How to Become Invisible

Scientists are working harder than ever to help us disappear. But maybe Christians already have. /

The US Army wants invisibility cloaks. And it wants to test the best ones within the next 18 months. Or at least it did. A request for proposals came out in late April, with a deadline set for June 24. But after the idea got some media attention, the Army quietly deleted that part of its request. Nevertheless, other Army documents demonstrate that such a plan is still active. “Future Modular Force Soldiers will need a light, non-bulky ‘smart’ uniform/suit that will provide a ‘chameleon-like’ camouflage capability,” says one.

The Army already has some invisibility efforts in the works, technically complex and involving “retro-reflective material” and LEDs. But that kind of tech requires a lot of both computing power and electricity. (Despite their limitations, these approaches are pretty cool—see, for example, Susumu Tachi’s “optical camouflage,” the 2012 Mercedes “invisible car” ad campaign, and the planned “invisible” Tower Infinity outside Seoul.)

What the Army was interested in more recently “involves the use of metamaterials to manipulate the paths of light around objects,” it said. Metamaterials, first created in 1999, are structures that do not exist in nature, with the result that they can be used to manipulate laws of physics. Headlines announce their imminent arrival as invisibility cloaks every few months.

But for now, each works with only a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum.

So you can cloak a single-celled organism, and if you have something a few millimeters in size, you can use calcite to hide it from very specific visible light frequencies.

There are other options. A Chinese team made a cat and a fish disappear without metamaterials, using high-quality optical glass prisms. But it only works at a certain angles and was, as Philip Ball suggests in his impressive new book Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen (University of Chicago Press), essentially the same trick Victorian-era illusionists and Coney Island sideshows used to create the “Living Half-Woman.” Or Kermit the frog singing on a stool.

It is possible, Ball wrote, “to make some objects hard to see.” He added in an article for Nature, “It will stay that way for the foreseeable future. No one is going to actually vanish any time soon.”

Then again, Christians believe this has already happened to us in one sense.

How It Feels to Turn Invisible

But if it were physically possible to disappear, what would that feel like? An April study article in Scientific Reports insists (contra Ball), “Invisibility cloaking of the human body may be possible in the not-so-distant future.” But the Swedish neuroscientists behind that study are less interested in how to turn humans invisible than in how turning invisible would affect the person “disappearing.”

It turns out that we can make people feel invisible very easily. The Swedish neuroscientists just gave folks a virtual-reality headset and asked them to look down, where their bodies should be. They could see the floor, but just empty space where their body should be. It’s a crass, digital version of the old Victorian mirror trick, using a remote camera also pointed at the ground. But it works. When the researchers stroked volunteers with a paintbrush as the camera showed a paintbrush stroking thin air, the volunteers felt invisible. When the volunteer saw a knife coming at the empty space, they broke out in sweat. Those with the strongest feelings that they had turned invisible stressed out the most when seeing the knife.

In another experiment, the volunteers, still with the headset on, were put in front of a group of 11 scientists told to look stern and serious. The volunteers who felt most invisible felt the least anxious and had low heart rates. It turns out that if you’re in an awkward or stressful social situation and want to disappear, disappearing would actually help you feel better.

The Temptation of the Magic Ring

The Swedish neuroscientists are now planning experiments that will place invisible-feeling volunteers in moral dilemmas. Will their perceived superpower help them act more heroically, like the Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm or The Incredibles’ Violet Parr?

Of course not. Invisibility is synonymous with the occult (original meaning: concealed, hidden). It turns a Hobbit into Gollum. It turns H. G. Wells’s Griffin into a would-be global terrorist.

In a classic This American Life segment, humorist John Hodgman asked whether we would rather have flight or invisibility. “If everybody were being perfectly honest with you, they would tell you the truth,” one interviewee replied. “They all want to be invisible so that they can shoplift, get into movies for free, go to exotic places on airplanes without paying for airline tickets, and watch celebrities have sex.”

Another agrees. “Invisibility leads you—leads me, as an invisible person, down a dark path, because you're not going to want to miss out, when you're invisible, on—you know, no matter how many times you've seen a woman naked in the shower, you're going to want to see it again, because there's always a different woman, right? And there's like a lifetime of that. And that's not acceptable behavior, no matter whether you're invisible or not.”

Another—not quoted by Hodgman—says it’s a universal impulse:

No one would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice, or bring himself to keep away from other people’s possessions and not touch them, when he could take whatever he wanted from the marketplace with impunity, go into people’s houses and have sex with anyone he wished, kill or release from prison anyone he wished, and do all the things that would make him like a god among humans.

That’s Plato, in The Republic, describing the Ring of Gyges as a means to asking whether morality is a social construction, a set of social rules we’ve just made up.

