Gunther Uhlmann is an internationally renowned mathematician. He solves complex scientific problems. He’s received several honours for his research including Guggenheim and Sloan Fellowships, has held post-doctoral positions at Harvard and MIT and is generally regarded as a mathematical genius.
Yet for Uhlmann to simplify complex mathematical material into layman’s terms, he always consults his children — if they can understand it, then the rest of the world will, too.
“I try to explain these things to my kids, I find that helps a lot,” he says. That’s exactly what he did in preparation for a talk on the science and mathematics behind Harry Potter’s famous “Invisibility Cloak” in the popular children’s book (and film) series.
Invisibility has always been a subject of human fascination, from the Greek legend of Perseus versus Medusa to the more recent Star Trek, The Invisible Man, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Preparing a public talk in partnership with BIRS (the Banff International Research Station) Uhlmann describes how inverse problems help in making invisible objects seem visible and, conversely, how visible objects are made to seem invisible.
Using the science behind the cloak that famously protects “The Boy Who Lived”, Uhlmann attempts to debunk the traditional notion of invisibility, and explain the process that deflects light off objects to make them appear invisible to the naked eye. “Science is fascinating because things that seem impossible are usually always possible,” he says.
So as the idea of interfacing on phones and computers was an outlandish concept back in the 80’s, could we expect to see a real Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak hit the shelves and become a regular commodity any time soon? “Anything is possible,” Uhlmann muses. “Wouldn’t everyone like to be invisible, even for just one day?”