Monday, April 9, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: the Internet and the Invisibility Cloak

Today, you get a double dose of incredible science that has come from fiction. Why? Because I just couldn't make up my mind between the two. Not the things themselves necessarily, but they stories behind them.

First, the Internet:

Not to get too detailed, but Internet research goes back into the 1960s. However, it wasn't until the '80s that it really began to develop. Before people really knew about it, it was already becoming a huge Idea in science fiction. William Gibson latched onto it so early that his ideas about what the Internet would or could become in such works as "Johnny Mnemonic" and Neuromancer are completely indistinguishable from the development of the actual technology to such an extent that he's often credited with the actual Idea for the Internet. It's impossible to distinguish how much of an impact his early writings may have had on the development of something that was barely even begun, so there may be truth in that. We also have to acknowledge the movie WarGames (1983) which is the first movie to really put the Internet in our faces (as well as AI (see this post)).
That movie gave my mother nightmares for weeks.

But let's take a step back... back to the end of the 19th century and a man by the name of Samuel Clemens. Clemens was fascinated with science and technology. He even wrote a novel about time travelling and was great friends with Nikola Tesla. The two spent great amounts of time together in Tesla's lab. Of course, Clemens is better known to us as Mark Twain.

In 1898, Twain wrote a story called "From the 'London Times' of 1904" in which he has a device called the telelectroscope. The device is based on the telephone, which was still a new thing and fairly rare, and allowed the user to view and interact with people all over the world. The Internet. In fact, the telelectroscope made the daily doings of the globe "visible to everybody, and audibly discussable, too, by witnesses separated by [any amount of distance]." That sounds a lot like facebook and skype and... well, any number of other things.

So... yeah... Mark Twain dreamed up the Internet and social media. And he hung out with Tesla. We really don't know what all Tesla was into, but Twain wrote a story about time travel. It makes you wonder how he might have had an idea about the Internet. Just sayin'.

And, now, the invisibility cloak:

After flight, invisibility may be man's longest running fascination. To be unseen. From a literary standpoint, we can look (again) to H. G. Wells. The Invisible Man (1897) takes a remarkably scientific stance in its approach to making a man invisible. There is no "magic potion" here, just optics research that results in a man being made to be invisible. With disastrous results. The end of the 19th century seems to be full of warnings about messing with science that isn't really understood. [Except for Twain's Internet story. In that one, technology is used to solve a murder.]

Invisibility and the quest for invisibility was a familiar theme throughout the 20th century in both literature and science. It includes, but is not limited to, the One Ring in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, any number of super hero stories and movies, and, recently, Harry Potter. In the Harry Potter, invisibility takes the form of an invisibility cloak.

And how cool is that? Because, unlike flight, anyone can use an invisibility cloak. No skill involved.

So... science has been looking at ways to make things invisible for a while now. Since World War II, at least. We can make objects (like airplanes) mostly invisible to radar and other light waves not in the visible spectrum, but who cares if a plane doesn't show up on radar if I can still see it with my eyes, right? There have been attempts at things that are like invisibility, but most of these are just fancy ways of camouflaging things.

Like the one they are really excited about right now:
It involves using crystals. Two crystals working together can cause the light to split and... well, it's not important. Here's what they can do with it, right now: the can make an ant or a grain of sand invisible. Basically, with this technique, the thing being made invisible is only limited to the size of the crystals being worked with. And they think they can make bigger crystals. The problem? You can see the crystals! What's the point of that, I, again, ask. What good does it do to conceal something if you know there's something concealed? You may as well throw a blanket over it.

Speaking of which...

There is another method being worked on, and, supposedly, the Idea for this one was inspired directly from Harry Potter (I couldn't find the original article I read about it, though, so I can't confirm that). Basically, someone said, "Why not make it like a cloak?" And they started trying to figure out a way to do that.

