Disappearing Act

If you’re in San Diego this month for the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), you might be amazed by some of the technological wonders on display in the conference exhibit hall.

Wondrous as these latter day devices are, educators of a certain age might think they pale compared to great inventions of the past. ‘Tain’t necessarily so.

Thomas Alva Edison was arguably the greatest inventor of what some call the Heroic Age. He is best remembered for the light bulb, but Edison reportedly considered the phonograph his most important creation.

Jack Stanley, director of the Thomas Edison Menlo Park Museum in Edison, N.J., tells a charming anecdote about Edison and his favorite invention, as reported in a recent issue of MediaPost:

“It seems that Edison liked to demonstrate his phonograph by allowing people to speak into the machine and then playing the recording back for them. . . . Edison used to charge people 25 cents to try to ‘fool the machine.’ A person who spoke Latin (a dead language) would speak Latin into it and, of course, it would speak Latin back to the person. People wondered how Edison was able to teach a machine to speak Latin. . .

“People simply did not understand the concept of a recording.”

Writer Isaac Asimov once offered this observation: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Like Edison’s guests, some of our contemporaries have trouble grasping the concept of new technologies. Even you and I–bright as we undoubtedly are–might occasionally fall into this benighted group.

Consider, if you will, the research going on right now to develop an “invisibility cloak.” Such a garment probably would appear to us every bit as magical as the one Harry Potter inherited from his father.

The real-world key, according to a report by the Associated Press (AP), is special materials able “to steer light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation around an object, rendering it as invisible as something tucked into a hole in space.”

John Pendry, a physicist at the Imperial College London, co-authored an article on the subject that appeared in the May 25 online edition of the journal Science. According to AP, scientists not involved in the work said the article presents a solid case for making invisibility an attainable goal:

“This is very interesting science and a very interesting idea, and it is supported on a great mathematical and physical basis,” said Nader Engheta, a professor of electrical and systems engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Engheta has done his own work on invisibility using novel materials called “metamaterials.” Pendry and his co-authors also propose using metamaterials, because these can be tuned to bend electromagnetic radiation–radio waves and visible light, for example–in any direction, AP reported:

“A cloak made of such materials, with a structure designed down to the submicroscopic scale, would neither reflect light nor cast a shadow. “Instead, like a river streaming around a smooth boulder, light and all other forms of electromagnetic radiation would strike the cloak and simply flow around it, continuing on as if it never bumped up against an obstacle,” AP reported. “That would give an onlooker the apparent ability to peer right through the cloak, with everything tucked inside concealed from view.”

“Yes, you could actually make someone invisible as long as someone wears a cloak made of this material,” Patanjali Parimi told AP. Parimi is a Northeastern University physicist and design engineer at Chelton Microwave Corp. in Bolton, Mass. He was not involved in Pendry’s research.

Such a cloak does not exist, but early versions that could mask microwaves and other forms of electromagnetic radiation could be as close as 18 months away, Pendry told AP: “We will have a cloak after not too long.”

The invisibility research, AP reports, is supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the very agency instrumental in bringing the current internet into the world.

According to television accounts, the Pentagon already has developed technology that captures video images of the landscape behind an object–a tank, say–and then projects those video images onto the front of the object. An observer sees the projection of the background scene on the object instead of the object itself. In other words, the tank or other object blends in perfectly with the background–becoming, in effect, invisible.

This is just an elaborate form of camouflage. If science succeeds in perfecting actual invisibility technology, you may assume it eventually will fall into the hands of students–just as the invisibility cloak fell into Harry Potter’s hands.

One day, you or succeeding educators might confront a classroom full of invisible students. You’ll probably have to come to NECCs of tomorrow to shop for technology that “re-visualizes” kids: Now won’t that be a brave new world.

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