Military Technology/Defense Technology/Government Waste


(The Physics Establishment's Invisible Man Scam)

A physics satire
Una sátira de la Física
Une satire de Physique
Eine PhysikSatire
Un satire di Fisica

Essays on:
Physics in the Twenty-First Century

Series Introduction
Series Index


Bibhas De

Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 by Bibhas R. De

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Them amazing physicists!
How they make the unthinkable thinkable!

First they brought you the theory of the Time Machine:


Then they were on their way to the Teleporter:

And now, the Invisible Man:

When we think of physics scams, we think of perpetual motion machines, cure-all magnetic bracelets etc - originating from players outside of the scientific establishment. The establishment takes the role of beneficial vigilantes, and keeps the society safe from such outside players.

No one ever thinks to ask the far more important question: Are there physics scams being perpetrated from players within the academic physics establishment?

Is institutionalized scam not scam? Is a scammer enabled by a distinguished peer group not a scammer? Is bilking an entire citizenry through the intermediary of the Treasury not bilking?

What is the difference between a lone operator selling cure-all magnetic bracelets for $29.95 + S&H, and bigtime academics selling the "Invisible Man" for hundreds of millions of dollars?

What indeed is the entire range of scams that can be perpetrated on the society - from the most elementary to the most sophisticated?

If you think Ken Lay represents the upper bound, think again!

Consider the following fictional scenario. What if this were real? Is it real?

Who is safeguarding the society from the within-establishment scams?

Absolutely no one. It is just not done. You do not question the gods.



The Kingdom of Bombagor has been blessed with some of the brightest of physicists. The theoretical physicist Professor Sir Trompe Svarog Zeitfahrer, FRSB, considered heir to Newton and Einstein, the reader has already met. His counterpart on the experiment side is without a doubt Professor Bilkis “Bilko” Pendragon, FRSB - who was recently created Sir Bilko by His Majesty the King of Bombagor. Many are Sir Bilko's exploits, and more are his accolades. He has just received the highest scientific decoration short of the Nobel Prize: Selection to the TEMPUS Magazine’s annual list of SEVENTY SUAVE SAVANTS.

On this cold April morning, Sir Bilko sits in his heated office at the University, and watches his secretary simultaneously pour tea and warm milk into a Royal Doulton teacup, with hand-painted periwinkles. As she adds sugar, he can’t help but think: Life is good. He begins to sip his tea, with his little finger pointing away from the teacup.

He continues to reflect. His academic peer have endorsed his idea of the Sequined Dreamcoat. The physics is solid, they have said. Based on that, the Ministry of Defense has given him a large grant to make his idea real. The Minister also told him personally that if he needed more money, he had but to ask.

And the Media, always ready to give him a leg up, has risen to the occasion. They have practically made him a public celebrity – beyond just a science celebrity. In fact, the timing is quite opportune. Since the Media has overdone it a little bit in promoting Professor Sir Zeitfahrer, they have to cool their heels on the theory side for a while. So the timing is now perfect to tout Sir Bilko’s experimental, and practical, ideas. After all, he has designed the "perfect prism" (which can combine the seven elementary colors and give white light) which has caught the imagination of the international media, fostering much positive publicity for physics in general. He feels he has done a great deal more for physics than his more famous colleague who got much publicity from the invention of a geometric pattern that was used on toilet tissues.

There's one impression in the Media Sir Bilko must correct. They say he is making real the fiction of H. G. Wells. No, he is going beyond the fiction. The fictional invisible man became invisible only when naked. Sir Bilko's man will be invisible only when fully clad. So, he does not need to share credit with H. G. Wells. His idea is an absolutely original idea.

He can just see it now. There will be factories running round the clock producing the coat which, when a soldier wears it, will make him invisible. Just imagine the possibilities! The whole military balance-of-power situation will change. But that is only the beginning. The potential civilian uses boggle the mind. It will be a veritable New Age: The Pendragon Age. Or will they perhaps call it the Sir Bilko Age, he mused.

At home in the evenings, Sir Bilko has been receiving mysterious calls from organizations offering him all types of free gifts only if he would choose to work with them: A ski chalet on the Alps, a penthouse overlooking the Seine, etc. Only yesterday he got a call from an organization called Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravleniye which offered him a dacha in Krasnoyarsk. Of course Sir Bilko has no interest in these, but they have done much for his sense of self-worth. By hobnobbing with the military types, he himself has begun to feel powrerful. Actually, unbeknownst to himself, he has begun to walk with a swagger.


