Jan 5, 2012

(those are trillionths of seconds, if you’re counting)

I actually have no idea what it looks like- then again, that's the point.
A team at Cornell University, with support from Darpa, the Pentagon’s out-there research arm, managed to hide an event for 40 picoseconds (those are trillionths of seconds, if you’re counting). They’ve published their groundbreaking research in this week’s edition of the journal Nature.

This is the first time that scientists have succeeded in masking an event, though research teams have in recent years made remarkable strides in cloaking objects. Researchers at the University of Texas, Dallas, last year harnessed the mirage effect to make objects vanish. And in 2010, physicists at the University of St. Andrews made leaps towards using metamaterials to trick human eyes into not seeing what was right in front of them. Masking an object entails bending light around that object. If the light doesn’t actually hit an object, then that object won’t be visible to the human eye.

Where events are concerned, concealment relies on changing the speed of light. Light that’s emitted from actions, as they happen, is what allows us to see those actions happen. Usually, that light comes in a constant flow. What Cornell researchers did, in simple terms, is tweak that ongoing flow of light — just for a mere iota of time — so that an event could transpire without being observable. The entire experiment occurred inside a fiber optics cable. Researchers passed a beam of green light down the cable, and had it move through a lens that split the light into two frequencies, one moving slowly and the other faster. As that was happening, they shot a red laser through the beams.

Since the laser “shooting” occurred during a teeny, tiny time gap, it was imperceptible. Sure, the team’s got a ways to go before they’re able to mask 30 seconds of action, let alone several minutes. But the research certainly opens up new possibilities. For one, masking super-quick events, like those that occur with data transmission, could help conceal covert computer operations. In the words of Nature editors, the research marks “a significant step towards full spatio-temporal cloaking.” But it could be decades before military personnel will basically be able to zap history, as it happens: According to Cornell scientists, it’d take a machine 18,600 miles long to produce a time mask that lasts a single second.