What they came up with is carbon nanotubes. These are strands of carbon tubing about the width of a hair. The thing about carbon is that it cools very rapidly but also conducts heat extraordinarily well. The tiles on the bottom of the space shuttles were made of something similar to this, and I've personally witnessed one being heated until it was glowing red and been invited to touch it as soon as the heat source was removed. Cool (yes, it was cool, but the tile was also cool to the touch just moments after being heated by a blow torch). Anyway, they have these carbon nanotubes that are very similar to thread. When heat is passed through them, they undergo something similar to heat waves rising off of hot sand in the desert and become invisible. Like this:

They can't sustain it for more than a few moments, at present, but it's a step. And it's a pretty cool step if you ask me.


  1. Who wants to play global thermonuclear war? Anyone?

    And hey, I thought Al Gore invented in Internet... =)

  2. Love War Games! I'll play global thermonuclear war with M.J.! Though I can't say it five times fast.

    Very cool about the work on invisibility. Then again, The Invisible Man tells us why that might not be so great.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  3. Have you ever seen the documentary on the Philadelphia experiment?
    Thanks for putting together this great I!

  4. I like that we can make ants invisible by placing them behind crystals. I think I would blow their minds. I can make myself invisible by crouching behind a desk or something.

    The whole invisibility thing really freaks me out. I'm sure voyeurs the world over - especially teenage boys - are eagerly anticipating the possibilities.

  5. Cool video. Great post! Love Mark Twain. :)

  6. I friggin loved War Games. That movie is one of my favorites to come out of the 80's. But the best part about this post is Mark Twain and social networking. I've read just about everything he's written and never EVER thought about it in those terms. But you're absolutely right - that sounds exactly like facebook. How strange. It always amazes me how forward thinking writers are. Orwell, Huxley...Twain. Score one for authors.

  7. You messin' with my boy William Gibson? The man was a genius. Admittedly so is Mark Twain. But I see the connection more readily with William Gibson than with Twain.

  8. Thanks for the interesting post! I'm not familiar with the Twain story. I'll have to check it out.

  9. I just recently read Neuromancer for the first time. No way would I have made it through that book when it first came out in the 80's. I wouldn't have had a clue what he was talking about. Also, I've heard tell that Gibson has zero understanding of how computers work. Reading that novel, however, I could have sworn he worked for Steve Jobs.

  10. After watching the movie The Prestige, one can only imagine the things Tesla dabbled in. So Mark Twain thought up the Internet? Guess Al Gore can stop claiming he did then.

  11. Fascinating post! The Internet in the 1960's. I remember seeing War Games. It was kind of scary.

  12. M.J.: Yeah, Al Gore thought that, too.

    Shannon: The problem with the Invisible Man was that he couldn't change back, so, unless you get your zipper stuck on your cloak, you -should- be okay.

    Donna: I'm not sure if I've seen the one in your link, but I have seen stuff about that. They actually made a movie based on that, too; although, I can't remember the name of it.

    Sarah P: It is! Just waiting for my carbon nanotubes, now.

    Rusty: Yeah, I'm just gonna carry a blanket around with me from now on. Or maybe put my hands over my eyes and yell, "You can't see me!"

    Alyssia: Twain was definitely an interesting individual!

    S.L.: Yeah, I love War Games, too. This may be blasphemy, but I think that's Broderick's best role.
    And, yeah, about the authors. I suppose I should get on with my book that deal with genetic engineering... before it actually happens!

    Michael: I have ambivalence about Gibson. Neuromancer was incredible, but his recent stuff...? It's just missing something.

    Jenny: Thanks for stopping by!

    L.G.: The same is true for Keanu Reeves. I think I read he doesn't even have a cell phone (like me).

    Alex: Ah, yeah! I love The Prestige. I think Tesla was a technowizard. Oh, wait! Forget I said that!

    Holly: War Games is scary! Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Never knew about that Twain story, or his connection to Tesla, but they're both heroes. Cool post.

  14. maine: yes, they are! Thanks for stopping by!

  15. What is so funny is that as soon as you referenced 'War Games', my first thought was, "Who wants to play global thermonuclear war?"

    Ha! 30 years later and still going strong...

  16. RG: I've been thinking I need to see that movie again for a while now.