Christians, who believe morality reflects God’s nature, have not tended to long for invisibility. Ball’s thorough book on the history and possible future of invisibility notes that Christian hagiography includes remarkably few tales of saints disappearing. One notable exception: Aidan (d. 626) reportedly turned a stag invisible to protect it from a pack of hounds.

Otherwise, such magic was “apt to be denounced as witchcraft” by the early church, Ball writes. But he doesn’t push it much further than that. Why would Christians be so wary of invisibility when they insisted on the reality of an invisible world, governed by an “immortal, invisible” King of the ages (1 Tim. 1:17)?

Can Only God Be Uncorrupted By Invisibility?

Invisibility is not one of the most commonly named attributes of God, but it’s among the primary ones named by Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock and others (including the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology). “No one has ever seen God,” John repeatedly wrote, twice in his gospel (1:18; 6:46) and once in his epistle (1 John 4:12). Moses, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews also discuss God’s invisibility not just as a secondary, incidental attribute of his being Spirit (John 4:24), but as an essential attribute of his being that must not be violated by human curiosity: “No one may see me and live,” he says.

There are attributes of God that we aspire to—his love, his wisdom, his mercy. And there are others that to reach for is to immediately slip into idolatry. (Some theologians have differentiated these as God’s communicable and incommunicable attributes.) We may want to be wise stewards of the power God has given us, but we dare not strive for omnipotence, for example. Invisibility seems to be among the second set of attributes. But it’s tricky. Only God is omniscient, but invisibility does not belong to him alone.

Take for example, demons. Is it significant that the Bible’s demons are invisible creatures, apparently remaining unseen when Jesus casts them out, while angels usually appear in visible form and are often mistaken for human beings?

But we needn’t speculate on the demonic to recognize that only God can be trusted with true invisibility. For one thing, we have the Internet. Its implied promise of anonymity—a kind of invisibility—has given every connection its own Gyges ring, enabling us to take whatever we want from the digital marketplace with impunity, to have virtual sex with anyone we wish, to threaten and destroy lives, and to do all the things that would make us like gods among humans. Or trolls among humans.

But of course we are not invisible. The same tech culture that gave us Internet anonymity gave us the surveillance culture. And as Google Chrome warns, “Going incognito doesn’t affect the behavior of other people, servers, or software. Be wary of surveillance by secret agents or people standing behind you.”

Ball recounts a story from the life of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873), the politician and novelist behind phrases like “the pen is mightier than the sword,” "the almighty dollar,” and his opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night.”

“I have been told wild stories of ridiculous positions into which he was led by his imagined possessions of occult powers,” his grandson, Victor, wrote in 1913. “He would pass through a room full of visitors in the morning, arrayed in a dressing-gown, believing himself to be invisible, and then appear later in the day very carefully and elaborately dressed, and greet his guests as if meeting them for the first time.”

Ultimately, we are as visible as Lord Lytton.

But there is another kind of invisibility, one not faked with mirrors and metamaterials nor created through occult spells. It’s the kind of invisibility used by the image of the invisible God: Christ himself.

“Before Abraham was born, I am!” Jesus told his critics. John reports, “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (8:59, NIV). In a similar story, Luke records that the people of Nazareth “drove [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (4:29–30).

Did he become invisible? Or did he simply blend in with the crowd? Is there a difference? Did Jesus not fully lay aside his invisible attributes when he took on flesh? Or is this kind of invisibility something that is available to his followers as well?

Maybe it’s even something his followers already know about.

Consider all of the metaphors Jesus uses for his kingdom. It is the invisible yeast mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough. It is the wheat, mixed in with the weeds sown by the enemy. It is the nearly invisible mustard seed.

We are seen by God. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). But that is not quite the end of the story, just as Adam’s inability to hide in Genesis 3 is not quite its beginning. “In [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” Paul wrote to the Colossians. But more than that, “Your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). That which is most essential to us—our “life”—cannot now be seen. It is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Gal. 2:20).

We already are “invisible.”

Ted Olsen is co-editor of The Behemoth and a managing editor of Christianity Today.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 25 / June 25, 2015
  1. Editors’ Note

    Issue 25: The hopes and fears of invisibility, Hudson Taylor’s mission at 150, and the mystery of the world. /

  2. ‘Prayed for 24 Willing, Skillful Laborers’

    150 years ago this week, Hudson Taylor launched one of the greatest missionary endeavors in church history amid despair and euphoric faith. /

  3. The Beginning of All Serious Thought

    One’s every encounter with the world has always been an encounter with an enigma that no merely physical explanation can resolve. /

  4. Forty Years

    ‘That summer sojourn, / forty years gone’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 25: Links to amazing stuff. /

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