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   I was recently asked why it should be that, as an acknowledged student of science, my bookshelves should contain not one volume of science fiction. The answer is simple: with a few notable exceptions, virtually all literature that is classed as science fiction has too much fiction and not enough science. It is to this technical problem that I address this essay. However, before I begin, there is another aspect of the genre that inhibits my desire to read any more books of this ilk: proficient and competent writers are generally poor scientists but top class scientists are usually third rate writers. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Fred Hoyle are the obvious three exceptions here although Clarke has written absolutely nothing of any value since the early 1970s.

   The two subjects of this study, then, are the nature of invisibility and the nature of impalpability. The former represents a most difficult area fraught with major problems and so I shall deal with the latter business first even though that, too, is hardly an insignificant matter. Consider that lamentably popular form of comic book fantasy favoured by Americans (and, sadly, some of my Chinese and Vietnamese friends) in which our heroes, adorned in capes, hoods, their underpants outside their trousers and, to hide their embarrassment, their faces obscured by improbable animal masks, they evade doom and destruction from their enemies by a form of crafty subterfuge that is quite common: they melt into a wall and appear on the other side, that is, they pass through solid objects. If we cannot become invisible, can we become impalpable?

    There are even advantages to impalpability over mere invisibility: if the invisible man picks up a cup of tea or lights a cigarette, observers will hardly be able to avoid an astonished stare at the self motivated crockery and aerial tobacco...which makes me wonder just what would happen to food ingested by the invisible man. Would it disappear as it entered his mouth or would we see masticated cake gradually descend in altitude as it journeyed on its way to the stomach? After all, if the cake has not been treated in the same manner to render it invisible as the process used upon the invisible man then why should we not be able to see it? Perhaps, on second thoughts, I would prefer not to ponder upon that just now.

    However, the impalpable man appears, to all intents and purposes, utterly normal, that is, until he fades, osmosis-style, through the nearest brick wall or supermarket window. If the reason for graduation as a super-hero is to avoid attention then we are far less likely to attract incredulity if we decide to adopt the identity of Impalpable Man. But is this a feasible concept under scientific scrutiny and the laws of logic?

    It is not inaccurate to say that solid matter is basically comprised of empty space flecked here and there with specks of electricity. The spaces between atoms are proportionally as great as those between the stars. For instance, two galaxies may pass through each-other without the occurrence of a single collision between any of the constituent parts of either galaxy. Conversely, two brush heads may be passed through each-other if their bristles are parallel just as two packs of cards may be passed through each-other if all the cards point in the same direction, edge on. If it was possible by magnetic, electric or some other means to thus polarise the atoms of two different bodies, such as a super-hero and a wall, that is to say, arrange the atoms of both the man and the wall in order that they all point in the same direction…

    However, our erstwhile super-hero will be sadly and most abruptly disappointed. There is a basic flaw in the galactic analogy, especially since the comparison between a galaxy and a human body is particularly appropriate. While it is true that two galaxies may pass through each-other in the absence of any collisions between stars and planets, the gravitational forces of these same stars and planets will cause each of the separate bodies to adopt new orbits so that considerable disruption of whole conurbations of solar systems will result with the obliteration of any life that may have evolved on any of those planets. In galaxies there are clouds of gas and dust which, although tenuous, are sufficiently massive to produce, when excited by, in our case, the approach of another galaxy, with its own gas and dust clouds, enough radio power - in other words, energy - to generate explosive events that may be detected from a distance of 1010 LY. (That is, in lay parlance, 10,000,000,000 light years.)     

    Now let me apply this to our man who wishes to pass straight through a wall. The stars and planets can now be translated as atoms and molecules. So, as the man attempts to pass through the wall, after he has (by some almost magical means of advanced technology or meditation) polarised the atomic matrices of both himself and the wall, the gravitational forces that act between the atoms and molecules of both man and wall would precipitate drastic changes that would in turn cause dramatic alterations in the composition of both original bodies…camera pan to the man as he literally turns into a bed-sitting room and a wall that literally has ears.

