Open-source software makes the invisible man
By Barry Collins
Posted on 30 May 2007 at 11:38
A University of Liverpool mathematician claims 30-year-old open-source software has cracked the equation that will allow scientists to make objects - such as humans, tanks or even entire islands - invisible.
The mathematical theory builds on earlier research into cloaking technology by Imperial College's Professor John Pendry. He developed artificial materials (or meta-materials) that can make light sweep around an object, theoretically rendering it invisible. 'You play geometrical tricks,' Pendry told PC Pro. 'You force [light] particles to go around an object just like water goes around a stone.'
To help identify the exact parameters that would make the meta-materials invisible, Pendry and his colleagues needed to solve Maxwell equations - the complicated equations that determine how electric and magnetic fields behave.
Step forward Liverpool's Sebastien Guenneau, who took a decades-old open-source program called GetDP and tweaked the source code to solve the Maxwell equations. 'Without the computer program, we would be left out of this story,' says Guenneau. 'We've saved time by designing the [invisibility] cloak on the computer.'
Having solved the equations, Guenneau and Pendry now have a blueprint for producing invisibility cloaks that can be thrown over practically any stationary object. 'We can now do it for any shape you like,' Guenneau claims. 'If you want a cloak the shape of an aeroplane or want to hide a tank, I can do this for you.' And how long before you can throw on an invisible jacket and walk out the front door? 'Within five years we'll have the first meta-material for human beings,' he claims.
The technology has obvious military applications - indeed, Guenneau spent two years working for the Pentagon. However, he claims he'd now rather put the technology to humanitarian use, such as making entire islands 'invisible'. 'We could protect a boat or an island from a tsunami - and we could do it in no time,' Guenneau claims.
The Liverpool academic says it's far easier to manipulate water than light. He claims that by building barriers in a particular 'star shaped' configuration, it would be possible to make water flow around objects as if they weren't there. 'It will be some kind of ring around an island. Within the ring there would be structured material - it could be wood or concrete - only the shape matters. Whichever material is strong enough will behave in the same way. The wave goes smoothly around the island - effectively the island becomes invisible,' he says.
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