Here’s how it works. The Sequined Dreamcoat is covered with specially designed little tiles, or “sequins”, of novel optical material. So, if a soldier wearing this coat stands between a row of trees and the enemy line, the light from the trees will be channeled around the soldier. So the enemy will just see the row of trees, and not the soldier! The soldier now becomes as mighty and invincible as the Predator. And all this is made possible by Sir Bilko's research in optics, his invention of the optical megamaterials to wit - he truly is the Guru in this field. Sir Bilko mutters to himself: “Damn I’m good!”

The other evening, over an after-dinner glass of fine port, Sir Bilko’s imagination soared. He had heard of the trick-of-the –trade that if you wanted to get funds from the military, come up with a project that ties into one of their blockbuster pet dreams. In this case, he is thinking about the Exoskeleton Program: Soldiers are fitted with whole-body external metallic braces that make them immensely stronger. Now (Sir Bilko is thinking), what if we outfit the invisible man with the exoskeleton? Then all the enemy will see is a metallic skeleton! Imagine their horror at seeing and army of metal skeletons advancing at them, lock-step! They will pour out of their tanks and APCs and humvees and hightail it as fast as they can! Now, this is called leveraging a program! How can this not capture the imagination of the international media?

The Exoskeleton
Now, imagine the Predator wearing an exoskeleton!


This April is truly “the cruelest month”. Sir Bilko is worried. His graduate students working on the coat are becoming restive. They have built a prototype coat, but the results are not good. They had expected to receive their Ph. D.s by now, but there is not enough result to produce a single dissertation. The problem, it seems, is that when the coat flutters, the image breaks up. What is more worrisome, the students are talking to outsiders about these problems.

In the Royal Society of Bombagor, from among his non-physics colleagues especially, Sir Bilko has overheard unflattering murmurs of doubt. And a colleague from Texas, addressing him with the typical American irreverence, actually told him at a scientific conference: "Hey buddy, I like your idea of making money off of the Invisible Man. It is better than the Elvin Pelvin scheme of making money off of a very visible man!" But Sir Bilko could not understand the reference. At any rate, surreptitious criticism like this cannot be addressed directly. So, as he happened to be giving a speech to the Royal Society on "Trendy new Optics in Geometrically Structured Media", he chose to wax emotional and philosophical. He said: "As scientists we must follow our dreams. No matter how far-fetched or fictional an idea may seem at first, you have to carry it to its scientific and logical extreme before conceding its impossibility. Lesser scientists may jest and jeer, but that is no reason to quit. Pursuing the seemingly impossible is the crowning glory of modern science." Upon that, out of the dark back rows of the audience, a distinguished peer of the realm heckled him: "Right on, Sir Michael Crichton!" Then another shouted: "Next on, the Philosopher's Stone."

Even the rank-and-file Military has started to cast doubt. Stealth technology is one thing, they say. But invisible man is quite another thing. We cannot walk around with a sack of trinkets hanging from our shoulder, they are saying. We have been duped, they are saying.

But Sir Bilko is not one to give up so easily. It is time for some damage control. He has an idea. He calls in the students and says: “Let’s change tack. Let’s design the Dreamcoat in the shape of a rigid barrel – like an oil drum. The lid can have a hole in it, and the soldier can put his head through it. The barrel will then hang from his shoulders. It will be quite heavy, so we will need a very sturdy soldier. To be more specific, let us say the soldier must have the physique similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

"And one more thing", says Sir Bilko, "Let's keep what goes on among ourselves. When we have to report something to the public, my office will handle it in an appropriate manner."

Then Sir Bilko thinks to himself: This fix should be good for another five years.

But now a foreign student from China demurely says: “Please to forgive this insignificant person, Noble Sir, but this is not a coat at all. It is something completely different. It is a soldier in a pillbox! We are now speaking of a completely stationary object with completely rigid walls - and we are speaking of hiding it with smoke and mirrors. There are all types of sensing mechanisms that can easily detect and locate this target. And what about the viewing angle - does it remain invisible from every angle? If the invisibility is less than 100% perfect, then the result will be the exact opposite: The target will attract enemy attention. It will be loudly saying: 'Here I am. Fire a round of mortar at my location - where you see this weird and distorted landscape!' Lord Buddha have mercy on me, but this whole project is blown out of all proportion. Here is no Invisible Man, no great military breakthrough, and no great physics breakthrough.”

