13 February 2013, 15:14

From science fiction to science fact: MIT expert achieves invisibility

From science fiction to science fact: MIT expert achieves invisibility

Scientists have tended to dismiss as impossible the very idea of a device to render something invisible but that failed to dissuade one young academic from looking more closely at how it might be achieved. Mr Janos Perczel was a 22-year old undergraduate at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, when, in August 2011, he published a study describing an ‘invisible sphere’ that slowed down light, potentially allowing the device to remain invisible in front of ever-changing backgrounds of different colours. The Voice of Russia contacted Mr Perczel two years after his revolutionary discovery to ask about his recent projects and his studies at MIT.

Voice of Russia: Janos, before we get into details, how did you come up with the idea of trying to develop an optical devise that would allow things to be hidden things against changing backgrounds? Was there someone who inspired you?

Janos Perczel: Science is always a matter of collaborating with other people. There were many people involved in the development of the project. One of them was Professor Ulf Leonhardt who was my supervisor. He was not only my mentor but also my main source of inspiration. There was also Professor Tomas Tyc who helped us with the project. Professor Leonhardt and Professor Tyc have been trying to come up with a solution to the problem of creating a device that would allow one to remain invisible against various backgrounds for some time. After I joined the project, it turned out that the optical sphere that Professors were proposing was operational only in one colour of the spectrum. I started looking into other solutions and it occurred to me that the invisible sphere has to be transmuted in order to slow all the light down to operate in all parts of the colour spectrum. Quite literally, I was having my breakfast in my house when I realised that a transmutation technique would make the optical sphere operational.

Voice of Russia: So what is the ‘invisible sphere’? When I think of the device you created I imagine it as somewhat alike the invisibility cloak in the Harry Potter movies. Does it work the same way as science-fiction novelists so often describe?

Janos Perczel: There are substantial differences between our sphere and what you see in the Harry Potter movies. Most important of them being that the invisibility cloak in Rowling’s novel is moldable, while our optical device is a rigid sphere-like object. You cannot change its shape or wrap it around yourself. The flexibility of the cloak that you so often see in the movies is incredibly difficult to achieve in reality. Admittedly, there are certain proposals how to do this, especially from St Andrews. Dr Andrea Di Falco has recently come up with the idea of flexible meta-materials which might eventually lead to the creation of Harry-Potter-like cloaks. For now, however, rigid box or sphere-like invisibility devices seem to be more realistic and, indeed, are already being produced in experimental science labs.

Editor’s note: meta materials are artificial materials made from large molecules that can be combined to produce exactly the required properties.

Voice of Russia: Janos, do you see your sphere being used in real life? When you first came up with the idea, have you ever thought of its practical applications?

Janos Perczel: This question is always the hardest one to answer. It is hard to tell how a new device would be applied in practice because you never think about it during the research process. When people like myself develop a new device, we tend to think about the particular scientific problem we are trying to solve and not about how our research will be used in future. We like the feeling of exploring the unexplored. The decision about how the device will be used in practice usually belongs to the engineers, designers, and production managers who know the market well and can foresee what will sell better. Obviously, our device can be used to make things invisible when needed. I am worried about the potential military use of our optical sphere, especially in the area of the development of new invisible weapons. My hope is that the invisible sphere would be used in more peaceful ways. One of them might be shielding people from hazardous forms of radiation. Still, these are just suggestions.

Voice of Russia: I know that you finished your invisibility sphere project back in August of 2011. Have you ever thought to continue with your research?

Janos Perczel: It would be great to do something that would either be a continuation of our project or something that would relate to meta-materials more generally. Meta-materials can do incredible things. Their power lies in the fact that they can mold the flow of light. One sphere of research where they can be used is perfect-imaging. Professor Leonhardt, for instance, is currently studying how meta-materials can be used to enhance the image-resolution of microscopes. It would be great to get involved in such a project.

Voice of Russia: What are you currently working on? Should we wait for yet another ground-breaking project?

Janos Perczel: After publishing the paper in August 2011, I spent the next year at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where I obtained a Master's degree in Mathematical Physics, where I mainly focused on quantum teleportation. Then I moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where I am currently more involved with learning new physics than with research. For a physicist, it is very important to find the right balance between the two. For now, I am still trying to decide what my next project should be.

Voice of Russia: My last question would be about your MIT colleagues. I understand that you have not yet spent much time at the Institute, only six months, but during this time have you come across a project that seemed absolutely extraordinary to you?

Janos Perczel: Having spent here only half a year it is very hard to get a good overview of research that is happening on campus. You always hear about new robots being developed, computer technologies being advanced, and basic scientific ideas being interpreted from a new angle. One project that I found especially interesting is Professor Marin Soljacic’s research on wireless electricity, which he calls ‘witricity’. To transit electricity from one point to another Professor Soljacic uses magnetic resonance rather than wires. To me, this is not merely a remarkable idea which Professor Soljacic pioneered and made work, but is a revolutionary scientific breakthrough that can potentially transform the way all modern electronic devices work.

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