One of the most common fantasy powers to have – arguably right up there with flying and super strength – is the power of invisibility. Long before Harry Potter got his invisibility cloak or Susan Storm was given the ability to make herself invisible, H.G. Wells introduced modern popular culture to the double-sided coin this power could hold.
Years after Wells wrote his book “The Invisible Man,” Universal Studios adapted the story into a film with Claude Rains, which spawned several inferior sequels. Throughout the years, our fascination with invisibility continued to show, in modern versions of the story by John Carpenter (Memoirs of an Invisible Man) and Paul Verhoeven (Hollow Man) as well as elements of other films like the goofy sci-fi invisible Aston Martin in Die Another Day.
In fact, invisibility shows up so much in movies that it got me thinking about it more than I ever did walking past the girls’ shower room while I was in high school. Could a person really ever become invisible?
The Answer: We’re getting there, but it won’t be cheap.
Using H.G. Wells’ story as a guide, one might assume invisibility is just a matter of finding the right cocktail of chemicals to introduce into the body. In both the book and the movie, Griffin uses chemicals to make it happen. Though glossed over from a scientific standpoint, the basic idea is that the chemicals made light pass completely through his body.
In the sequels (The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, The Invisible Man’s Revenge, and even Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man) as well as Hollow Man, a similar chemical serum is used. Other films like Memoirs of an Invisible Man see a nuclear accident causes the invisibility.
Regardless of how this could happen in a science fiction film setting, there is little hope of any way to make the human body invisible. Sure, the human body is composed of more than 65% water, but it’s the non-water compounds that make this impossible. Proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and other trace elements – as well as pigments specifically affecting color of body parts – are found throughout. Bones are opaque; hemoglobin in blood makes it red; bile is green; hair has distinct color and is composed of dead, inactive cells. All of these would have to be chemically altered to allow light to pass through them. And this would have to happen without affecting anything else in the body chemistry that would cause organs to fail or the body to collapse.
While Griffin in the original novel is mad before he becomes invisible, the film version has him driven insane by a chemical in the serum called monocane. This fictitious chemical is what results in the color to be drained from a body but has a debilitating effect on the mind. Not even in movies can an invisibility serum be foolproof.
But what if there were a magical formula…
Could a body ever be completely transparent?
Not really. Even at full transparency, a person would be visible to a degree, similar to how a drinking glass of water is visible.
We see things because light reflects off of them to our eyes. However, light can also be refracted (or bent) to yield an image. Any time light passes through one medium to another, it will be both refracted and reflected. We might be able to see the light behind a glass of water, but it appears distorted and shifted in space due to the refracting of light as it goes from air to glass to water to glass and back to air again.
Even if a person’s body could be transparent, like Griffin in The Invisible Man, and even if that person stripped down to his birthday suit and dangled in the breeze, the light passing through him would be affected enough for someone to see. After all, even if you could change the transparency of blood, skin and bone, you could never change the fact that it is more dense than the surrounding air.
In this sense, a man made invisible by H.G. Wells’ technique would be harder to see, but he would be no more invisible than that nice set of decorative glass figurines your grandmother keeps on her mantle.
However, there’s an even greater issue for an invisible man: How would he see?
The human eye is a brilliant biological machine, but it relies on being able to capture light. The lens could still refract the light that comes in, but what happens to it then? If the retina is indeed invisible, light would simply pass through it rather than forming an image on it for the optic nerve to send to the brain for interpretation.
So many variables are in play. If a formula could be made to alter the body’s chemistry to be transparent, and if that serum didn’t cause massive damage to the body’s function, and if somehow the naked invisible man wasn’t refracting so much light he’d be seen naked on every street corner, he’d still be blind.
Does that mean that invisibility is out of the question?
Not at all. It’s just not possible by Wells’ means as he describes in his book, or how it has been interpreted in subsequent films. In fact, experiments have been done to develop invisibility for years. It just uses a different process.
Rather than making an object transparent, the most promising technology finds ways to cloak an object. In essence, cloaking technology uses optics and science to manipulate light to pass around an object, giving it the illusion of invisibility.
Say “cloaking device” to a sci-fi nerd like myself, and it will immediately conjure up various plot points in the Star Trek franchise. The cloaking devices used by the Klingons and Romulans involves bending light and other energy around a starship to keep it from being detected by traditional scanners. While this comes from a science fiction franchise, this is actually closer to the truth than Wells ever came. (Incidentally, as silly as that car from Die Another Day was, it wasn’t too far off the mark.)
For years, militaries have worked to decrease the delectability of its vehicles. In the days of World War II, wakes were painted on the side of ships to give them the appearance of traveling faster than they really are in order to obscure their actual position. At the end of the 20th century, stealth technology on fighter jets and bombers used sharp angles and radio-absorbing materials to reduce their visibility on radar.
Researchers at the University of Rochester have developed a simple cloaking device that uses lenses to refract light around an object, which also allows the object and the viewing subject to move. Even more promising, researchers at Purdue University have developed a cloak made of “cylindrically-arranged nano-needles” that allow light to pass around whatever is wearing it.
Of course, this invisibility cloak is far from being sold at the Hot Topic store in the mall. The “metamaterial” that comprises it needs to be designed on a scale of a billionth of an inch. That’s not cheap, and it can’t exactly be farmed out to a sweat shop in Asia for a Wal-Mart clothing line. Plus, there will be concerns with personal safety and national security, which is why this has been on the Department of Defense’s radar for almost a decade.
However, the ability to be invisible does seem to be on the horizon for those who would be able to afford it, and not just for boy wizards and mad scientists.