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Posted at 03:08 PM ET, 01/06/2012

Temporal cloaking, undetectable events, and Rick Santorum


The light plays tricks on us. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Charles Dharapak)
Cornell physicists have finally come up with a way of making an event undetectable.

A month ago, they could have just asked Rick Santorum.

The new finding is what The Post’s David Brown describes as a "parlor trick." Our perception of time as well as our perception of space depends on the ability of light to transmit information to us. If you can conceal the event from the light, it's as though it never happened. Currently, this requires complicated experimental conditions.

An easier way of doing this might just be to give the light a smartphone. I haven't looked up from mine for the past six years. I think I graduated from high school, but honestly, it's all a blur.  

Confuse the light enough, altering its speed in a controlled fashion, and it stumbles home with no information whatsoever about anything that occurred. "I'm not even sure if I’m a wave or a particle,” it slurs, technicolor yawning on your couch.

Under present conditions, the undetectable event must last far less than a second — “It is not enough time to steal a painting from a museum,” joked researcher Moti Fridman — but give it time.

Scientists had already come up with spatial cloaking — bending light around an event so that it’s invisible in space. Temporal cloaking does the same thing in time, creating a tiny hole in which things can happen and nobody notices.

Imagine the potential of a technology like that. For a tiny fraction of a second, Anthony Weiner could send anything he wanted to anyone he wanted. A presidential candidate could eat a corn dog in safety. Barack Obama could go golfing.

But is this really new? Rick Santorum produced undetectable events for months without even trying. He should have talked to those scientists months ago and saved thousands of dollars. (“Make the event put on a sweater vest before the light comes through.”)

Undetectable events are hardly a rarity. Just schedule a press conference during Downton Abbey and see what happens. And now that we have the technology to create them on purpose, I doubt it'll be in great demand. We spend our lives trying to be detected. Invisibility? No thanks. What’s the point of being invisible if nobody sees you?

Some would argue that the last thing we need is more undetectable events. There are too many of them as it is.

Erwin Knoll once wrote that “Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge.” On the trail in Iowa, I was struck by the attitude of nearly everyone I met towards the media. Some events are over-detected. Is there anywhere on earth where one can go and not hear from the Kardashians? Some aren't detected at all. It's hard to tell what the light is going to hit. And it frustrates people who are pretty sure that they were there while something happened but can find no evidence of it in Time.

For months, Santorum was an undetected event. It was half his charm. The light got muddled the nearer it got to the far-right podium. The camera flicked away before he could open his mouth. But something was happening nonetheless.

Maybe that’s what sparked him at the caucuses. People were sick of being told what was happening by others — whom to vote for. Where to look. What “electable” meant. The light seemed to be missing things. Trees fell in forests and made no sounds. Events vanished into time as though they had never occurred.

Now the light’s hitting.

But where the camera points is as telling as what it captures. Observing an act that transforms the thing observed in ways that go beyond the literal physics of the situation — ask anyone who’s crowded into a tiny cafe next to a dozen cameras as a candidate sits nervously shaking hands with a single voter. There’s a reason it’s called a media circus, and it’s not the prevalence of elephants. It’s all about the spotlight. Its beam does not fall evenly everywhere, and in the process, things get distorted and some vanish. Malice? Or simply bad lighting?

So I’m in no hurry for the technology to develop real-world applications. But if the scientists can find a way to apply it to the Kardashians, I’m on board.

By  |  03:08 PM ET, 01/06/2012

Tags:  science, Santorum

 
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