March 20, 2010 -- It was once the stuff of movie wizards: a cloak that can make someone disappear. But now, thanks to a major scientific breakthrough, that Hollywood illusion is closer than ever to becoming a reality.
"Harry Potter, watch out," said Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of Theoretical Physics at City University of New York. "There are many steps towards the 'invisibility cloak,' and we just took a huge step in that direction."
Scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany were able to cloak a tiny bump in a layer of gold, preventing it from being detected at nearly visible infrared frequencies. It's the first time researchers have been able to render a 3-D object invisible.
So how did they do it?
"It's called metamaterials. We once thought they were impossible, but we made them in the laboratories. With microwave radiation, for example, you can take a ring, a two-dimensional flat ring, put something inside, and microwaves go around it as if there's nothing there," said Dr. Kaku, who also hosts "Sci Fi Science" on the Science Channel.
But what does that mean in layman's terms?
"The way we see is basically light being reflected off of objects. So what this does it manipulate the path of that light, basically," said Jacob Ward, deputy editor of Popular Science magazine. "It comes back to you at an angle such that you think what you're seeing is not really there. It takes advantage of the fundamental principles of light and vision. It makes things invisible as a result."
But before you get too excited, scientists say, at first, the invisibility will look more "Predator" than "Harry Potter." You'll still be able to see the outlines and distortions of objects.
Disappearing Act No Longer a Remote Possibility
In theory, invisibility will work one day. You won't be able to see an onject at all when it's cloaked.
"Of course we have many more years to go. We've taken an object smaller than a pinpoint and made it disappear under infared light," Dr. Kaku said. "We're getting very close now to visible light. But in principle there's no reason why we can't scale it up to the size of a house or a jet aircraft"
Suddenly "Wonder Woman's" inconspicuous invisible airplane doesn't seem so far-fetched, does it?
And imagine the military uses. The Pentagon could use cloaking material to make entire aircraft invisible to the enemy, just like that Klingon ship from "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."
And just imagine how it could help in your day to day life. Covered in an invisibility cloak, you could disappear from those awkward social situations -- and those bad conversations.
Plus, at work, you really could hide from the boss.