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Universal's The Invisible Man hit theaters last week and is doing gangbusters, earning nearly $50 million on a $7 million budget. While this current incarnation of the 1897 sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells takes a more modern spin on what it means to disappear, the notion of transparency is one that's dominated the sci-fi landscape for generations.
While Universal's current film offers a technological solution for going covert, without having to actually modify your body, previous incarnations relied on chemistry that literally imbued an individual incapable of interacting with light. While that might satisfy some of our baser desires to slink through the world under a blanket of subterfuge, there are some pretty serious physical consequences you might not have considered.
In the original story, The Invisible Man's primary character, Griffin, accomplishes his incredible scientific breakthrough by way of chemical magic. After successfully utilizing his chemical on a laboratory cat, he makes the reckless decision to test his novel compound on himself.
Soon he discovers himself entirely transparent and, even worse, unable to render himself visible again. While, through the course of the novel, Griffin suffers serious consequences as a result of his experiments, he escapes largely unscathed by the real-world physical impacts.
First and foremost …
BLINDED TO THE TRUTH
Invisibility seems like an incredible superpower until you think about it for more than a minute. See, vision is a two-way street. Light likes to bounce around between objects. Without that interaction, vision doesn't work.
In an ordinary scenario, light races across the cosmos, coming primarily from our parent star. As it nears, it interacts with objects around us. Photons collide with the atmosphere, with plants and animals, with earth and sea, and bounce away. Those photons, having been altered either by absorption or reflection, then reach our eyes where they are taken in. Our minds paint a picture of the world around us, based entirely on the interaction of modified light entering our eyes.
Those of us who are sighted experience the world largely through these interactions. Our other senses, while important, take a backseat to our sense of sight. But, like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, believing that if it can't see a predator, that predator can't see it, our relationship with light is mutual.
If Griffin were to introduce into his body a compound that made his cells transparent, he might enjoy a momentary celebration at the success of his invisibility. But pretty quickly he would realize his mistake.
True invisibility, the type wherein the body itself is actually rendered transparent (unlike the kind portrayed in the recent movie, which utilizes an advanced suit) can only succeed by interrupting the interaction of light with those cells.
While that might succeed in making you disappear, it will also result in immediate blindness. Those modified photons, the ones you rely on to paint a picture of the world, will fail to interact with your eyes, fail to travel along your optic nerve, fail to be received by the vision centers of your brain.
Instead, they will travel straight through you and land on the ground, where they will then bounce off onto another object, or into space, is if you weren't there at all.
Whatever your plans for your invisibility, whether it was harmless people watching, or spying on your neighbors, will fall apart when you realize you've lost the ability to see.
To be fair, Wells considered this problem when he wrote his novel. When we first see Griffin employ his serum on a laboratory cat, the result is an invisible feline, with visible eyes. We're meant to believe that the cat could continue to see, though, without visible optic nerves, or visual brain centers, that light would have nowhere to go, scattering into infinity. In fact, if were to ignore all of the necessary components of sight, relying only on the external eyes, that cat would likely be overwhelmed by visual stimuli, taking in light from 360 degrees.
Either it's sight doesn't work at all, or the signal gets blown out by too much information. In any event, that poor cat would be incapable of experiencing the world in the way it was used to.
The human body operates only by maintaining equilibrium. Part of that is the way we interact with light. When light hits our skin, it scatters, some of it is absorbed and converted into heat, while the rest is reflected off, creating the image of who we are.
To be sure, much of our internal body temperature is regulated from the inside; it's one of the benefits of being warm-blooded. But some of that energy arrives externally. Whether it's from the sun or from artificial light, some of the energy that keeps you warm, especially on your body's surface, comes from external sources.
Removing your body's ability to react with external light changes the way it maintains that equilibrium, requiring that you expend more internal energy keeping yourself at an acceptable temperature. In short, if you made yourself invisible, you'd likely have to eat more, just to keep yourself at a happy medium.
Even more frightening, research indicates that if your internal cells are exposed to light, all sorts of terrible things happen. Most importantly, your DNA starts to break down. Considering the way chemicals react with our bodies, it's unlikely that invisibility would happen all at once.
Instead, you'd probably end up with a sort of reverse-Doctor-Manhattan situation wherein you disappeared a little bit at a time.
In the interim, the various layers of your body would be exposed to light, both visible and non-visible. It might not seem like such a big deal, but the large majority of your body is accustomed to being shrouded in darkness.
If you've ever had a sunburn, you understand the damage light is capable of levying on your tissues. Exposing those protected layers to external forces, even for a little while, could result in untold effects on your overall body.
At the end of the day, whatever nefarious plans you might have for becoming invisible probably aren't worth the impact your body would suffer. It's very likely better that we keep invisibility in the realm of fiction, at least until we can develop technological solutions to counteract these biological hurdles.
In the meantime, you can see all the ways invisibility would be terrible on the big screen.
The Invisible Man is in theaters now.