A Harry Potter-Style Invisibility Cloak: Possible, Says Science

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Are physics – not magic — the key to a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak? New research indicates yes.

A recent study by researchers from Imperial College London involves a new class of space-aged material called metamaterial – fabric with ultra-complex internal wiring – which, at least in theory, may make it possible for muggles like ourselves to someday don invisibility cloaks like our favorite teenaged-wizard.  And though J.K. Rowling might not be writing any more Harry Potter novels, that doesn’t mean the magic has to die just yet. (More on Time.com: The 50 Best Inventions of 2010)

Science Daily explains:

With conventional materials, light typically travels along a straight line, but with metamaterials, scientists can exploit a wealth of additional flexibility to create undetectable blind spots. By deflecting certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, an image can be altered or made to look like it has disappeared.

Sounds cool, right? But wait, there’s more.

“Light normally slows down as it enters a material, but it is theoretically possible to manipulate the light rays so that some parts speed up and others slow down,” says Professor Martin McCall, the researcher who spearheaded the study.

So, in addition to merely bending light optically around a given object (i.e. you), there’s also an artificially-induced visual delay, kind of like the way someone sees lightning before they hear thunder (because light travels faster than sound, but you already knew that). (More on Time.com: Harry Potter Review: Hollow Hallows)

The result? Whatever ends up traveling through the “corridor” between the two sides of metamaterial reappears outside our current experience of space-time, effectively teleporting the subject from point A to point B — like something straight out of Star Trek — or, if you prefer, giving a stationary object the illusion of being there when it really isn’t.

It’s exciting stuff, but there is one small problem: Metamaterial doesn’t quite exist yet.

Though the concept was proved by McCall’s team using available technologies (in this case, fibre-optic cables embedded with computer data instead of rays of light), the day when we’ll all be zipping around with invisibility cloaks is still a long ways away.

“We’re sure that there are many other possibilities opened up by our introduction of the concept of the spacetime cloak,’ says McCall, “but as it’s still theoretical at this stage we still need to work out the concrete details for our proposed applications.”

In the meantime, at least there’s Hogwarts.

More on Time.com:

Dispatch from the Quidditch World Cup

Boo, Harry Potter Will be in 3D

Will the Harry Potter Museum Rival the Themepark?

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