Invisibility: The History and Science of How Not to Be Seen

Today is the official publication day for my latest non-fiction popular science book, Invisibility: The History and Science of How Not to Be Seen!

As the title indicates, this is a look at the intersection of science and invisibility throughout history, ranging from the earliest attempts by science fiction authors to explain how invisibility might be possible in the 1850s right up to the present day, in which optical scientists have been attempting through theory and experiment to make invisibility cloaks.

Invisibility has a surprisingly long and subtle history in physics. The first real hints of it appeared in the early 1900s, as researchers tried to explain how electrons could be orbiting in an atom without giving off radiation, as classical physics predicted they should. This led to the strange phenomenon of “nonradiating sources,” sources of light radiation that, paradoxically, do not give off radiation. Over the next 100 years, nonradiating sources and other crude forms of invisibility kept being rediscovered, and scientists struggled to find a use for such an interesting phenomenon: it was a “solution in search of a problem!”

In the latter years of the 20th century, invisibility became associated with so-called inverse problems, in which a “cause” is deduced from measurements of an “effect.” Such problems include modern imaging techniques such as MRIs and CAT scans.

I have a personal connection to this work, which motivated the writing of this book in the first place! My own PhD research, completed in 2001, was on nonradiating sources and invisible objects. I like to describe myself as the hipster invisibility scientist — I was looking at such problems before it was “cool.” The book talks a bit about my own work, especially related to my late PhD advisor Emil Wolf, who played his own significant role in invisibility physics.

In Invisibility, I endeavor to explain in plain language how invisibility is predicted to work. In fact, the book ends up being a bit of a history of the physics of light itself, as the history of invisibility is tied closely to our understanding of light. This is a book intended to be read by everyone, and I worked hard to keep it interesting and entertaining! I should add: if you don’t completely understand some physics explanation in the book, that’s okay! Learning science is often about just picking up a little bit of new knowledge at a time. (Feel free to send me a tweet or a comment on my blog here if you want some clarification.)

The book includes quite a bit of discussion of the science fiction of invisibility, as well. Long before scientists started studying the phenomenon, a surprising number of authors attempted to give the fantastical concept a plausible scientific basis. There are so, so many science fiction stories about invisibility, almost certainly more than you’ve heard of! (I say this with confidence because a search of the internet shows that nobody has looked at invisibility in science fiction as thoroughly as I have.)

A little example of invisibility fiction: an illustration for Guy de Maupassant’s 1887 short story “The Horla.”

Throughout the month, to celebrate the release of the book, I will be blogging and reblogging about classic stories of invisibility in science fiction and horror; you can track down the archive of posts here.

The book is not all history; since 2006, invisibility has been an active field of scientific study, and researchers have predicted all sorts of strange phenomena using the tools of invisibility cloaks: optical black holes, optical wormholes, anti-cloaks, perfect illusions, and more! I talk about all of these, and discuss where invisibility physics stands today, and whether someone invisible might be standing behind you right now!

I’m very excited for folks to see this book, which has been a long time coming! It was originally going to be my first popular science book, but I ended up writing my book on Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics first!

Invisibility should be available through the bookseller of your choice (including Target — go figure). Here again is the link to the Yale University Press website, which links to a lot of the popular sellers.

I hope you enjoy it!


PS yes, the subtitle is a reference to a classic Monty Python sketch; I had to fight a little with the marketing department to get them to keep it as is!

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2 Responses to Invisibility: The History and Science of How Not to Be Seen

  1. Rob says:

    I am listening to a podcast of you on Star Talk with Neil!

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