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There are no invisible bike helmets. There are no invisibility cloaks.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013 - 10:16 AM
If your Facebook feed is anything like my Facebook feed, the most ubiquitous story right now is about an invisible bike helmet invented by Swedish university students.
In theory, it’s a wonderful, Jetsonian story. The problem is, the bike helmet is not actually invisible. It’s an airbag that looks like a scarf and inflates when you crash.
By this logic, we’ve already invented invisible beds (foldout couches), invisible silverware (silverware you put away in a drawer), and even invisibility cloaks (blankets, when you hide under them).
Stories about invisible things get shared widely because we are human beings and we like it when our imaginations get tickled. But invisibility stories betray that sense of wonder. They nearly always turn out to be lies or monstrous exaggerations.
Here’s the next fake invisibility story you can expect to start clogging up your newsfeed soon. Time reported late last week on an “invisiblity cloak” invented in Singapore.
As Slate’s Will Oremus pointed out, this one’s actually just a box that bends light around large objects. (There's a link to a video of it here, I haven't embedded it because it autoplays at an incredibly loud volume.)
I’m not a scientist, and if I were, maybe I would see Important and Broader implications to a story about a box that hides teddy bears. But as a non-scientist, I would like to hear nothing more about invisibility cloaks until the technology has reached the Harry Potter levels that headlines always promise. We all know what this would be: a sheet of invisible material that, when you put it over things, renders them also invisible.
Until we have a Potter Cloak, I refuse to click through stories about invisibility cloaks, and I hope you will too. If scientists ever do invent a way to render ourselves invisible (and they probably won’t), I can almost guarantee you won’t discover it on Facebook.
PS. Literally as I was copy-editing this post, a THIRD invisibility story began to crop up. This one is from the University of Texas-Austin. Here is the link. You may click through it. I strongly discourage it.
PSS. On Facebook, Katie Bourzac, who says I'm being too hard on the invisbility box.
I'm a reporter who covers materials science and tries to do it responsibly. But bending light around an object so that you can't see it IS cloaking, PJ. It doesn't work from multiple angles and with a hugely broad spectrum of light yet, and what people have built is quite clunky. I hate hypey science stories probably even more than you do but you're being too cynical here. A box that bends light around objects, thereby hiding them, is performing cloaking, even if it is not cloth-like. That said, I didn't want to write up the Singapore research when they would only offer an interview over email, but not talk.
OK. So maybe I am too cynical about invisibility. But! I still think they ought to call a cloaking box a cloaking box, not an invisibility cloak.