Frank J. Batavick | CNBNewsnet
If you had a choice of superpowers, would you rather be invisible or able to fly? In 2001 actor and comedian John Hodgman conducted an unscientific poll on this topic for National Public Radio’s This American Life. Responders had to pick just one of these superpowers and they’d be the only person in the world to have it. The answers were very telling about a person’s moral bent.
Those who chose invisibility more often than not did so to spy on exes, peak into showers, sneak into movie theaters, or shoplift. The fliers just wanted to get places faster or give kids rides on their back. Lacking any other powers, like super-human strength or X-ray vision, fliers opted not to become crime fighters or rescue lives in burning buildings.
Though there were many exceptions, women were more prone to choose invisibility and men flight. Some responders went back and forth with their decisions. One woman said, “It all has to do with guile. Wanting to be invisible means that you're a more guileful person. If you want to fly, it means you're guileless. And I think the reason that I'm so conflicted about flying versus invisibility is that I have guile, but I really wish that I didn't.”
John Hodgman summed up the discussion by asking, “… who do you want to be, the person you hope to be, or the person you fear you actually are?”
Hodgman’s question was first posed more than 2400 years ago in Plato’s Republic. In a parable that predates Bilbo Baggins’ famed ring experience, we learn about a shepherd named Gyges, who has discovered a ring that makes him invisible. His first instinct is to use it to seduce the queen, kill the king, and assume the throne. Plato’s point is that “Everyone will do evil if he can.” The “if he can” is based upon assumed impunity, the belief that you can’t be caught.
Assumed impunity drives almost all premediated crime. One cheats on his tax return or wife, or embezzles money on the assumption he won’t be found out, won’t be “seen.” Wearing a mask or disguise during a crime, or choosing the dead of night to commit mischief, are other ways to seek invisibility.
The public’s interest in invisibility played out in the successful 1897 science fiction novel, The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells. In 1933, Hollywood made a movie based on the book. This tale of a mad scientist who uses his invisibility to murder at will in pursuit of world domination supports Plato’s hypothesis. The long-running radio serial, The Shadow, represents the other side of the coin. In it, Lamont Cranston fights crime by “clouding men’s minds” to appear invisible. Today’s media have given us Harry Potter and his cloak if invisibility, used primarily to hide from villains or commit mischief.
So, is invisibility just the purview of philosophers, fiction writers, and movie makers? Not according to the U. S. Army that hopes to take the art of camouflage to striking new levels. Today the Army is experimenting with fabric comprised of microscopic metamaterials that bend the light around them. If used to make a cloak, it and what lies beneath will disappear to the eye because the reflected light will look like it is coming from behind the cloak. Much more research needs to be done, because such cloaks have to work in all weather and terrains and from all angles. And if electricity is required to change the structure of the metamaterials, long-lived and light-weight batteries will have to be developed.
We have fighter jets that use stealth technology in craft design and “skin” composition to appear almost invisible to radar, infrared, and the radio frequency spectrum. The military is now working on layering thin, ceramic surfaces on planes and drones that manipulate electromagnetic waves at the visible light level to make them almost invisible to missile guidance radar. However, the human eye will still be able to spot the craft because it will always have a background against which movement can be detected.
The military’s cloaks of invisibility promise to be a boon to fighting the bad guys until the bad guys steal our technology, and we have invisible armies fighting invisible armies. Here science fiction meets science fact, and let’s hope the spirit of Gyges doesn’t rule the day.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.