Are invisibility cloaks finally here?

Center Director and current Duke Professor, David R. Smith will speak at the University of California San Diego on Wednesday, February 27th for a free public lecture regarding the invisibility cloak. A preview interview with Gary Robbins of the San Diego Union is transcribed below, or click here:



"Q: Many people think of Harry Potter’s fictional invisibility cloak when the subject of invisibility comes up. Is this the kind of thing you’re working on?

A: Harry Potter’s magical cloak can seemingly make someone completely invisible to detection, whether they’re sitting still or moving around. We’re not trying to make people invisible. But we are working on a closely related concept that could help make things like your cellphone and certain electronic systems in automobiles work better and more reliably. Our experiment involves microwaves, an electromagnetic form of energy. Humans can’t see microwaves, but they’re there and they can get blocked by objects. For example, if you’re sitting in an airport trying to use your cellphone your wireless signal might get blocked by the big column that helps hold up the roof of the terminal. That could disrupt your call, or it could make it hard to do something like call up Netflix on the Internet. We’re working on ways to make that column ‘invisible’ to microwaves. We do that by bending the microwaves around blockages.


Q: How do you do that?

A: We cloak objects with meta-materials. These materials cause themicrowaves to go around objects. Think of water flowing in a stream. The water flows around things like rocks. In a similar way, microwaves go around things that would block their movement.


Q: And what are meta-materials?

A: They’re basically copper circuits that are placed on things like plastic and Teflon. The copper can be arranged in a pattern that causes microwaves to refract. We want to use meta-materials to cloak things that can become an obstruction. This is becoming increasingly important with things like automobiles because they’re taking on more and more electronic systems, from wireless Internet to collision-avoidance sensors. We might be able to cloak the grill on a car to prevent it from blocking the signals that come from the collision-avoidance system.


Q: It sounds like this would have a lot of applications for the military. Does it?

A: Yes. The military uses a lot of antennas and they are putting more and more of them together in smaller spaces. We might be able to cloak one antenna to prevent it from blocking the signal of another.


Q: But this work with meta-materials is experimental at this point, right?

A: Right. We’ve been working on bending signals around things that are only 5’’ to 6’’ in size. But the mathematics of this is known. We have demonstrated that we can do this, that meta-materials work. Now, we’re looking for the right places and ways to use them.


Q: You earned your undergraduate degree and your doctorate in physics at UC San Diego. Were you into sci-fi? A lot of this sounds like sci-fi.

A: I was. Science fiction is a genre of literature that comes up with new technologies which can have a big impact on people and society. Some of the things that were sci-fi when I was a kid now seem like science fact. Thinks like 3-D television. You could ask the computer in ‘Star Trek’TV series anything. Google is working on things like that.


Q: Will it become possible to make humans invisible?

A: There is nothing fundamental that says that you could not do it. That will keep people interested in this area of research for a long time.


Q: If a person could become invisible, they could do things like walk through the Vatican or the White House or into the outfield at Petco Park without anyone seeing them. What would you do if you could become invisible?

A: Those sort of things would be illegal. I wouldn’t do that. I suppose I could walk around and see what people are saying about me, although I’m not sure that I’d want to know what they are saying. I would prefer something that was more positive. This might sound silly, but let’s suppose that there’s a really ugly building blocking a beautiful view of the bay. Maybe something like a power plant. You could make it invisible, giving you a better looking world."