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April 19, 2015

"A Beginner's Guide to Invisibility"

Up top, the title of Kathryn Shulz's April 13, 2015 New Yorker piece, an elegant exploration of a topic most everyone has fantasized about at one time or another. From the piece:


... just what is invisibility? Is it the condition of being transparent, so that all light passes through you undisturbed? Or of being cloaked in something all-concealing, like Harry Potter sneaking around Hogwarts? Or does it mean to be incorporeal, so that you exist but are made, like a thought, of nothing? Or does it simply mean to be overlooked? Is it always a property of whatever is unperceived, or can it be a limitation of the would-be perceiver? And why do we count as invisible the things that we do? Ghosts, gods, demons, superheroes, ether, X rays, amoebas, emotions, mathematical concepts, dark matter, Casper, Pete's Dragon, the Cheshire Cat — what is all this stuff doing in the same category? And why have we ourselves expended so much imagination and energy in trying to join them?

If you are put off by magical methods for turning invisible, there are two other basic strategies available to you. The first is through technology; the second, through psychology. In a pattern you might recognize from the rest of life, the technological methods are exciting, expensive, and iffy, while the psychological methods are cheap, effective, and underappreciated.

In nature, the most successful invisibility technology, after being invisible, is camouflage. Perhaps you have seen a stick insect sitting on a stick, or a leaf-shaped katydid hanging from a branch — but probably you have not, so well do they blend in. Yet theirs is nature’s least and lowest kind of camouflage. When a flatfish hovers in the water, Ball tells us, sensors on its underbelly register the color and brightness of the surface below — information the fish uses to reproduce the look on its upper body, so that it matches its background. Some cephalopods see that trick and raise it, rather literally: they can change not only color but also texture, developing bumps or ridges (or, conversely, smoothing out) to mimic their surroundings. You can kill an entire workday watching videos of octopuses emerging from their hidden state [top]; they look as if they have opened a door in space-time and are sliding back into the ocean from some other dimension.

“The technology involved in making anything invisible is so infinitely complex,” [Douglas] Adams wrote in "Life, the Universe and Everything," "that nine hundred and ninety-nine billion, nine hundred and ninety-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a trillion it is much simpler and more effective just to take the thing away and do without it." By contrast, he noted, there's nothing easier than getting a human mind to ignore something it doesn't want to see. Thus was born the example par excellence of psychological invisibility: the Somebody Else's Problem field, which, by means unspecified, amplifies our natural desire not to deal.

Adams was not the only writer to exploit psychological invisibility. It's as popular in fiction as capes and cloaks and rings. The Shadow, who débuted in the nineteen-thirties as a pulp-fiction crime fighter, cannot technically turn invisible, but he can "cloud men's minds" so that they do not see him. The time machine in "Dr. Who" generates a "perception filter" to keep passersby from noticing it. (The show's creators had a little fun with varieties of invisibility. The perception filter, they tell us, was originally intended as just an extra layer of security, since the time machine also has a "chameleon circuit" to make it match its background. Alas, that circuit broke, leaving the machine stuck, famously, in the shape of a nineteen-sixties-era London police box.)

April 19, 2015 at 08:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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