Invisible person in shirt and tie

Book review: ‘Invisibility’ by Gregory J Gbur

Image credit: Dmytro Konstantynov/Dreamstime

An intelligent case for the deep interconnectedness of science and sci-fi has too little to say about the practicalities of invisibility.

After millennia of storytelling about invisibility, 2006 saw the appearance of two papers which described how an object might be hidden by guiding light around it. In principle, this could render an object invisible. It was immediately nicknamed an ‘invisibility cloak’ – a nickname which, like ‘God Particle’, is just too compelling to surrender to grumbling good sense. The first experimental demonstration, which used microwaves rather than visible light, was published just months later.

In ‘Invisibility: The History and Science of How Not to Be Seen’ (Yale University Press, $30, ISBN 9780300250428), physicist and author Professor Gregory J Gbur describes the developments that led to the infamous ‘invisibility cloak’ papers, and the developments since.

Most of the book is dedicated to a comprehensive history of the science of light and matter, equipping the reader with a solid understanding of how light works from basic principles, and thus how it might be manipulated to produce the effect of invisibility. While this is valuable context, the account is a little undisciplined, with excess biographical detail that frequently sets the reader on unnecessary tangents.

This history of science is interspersed with the parallel history of sci-fi. Around the mid-19th century, sci-fi authors began to conceive of invisibility as within the realm of science as well as the realm of magic and mythology: “As humanity’s understanding of the natural world increased, it was inevitable that someone would try to imagine whether invisibility was possible within the bounds of natural law. It was not a scientist who first asked this question, however, but an author of science-fiction.”

Gbur looks beyond the usual suspects (i.e. H G Wells) in identifying how advances in science – from X-rays to the photoelectric effect – inspired authors to speculate about scientific explanations for invisibility. These segments demonstrate brilliantly that sci-fi can be far more than a subservient scavenger to science.

Discussion about the science of invisibility – the invisibility cloak, the ‘carpet cloak’, and other variations – is limited to the final 50 or so pages of Invisibility. This section contains a short but intriguing section on seismic cloaking, about which there is more to be said than one might expect. Reflecting on this section, however, it is hard not to suspect that there simply is not enough practical work being done on invisibility to fill a full-length book on the subject, and perhaps that is why so much of Invisibility has been given over to the history of light and matter.

Gbur presents a strong argument about the innovative, imaginative value of sci-fi, and invisibility is the perfect case study. Despite this, and despite the interesting exploration of scientific work on invisibility in the final section, the bulk of Invisibility comprises an unremarkable account of the history of the science of light and matter.

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