    With gases and most (but not all) liquids, these problems do not arise since they possess little or not internal architecture, that is to say, how ever much you take chaos and jumble it up, it still remains chaos. Solids possess a usually severely complex structure that is maintained largely through electric forces. Alter those and the body will metamorphose into a different form altogether. The man will thus no longer be a man and the wall will no longer be a wall. The process is also not reversible: anyone who doubts this may care to try to unscramble an egg.

    “Mr Martin, the invisible man’s outside; he says he must speak to you.”

    “I’m busy; tell him I can’t see him.”  

   When one of the first truly inspired science fiction writers of the 20th century, Herbert George Wells, wrote his best selling novel, The Invisible Man, he was not responsible for the invention of a new concept with which to tantalise us and our children - he merely articulated a desire mankind has inwardly expressed for centuries: to be able to become completely invisible. From our point of view, as human beings who live in a three dimensional universe (there are reputedly others but none of the lunatic fringe of physicists has yet been able to proffer even the most tenuous of proofs for their existence), we can say that this concept is divided into two main categories: subjective invisibility and objective invisibility. This latter category is itself subdivided into three headings: optical, vibrational and chemical invisibility. Now I have defined the parameters, a detailed investigation is now possible.


   When a qualified hypnotist (and not merely some circus charlatan) places under hir charge a subject who has agreed to submit to hypnotism, should the hypnotist tell the subject - whom I shall call Hung - that he will be utterly unable to visibly see a colleague - whom I shall Enna - then, as far as Hungs’ conscious mind is concerned, Enna will be invisible since that person known to Hungs’ memory and consciousness as Enna will simply not register, such is the power not of the hypnotist but of the ability of any human mind to deceive itself.

    We each possess a remarkable propensity for self delusion and, as an aside, this may explain why even in 1997 there remain gullible and weak minded souls who still insist upon the existence of ghosts, flying saucers, the Loch Ness monster and God. Should Enna actually try to prove her existence to Hung, perhaps by lifting cups and moving chairs, Hung will probably become hysterical and most excited as he announces to the hypnotist that crockery and furniture can apparently set themselves in motion of their own volition.

    These effects can also be obtained from such tried and tested techniques as diversion of attention, airborne drugs and subliminal suggestion (which is basically a subtle form of hypnotism), all three of which were successfully utilised in Paris during the 1968 student riots, in Los Angeles during the demonstrations against the American invasion of Vietnam, in Ireland on frequent occasions to control and manipulate crowd dispersion. That governments should apply these techniques for possibly insidious purposes should come as no surprise.

    A more subtle form of invisibility has been used by criminals who, perhaps because they are rather more astute than some of their bank-robber colleagues, have appreciated the value of a comprehension of at least some aspects of the human mind. A man who desires to commit a murder with the least possible chance of detection in an occupied street would perhaps pose as a postman or a milkman, for what could be more normal and expected than to see such ordinary people stroll up a garden path? The general public, when questioned later by the police, will usually swear to have seen no-one enter or leave the house. However, these are not the forms of invisibility most of us desire. A real postman would want genuine invisibility to evade that infernal dog from No.15.



   ‘It’s all done with mirrors’ is the old adage applied to an illusionist who has performed some especially clever trick to amuse the public. Actually, mirrors would not be particularly adequate for such a purpose as to feign invisibility - prisms and a combination of television cameras and screens would be more appropriate. If a small room could be so surrounded by large prisms as to refract light rays in specific directions, at least from a very limited number of vantage points, anyone actually in the room could be obscured - that is to say, the room could be made to appear empty - but the effect would be nullified by the subsequent distortion that would inevitably occur as soon as the angle of vision of the viewer was altered.

    Technology can achieve a vastly superior illusion of invisibility but the limitations are severe and the technique both clumsy and ludicrous: a man who wished to achieve invisibility by this method would stand on one side of the street, sandwiched between two large rectangular television screens of sufficient dimensions to cover his entire body; a camera in front of him would relay to the screen behind him the scene in front of him and a camera behind him would relay to the screen in front of him the scene behind him.

