects off an object that’s in a person’s sights, it enters the eye. Essentially, then, to make objects invisible, scientists have devised materials that allows them to bend the light around objects from certain angles and remove them from the field of vision.

The first invisibility cloaking device was created by British scientist John Pendry in 2006. He and his team developed a material that deflected microwave beams around a tiny, 2D object, causing it to disappear from specific points of view. Since then, scientists have made some progress that’s been applied to larger 2D and 3D objects, but these cloaks only work from narrow angles, so they aren’t truly invisible. And they’ve never been able to make a human or an animal disappear, either.

Pendry’s research was focused on exploring the potential of metamaterials rather than trying to determine if invisibility was possible. However, as he told SPIE, people will never be able to act out their Harry Potter fantasies in real life, so they should keep their thoughts grounded when it comes to invisibility cloaks.

“Can you hide things from light? Yes. Can you hide things which are a few centimeters across? Yes. Is the cloak really flexible and flappy? No. Will it ever be? No. So you can do quite a lot of things, but there are limitations. There are going to be some disappointed kids around, but there might be a few people in industry who are very grateful for it.”

Unsurprisingly, the military is fascinated with invisibility research, and one company claims to have made a breakthrough that could be the closest thing to a true invisibility shield yet. If that’s the case, it could be the most significant advance to date. Developed by the HyperStealth Biotechnology Corp, “Quantum Stealth” is a light-bending material that can supposedly obscure objects of varying sizes, including vehicles, aircraft, and people.

The company says that the material offers “broadband invisibility” that can’t even be picked up by heat-tracing cameras. While the material does sound useful for soldiers, it’s also quite unproven at the time of this writing. Furthermore, it’s a camouflage material that makes people harder to detect, so don’t expect troops to be able to move around like the Invisible Man just yet.

True invisibility that would allow people to walk through life unseen seems impossible for now, and people should always trust the experts when it comes to these things. Still, when Wells dreamed of an invisible man, the concept was the stuff of fantasy, but if invisibility cloaking proves anything, it’s that the author’s story does have some legitimate basis in reality after all.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.