There are times when you can sit and observe things for quite a while before noticing the physics that becomes a cafe-physics review. There are other occasions when the subject of the review is staring you in the face indeed, it is practically there written for you, on a noticeboard in black and white. Such was the case at 123 Gasing, a cosy and quirkily decorated cafe located, strangely enough at 123 Jalan Gasing (ie. Gasing Road), in PJ, Kuala Lumpur. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast of scrambled egg, long black and a latte (along with a very rich chocolate muffin). The coffee is from Degayo (according to Malaysian Flavours) which means that it is practically a local food product (originating as it does from neighbouring Indonesia). Coffee with minimal ‘food miles’. The only point of regret about our time at 123 Gasing was that we didn’t manage to spend longer there.
It is the decoration that strikes you as you look around this cafe. A couple of painted birds sit on top of an electrical wire, prompting the question “why do birds not get electrocuted when they sit on a wire?”. Another question painted to a notice board on the wall asks “what is it that we need that we cannot see or feel?” (answer at the end of this post). Yet it was another thought on another noticeboard that prompted this cafe physics review. That thought suggested invisibility (see picture below).
The idea of invisibility has fascinated story tellers and philosophers for millennia. Trying to render objects invisible is, understandably, very desirable for the military and the defence industry. Although we have always had access to camouflage and deception, it is only relatively recently that it has become feasible to talk about invisibility cloaks as a real possibility.
What has moved “invisibility cloaks” into the realm of reality has been the advent of a field called “metamaterials”. As the name suggests, metamaterials are not materials that occur naturally but materials that we manufacture. Combinations of different materials or repeating patterns of a specific material that interact with light in a way that the material itself would not do. The classic example is a so-called split-ring resonator (SRR). These are rings (that were first made with copper) which have a slice cut out of them. Many such rings are arranged in a repeating, lattice pattern. Due to the engineered pattern of the copper, these lattices interact with light in a way that ordinary copper does not (for details click here). Specifically metamaterials can be engineered to bend light around objects so that it appears that the object is not there.
In order to work, the artificial structures (e.g. the copper rings) must be smaller than the wavelength of light that is to be ‘bent’. This means that microwaves (which have a wavelength ranging from a few cm to a few m) can be manipulated far more easily than visible light (with a maximum wavelength of 700 nm, or about 1/100th of the size of a grain of espresso grind). At first sight this may seem disappointing until we remember that even devices that only work with microwaves would have a clear application for the defence industry (radar).
There are many ethical and philosophical questions that follow from the fact that it is now within our reach to render some objects invisible. It is not a scientific question as to whether we should do it, the scientific question is whether we can. Where science and ethics collide though is in the funding issue. A subject such as this with obvious applications receives far more funding than fields that advance our understanding but do not enhance our weaponry. Indeed, one of the researchers involved in this field describes how he was “offered large sums of money (almost on the spot)” when he spoke of the potentials of the “Harry Potter project”¹. Something that is alien to those of us who work in less fashionable subject areas where funding is a constant struggle. Government funded science quickly becomes dominated by a quest for application and technology. In effect we bypass the ethical questions of whether we should do this because it is this that will get funded. Science that is not driven by obvious applications will not get funded.
Is this what we want? Should the humanities and philosophy play a role in helping to determine what research is beneficial for society and so which research receives funding? Should ethical considerations play a part in funding considerations, or should scientific research all be about the devices that we can use? It is certainly something to ponder while sipping on our long blacks.
Answer to the question “what is it that we need that we cannot see or feel? Answer in 1990 – Air, answer in 2000 – Wi-fi (though personally I think maybe this should be the answer in 2015, the given answer of “2000” was still a bit early for widespread wifi).
Further reading and : “The Physics of Invisibility” Martin Beech, New York, Springer, 2012