Sir Bilko controls his anger, and responds: “We must nonetheless stay with the name Dreamcoat and the notion of the Invisible Man – for that is the idea we have sold to the Ministry and to the public. That is how we have taken the world by storm, got all those news headlines. That is what has caught the public's imagination: H. G. Wells and Harry Potter - that's your meal ticket.”

Despondent, the students go away and regroup.


Unfortunately, the barrel did not work either. It has become quite clear that this whole project has failed. Some are saying that it should never have been started in the first place. Most of the students have left to work with other professors. The brilliant but outspoken student from China has gone back to China, and become an English-speaking tour guide in the Western Hills outside Beijing. On this gray April evening, Sir Bilko sits alone in the plush Dining Room of the Royal Society of Bombagor (Fellows dine free), and calmly works out his further strategy in his mind. He has finished his meal of grouse flown in from England, and is now enjoying a selection of fine cheeses, washed down with a 1998 Beringer Johannisberg Riesling. The Stilton and the dessert wine warm him. He begins to see a strategy shaping.

First, he can fully rely on his academic peer to cover for him. They always do. They have already issued a statement: “The idea was excellent, but the technology to make it work is just not there yet. It is an idea for the future. Sgt Bilko is a man way ahead of his time when it comes to innovative, enriching ideas. He certainly deserves a Nobel Prize for this idea.” (The small typographic error made by a septuagenarian American-born secretary was quickly detected and corrected in later versions of the Press Release.)

Second, the above comments will save the Ministry’s face. What is £100 million to them? Mere pittance. The Ministry has been bilked for a great deal more by others. And at any rate, there is a new Minister who has no ownership in this project. Plus, the ill-conceived war has the Ministry fully occupied – they could not care less about R&D. The timing is so opportune!

Third, the Media is no problem. While they take a physicist several notches up when he pronounces his fantastic idea, they keep completely mum when the idea is quietly retracted.

Fourth, he has to quickly move on to something even more spectacular, more shock-jock. He went through his reprint collection of modern Optics papers, and found a paper by a distinguished colleague, titled "Theory of White Paint." And suddenly a light went on in his brain. He has got it: A house paint (that is, a painted house) that changes color at the touch of a button. It will actually be an eight button, make-before-break switch. The buttons will be marked W-V-I-B-G-Y-O-R, and colored accordingly. At the touch of another four button, break-before-make switch, the color becomes flat, satin, semi-gloss or high-gloss. In fact (he is now positively scintillating), the switches can be automatically activated by the position of the sun, and the color of sunlight! ("Damn I'm so good!") This new idea will distract the scientific community. (He must make sure that the Media pitches it in the context of that James Bond car designed by the Q Branch: You've got to catch the public's imagination). More importantly, however, this is bound to be a "commercial success" (He is now thinking Home Depot). So, he has already applied for a patent and started talking to corporate entities. There is now talk of IPO, and Mutual Funds are falling over each other to get in on the action.

You see, Sir Bilko is now nearing retirement. The Nobel Prize is probably not in the stars. He has learned that his name was indeed placed before the Nobel Committee, but that they were not impressed by the powerful recommendation that said that he had captured the imagination of the international media. Nor were they bowled over by the "Perfect Prism" and the megamaterials. They were more interested in what fundamental new contribution he had made to physics.

Sir Bilko indeed feels let down by the Media. He felt that they were building him up for the Nobel Prize. He gave them generously of his time. Celebrity reporters like Miguel Limonada and M. Jacqueline Hash had virtually unlimited access to him. They helped him become a “Suave Savant”, considered a first step towards The Prize. But the final step was not to be. Limonada and Hash have moved on to greener pastures - promoting a physicist with a saintlike visage, describing him as possessing the soul of Solomon. Like that tragic Shakespearean character, Sir Bilko too had realized his mistake much too late in the game. Had he cultivated the mysterious Priory of the Dungeon with half the zeal with which he cultivated the Media, he would not in his old age be left in the lurch like this. He could today be lecturing to a SRO crowd (some of whom had to buy tickets from scalpers) in Hong Kong to a rousing, rock star’s ovation. While still staying within his field of expertise, Optics, he could be introducing some apocalyptic idea of looming doom like the impending change of the color of the sky from blue to azure, and its devastating consequences for the very survival of humankind. He could then say, with a dramatic flair: So leave this planet and colonize space ASAP, or write your will PDQ.

