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We can make objects invisible in the realm of radio and infrared wavelength. We can, for example, hide a plane radar and heat signature from being detected. However, it seem, even after years of research, very challenging to mask the "visible light signature" of an object. It would be the coolest thing to make stuff invisible to human eyes, but we still can't do it yet. Why is it so hard to do so?

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    $\begingroup$ We can't really make anything "invisible" to any wavelength because that would mean no reflection, no refraction, no absorption. Think about it, even air isn't invisible: you can look up and see blue sky our a red sunset, or look out and see a mirage on a hot road. What we can do is make things transparent, meaning enough of the information gets through unchanged to still be usable. Even then, if you can see a reflection in your window glass, then it's not invisible... even if you can look through it just fine. $\endgroup$ – Asher Sep 5 '15 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ Short answer: because our vision is so darn good. Much better than any radar or IR detector. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Sep 6 '15 at 19:00
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But we can create objects that are "invisible in visible light" - they're called transparent. Glass, clear plastics, water, air, those sort of materials are all transparent to visible light in a similar way that things like wood, soil, and stone are transparent to radio waves. Of course, nothing is perfectly transparent to visible light, but neither is anything perfectly transparent to radio waves.

The interaction of light and matter is a very complicated subject, but in a nutshell, if a material can transition between states A and B (whether those states are nuclear, atomic, molecular, or...phononic?) and the difference in energy $\Delta E_{AB} = E_B - E_A$ between those two states is close to the energy of incoming photons ($E_\gamma \approx \Delta E_{AB}$), then the photon will typically be absorbed. Or sometimes if $E_\gamma \approx \Delta E_{AB} / 2$. Like I said, it's complicated. If the energy of the photon is not close to the energy of some transition in the material, the photon will pass right through. Unless it scatters, which is another thing that can happen without a corresponding transition. Again, complicated.

Here's an example transmission spectrum I found for Makrolon Polycarbonate, a type of strong, transparent plastic used for things like windows. Example transmission spectrum (Image source)

As you can see, throughout the visible (and part of the infrared) spectrum, the material is nearly transparent - it only absorbs or scatters 10% of the light. However, there are small dips in the transmission spectrum (and a big dip at 1650 nm). These dips probably correspond to some atomic or molecular transition that occurs in the material that causes light to be absorbed.

For further reading, there's a nice introduction to this subject on hyperphysics.

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    $\begingroup$ And to emphasize, visible light corresponds to lots of atomic and molecular electronic transitions (among other things), so building things out of atoms and molecules that are largely transparent is expected to be difficult. $\endgroup$ – user10851 Sep 5 '15 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisWhite In fact, an interesting point can be made here: It is exactly because of this that "visible light" is the range of EM frequencies that it is: We evolved towards seeing the most useful frequencies, i.e. the ones that occur a lot in natural electronic transitions. $\endgroup$ – Danu Sep 5 '15 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Danu That's an interesting thought, although it seems more likely to me that the primary evolutionary pressure was towards seeing the EM frequencies that are most abundant in our environment thanks to our local star. $\endgroup$ – Brionius Sep 6 '15 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Brionius ...which is the same thing, isn't it? :P $\endgroup$ – Danu Sep 6 '15 at 6:54
  • $\begingroup$ I think the reason the sun's emission peaks in the visible range is because of its temperature. $\endgroup$ – Brionius Sep 6 '15 at 10:54
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The current method of making an object invisible involves the electromagnetic waves passing around the object and coming together on the other side. This requires that the object and waves be of a certain size. So, because microwaves are large we can make an ordinary household object invisible to microwaves. However, visible light has a very tiny wavelength on the order of micrometers. This means that we are limited to making things around that size invisible to the visible spectrum. enter image description here

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Radio waves are large. Even the IR which is the bleeding edge of the meta material techniques is larger than visible light. Making a meta-material to taylor the electric and magnetic properties to render it invisible, we make it out of atoms.

enter image description here

If the wavelength of light gets down to the size of an atom, how can you build little magnets and rings? You see the bulk iron in the normal way, as you can't make a coil small enough.

Furthermore, the index of refraction varies with the wavelength. That's true in general for normal material, and why we need fancy lenses that combine different combinations of properies to approximately handle different frequencies for one special case of focusing at one point from one distance. So if we did have a metamaterial that worked for blue, we would still see the red "messed up". A rigid lens system like a camera lens (but with negative dispursion) if such materials existed would need a compound lens of solutions differing in details to treat red, blue, and enough points in between; approximatly "in focus" for one focal length. We can do better than that now using mirrors and (normal) lenses.

enter image description here


Then again, using electron density waves rather than little rings and coils gets past the atom-scale issue.

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  • $\begingroup$ Also the viewing distance is greater for things like radar than for what sci-fi & fantasy lead us to expect for things that are "invisible". $\endgroup$ – xdhmoore Sep 6 '15 at 4:28
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly - once you get into the visible wavelengths, our feature sizes are nanometers, if not smaller. This makes visible metamaterials very difficult to engineer, and very impractical on large scales, at least given the current state of science and technology. $\endgroup$ – lemontwist Sep 7 '15 at 16:23
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There is a difference between what invisibility means:

Radar invisibility: Radio detector is not receiving any signal that is bounced back by the vehicle. The signal is created by the radar. Radar usually do not record signals generated by other sources. So usually it is enough to absorb the wave or bounce it in different direction.

Visible light invisibility: Eyes receive electomagnetic wave from behind the vehicle. The light is created by the sun. Object have to be able to recreate wave from behind which is far more complicated.

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