    From a certain point in front of or behind the man, and only from a specific distance, provided the screens had no obvious edges to them, the difference between the image and reality would be negligible if the television circuits were perfectly adjusted. However, as soon as the observer moved forward, backward or to either side of the obscured man, the illusion would be revealed since the frame of the screens’ view would no longer be congruent with the perspective as witnessed by the viewer; it hardly seems worth the trouble. Plainly the amount of work, time and effort involved in order to achieve what is after all only the illusion of invisibility by purely optical means does not compensate at all for the extremely limited results achieved.  


   Another idea once popular in science fiction stories is that important physical changes and subsequent advantages are possible through the ability of a person to alter the rate of oscillation of his or her atoms. Ultimately it would be possible to achieve invisibility by a drastic increase in the rate of vibration of ones’ atomic structure in just the same manner that the blades of an aeroplane propeller disappear from view when they rotate at a rate so rapid as to enable the viewer to see through them. There is of course a fundamental error in both the concept and the analogy.

    We do not ‘see through the propeller blades’ at all. We see past them. While the blades spin, some (but not, in fact, all) of the background (sky, clouds and aeroplane in this instance) is visible at every moment so that our persistence of vision merely gives the impression of a continual view that we construe to be congruent with invisibility. For example, if the propeller blades overlapped then they would remain opaque no matter how fast they spun. The concept is erroneous because if we were able to alter the frequency at which our atoms vibrated, not only would no real invisibility occur but, more pertinently, a significant change of a much more crucial nature would occur: vibration (or oscillation) necessarily implies the creation of heat as an inevitable by-product. The vibration of atoms is a definition of heat, in fact. Our erstwhile invisible man would therefore be burnt to a cinder long before he vanished through any other means.


    We now come to the concept utilised by H G Wells which inspired me to prepare this essay. Wells proposed that a scientist could achieve invisibility once he had swallowed a chemical that altered the basic properties of his molecular and atomic structure. It is not my intention to ridicule or denigrate H G Wells in any manner at all; I have much respect for the man. However, the most crucial factor involved in order to refute this concept (for refute it I must, despite its whimsical charm) is simply that one cannot take any compound at random and chemically torture it into transparency. What Wells implied was the transformation of the chemical structure of the body in order to give it the same optical properties as air, glass or water.

   Now, it must be appreciated that transparency is an unusual property of only a small minority of exceptional substances that arises from the internal disposition of their atomic structure. If, therefore, we take the atoms of a human body and rearrange them (through treatment by chemicals in this case), then they are no longer the same substances so that, for example, atoms of haemoglobin, rearranged in order to be transparent, would no longer be atoms of haemoglobin and a human being will not survive for long once hir blood has been turned to silicon.

    The simple ratio of proportions that relate to opaque and transparent substances will clearly reveal how unfeasible is the notion of the chemical inducement of invisibility: there are literally billions of separate, exceedingly complex chemical compounds in the human body that are opaque while there are barely tens of substances that are transparent to be found anywhere, most of which are not located in human bodies. This small minority of substances that possess transparency as one of their properties indicates quite distinctly that if a person was to become invisible by chemical means then he or she would no longer be recognisable as a person and would probably no longer be a form of life at all.  

   Even if there was some strange method to successfully transform a human being into a transparent living entity, perhaps by the discovery of many different new organic molecules which are not opaque - and I shall address the objection to this concept presently - there is one obvious problem which, oddly, appears not to have caused H G Wells any undue anxiety, despite his considerable education in life sciences. The essential properties of most human chemicals actually depend on the fact that they are opaque.

    Take our eyes: light-sensitive chemicals at the back of the eye-balls are on what we depend in order to be able to see; if these chemicals ceased to trap light then the function of the eye would also cease. As a consequence, if our flesh was transparent, the eyes could not function since they would be flooded with radiation. In other words, have you ever seen a fully functional camera constructed from glass?

    Besides this, there are millions of biochemical reactions upon which life depends that would be adversely affected or rendered totally ineffectual if the molecules that participate in these processes became apparent. It is now evident that our invisible man would not only be blind - he would be dead.

 Andy Martin ã 2004.




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