But fate has dealt him a bad hand. So it is time to forget about a rock star's name and fame and fortune, and start thinking about plain fortune. But careful this time! Do not go for shares and options in the new company. Sir Bilko well knows what will happen to the shares and options. Cash on the barrelhead is what he wants for his invention.

One fly in the ointment however is the uncontrolled gossip on the Internet blog sites. They ask: “Could not the failure of the Dreamcoat project have been already foreseen before even commencing the project? Was it not as obvious then as it is today?” Unfortunately, some of these unruly people on the Internet have become scientifically savvy, and it is difficult to use the usual jiggery-pokery to snow them. Sir Bilko sighs: There used to be a time the physics academics were considered beyond reproach. In those days, the "Professor Sirs" were considered untouchable - veritable academic royalty.

The harshest of all criticisms has come from Diogenes of Bombagor (whom the reader has met). This weird indigent has said in an interview by a counterculture magazine: “Our senior citizens cannot get necessary medicine. The victims of the recent volcanic eruption cannot rebuild their homes and their lives. Yet the physics professors are scamming the citizenry for untold sums of money from the public coffers – in the name of fighting terrorism.” Normally, such ramblings of a penniless and shabby lunatic who has no access to the mainstream Media would be of no concern. The academics could dismiss him as one would dismiss a mangy street dog. But the American TV commentator Andy Rooney (also a weidro, Sir Bilko feels) has voiced similar sentiments. And His Majesty the King of Bombagor (another weirdo, Sir Bilko privately feels) is most respectful of Diogenes. So it is time to skip the country.

Sir Bilko reaches for the little notebook in his pocket, and looks up the telephone number of a real estate agent in a certain Caribbean island inhabited by Americans who, shall we say are not enamored of the US financial regulators. He calls for a telephone to be brouight to his table (better use a landline, he figures), and dials the number. He now has visions of a sunny beach, a cabana, and a drink in a pineapple. This just has to make up for that other long-cherished vision he had: Standing on the brightly lit stage, and shaking hands with the King of Sweden.

Sir Bilko takes his final sip of wine, and mutters to himself: "Damn I'm good!" Suddenly, April seems like the happiest month of all. Life is good.


For the author’s scientific background in light propagation in structured media, see:

B. R. DE, I. H. H. ZABEL, D. STROUD & M. A. NELSON: Optical Analog of the Permeability of Sandstones. Physical Review B 45, 196-204,1992.

B. R. DE & D. STROUD: Light Propagation in Porous Media. In Photonic Band Gaps and Localization, C. M. Soukoulis, ed., Plenum Press, New York, 1993. Proceedings of NATO Advanced Research Workshop, Crete, Greece, May 26-30, 1992.

B. R. DE, M. A. NELSON & K. K. PANDE: Method and Apparatus for Imaging Porous Media and Method for Fabricating Novel Optical Materials. U. S. Patent 5,146,086 issued September 8, 1992.

The author also has first-hand knowledge of missile-tracking systems and techniques, having worked in the aerospace industry. The fictional Invisible Man project can be compared, with benefit, to the real US Star Wars (“Strategic Defense Initiative”) project. For that project, the basic science and technology already existed. The project failed because of the efficacy (accuracy of tracking and targeting, and fastness of response) of the technology. Electronics and computers take time to do things, and moving things take time to respond – there is not much you can do after these have been optimized. The Invisible Man project would involve, first, the application and development of a new, presumed technology. Second, it would involve the issue of efficacy – efficacy in Optics. Now think: What would be involved in replacing the profile of an Abrams tank, as seen by the enemy, exactly by the landscape that it is masking – seamlessly? Do you know the answer, or do you need to research it for 15 years and spend a billion dollars? If there is any defect at all in this “image”, then not only is it not hidden, but it a like a bull’s eye. And if by some miracle it were possible to "optically" blend all military hardware with the landscape, what would happen if the enemy dropped a percussion bomb or some such thing to produce a disturbance in the masking opitical geometry? They might see strange blotches in the landscape. Do you really need to spend a billion dollars to tell the enemy exactly where to aim and fire?

Even with a layman's knowledge of military technology, you could think of many such countermeasures already existing that should make the scheme a non-starter. And how big a role does 'optical vision' have in modern warfare? You would quickly come to the conclusion that the scheme is either great foolishness or great scam. But it is not foolishness; you are dealing with the cleverest among men.

If the tables were turned, the above arguments would be used to laugh at outside-establishment scammers, proposing exactly the same thing.

Posted 5 June 2006