Hiding in plain sight

The Easter holiday rush is receding into distant memory. The only thing airport security personnel have to worry about is what happens when everyone starts arriving for the Olympics. That, and the helpful physicists who have worked out how to smuggle a gun through a metal detector.

It all started as a bit of harmless blue-sky thinking. In the late 1960s, a Russian physicist pointed out the fun you could have if you invented a material that bends light in the opposite direction to normal. You could use it as an invisibility cloak, he said: just as water diverts round a rock in a stream by going first to one side, then back to the other, light bent in two different directions as it passed an object would give a viewer the impression that the light had travelled in a straight line and that the object simply wasn’t there.

Oh, how everybody laughed. Then, in 2000, someone turned this ridiculous fantasy into reality. John Pendry of Imperial College London showed how to create “left-handed materials” that would bend microwave radiation the wrong way. The practicalities were a little cumbersome and it didn’t work with visible light. But still, it was surprising, impressive and fun, in a nerdy kind of way.

Over the past decade, the technology has matured. At first, left-handed materials were constructed from intricate arrays of copper rings and could only hide tiny objects from a microwave detector. Now, we have invisibility “carpets” made from cheap and widely available crystals of the mineral calcite. They are able to hide objects the size of your thumb – and they work in visible light.

That technology is not yet going to smuggle a gun through airport security, though. Even if the X-ray machine doesn’t make the outline obvious, the magnetic field from the steel triggers an alarm. But a paper recently published in the journal Science can get you round that obstacle.

As it turns out, you can cloak a metal’s magnetic field for less than £1,000. First, wrap your gun in a layer of superconducting tape. Magnetic fields cannot pass through a layer of superconductor, so the scanner wouldn’t see the gun’s field. The scanner would see the superconductor’s field, though. However, this can be countered by adding a layer of flexible magnetic strip, rather like that found on the back of a fridge magnet. The researchers showed that this combination of readily available materials does a reasonable job of cloaking a magnetic field.

Touching the void

OK, it’s still not quite a credible threat. The superconductor has to be kept at liquid-nitrogen temperatures and a cloud of nitrogen vapour coming out of your hand luggage might raise a few eyebrows. A simple thermal detector would certainly put paid to any gun-smuggling plans.

But the physicists aren’t beaten yet. While some have been content to bend light as it travels through space, Martin McCall of Imperial College London has played around with bending light as it travels though time.

The technique involves slowing down and speeding up light inside an optical fibre – something that physicists have learned to do with astonishing skill in the past few years. McCall now has a blueprint for a device that doesn’t just make things invisible; it makes it look like they never even happened. It only works on technologies with an optical fibre feed, such as a CCTV camera. Nevertheless, in principle, we now know how to create the illusion of a void in both space and time – a void that could plausibly be exploited to evade surveillance technologies. Of course, it’s ridiculous. But where these troublesome physicists are involved, nothing remains ridiculous for long.

Michael Brooks’s “Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master

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Why are online jokes funnier without punctuation and capital letters?

Academics and social media users weigh in on Twitter’s most unexplained phenomenon. 

The first person to notice it did so in 2010. “Sometimes I think a twitter joke is funnier if you omit punctuation,” tweeted @zacharylittle on 2 April. He was a pioneer. It took two years for anyone else to express the same thought, but they did so in droves. “I like not using punctuation like commas on twitter because its somehow funnier lol,” said @chxrliesheen, sans apostrophe. “I never use punctuation on twitter and tumblr I just think its funnier ok,” exclaimed @julieamarch. From then until now, people have been constantly questioning the phenomenon, but there are still no answers.

Why exactly are Twitter jokes funnier when they have grammatical errors, discard punctuation, lack capital letters, or are misspelled?

“There is a frisson, or sense of pleasure, from playfulness in language,” Dr Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, tells me over email – in which she demonstrates some of this playfulness herself. “writing wihtout caps, proper punctation, and leaving misspellings uncorrected also feels like private communication, like whispered kjokes, and therefore has the same potential thrill.”

Dr Hugh Rabagliati, a Chancellor's Fellow at the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, warns me that most of his knowledge on the subject comes from “spending too much time on Twitter, rather than any obvious academic work”. It is true that research into the area is lacking – books about “internet language” get outdated quickly, and seem to focus on email and chatrooms, rather than more modern social media. “The misspellings [on Twitter] are often beautifully calibrated, like a very subtle malapropism, and the grammar errors are designed to make familiar material feel out of kilter,” he says.

Sometimes humour is found when grandiose sentiments are contrasted with train-wreck grammar, he argues, whereas other times the language can be exclusionary and people share it to prove they “get” the joke.

Perhaps the most famous Twitter user who has mastered the technique of the misspelled tweet is Jonathan Sun. Sun has gained 168,000 followers posing as an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge”, and is part of what is known as “weird Twitter”, a subset of the site where humour is surreal and often bolstered by misspellings, a lack of punctuation, and grammatical errors. But while “weird Twitter” takes it to the extreme, many other arguably “normal” Twitter users will uncap the start of their Tweets or the word “I”.

“i’m not really sure why but i’ve been going out of my way to un-cap for ages,” one anonymous Twitter user told me via a direct message on the site. “i recognise that it is a stupid waste of time, ive had partners mock me for it.” Possibly, they theorise, they do this because they used to edit copy as part of their job. “it could be a reaction to that, to be completely armchair psychology about it.”

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World reinforces this point. She argues that language users are always looking for ways to distinguish their voices and express emotion. “A bevy of authors – from the poet e.e. cummings to social media scholar danah boyd – have further personalised their identity by eschewing the normal capitalisations in their names,” she says. “When it comes to social networking sites such as Twitter, lack of capital letters lends a tone of informality that makes the messages feel more speech-like.”

It’s hard to admit that you’re deliberately making mistakes in order to look offhand, as you are essentially revealing you try-very-hard-to-look-like-you’re-not-trying-at-all. But Rebecca Reid, a 25-year-old journalist, admits this is why she used to uncap her tweets. “Honestly I literally thought it made me look cooler,” she says. “I saw my sister doing it, and she's a couple of years younger and very trendy, so I thought it was just what we were doing. So I copied her. This is so tragic from me. And after a while I realised that it wasn't making me seem edgy, it was making it seem like the shift button on my key board was broken.”

It is true that informality is important in written messages, as a 2015 study revealed that ending text messages with a full stop was perceived to be insincere, most likely because it is seen as a sign of aggression. Twitter jokes that are written similarly formally – with full stops and capital letters – might also seem insincere, or be less inviting or inclusive than those with deliberate mistakes, run-on sentences, or five-too-many exclamation marks.

“There's also a phenomenon that linguists have only started discussing in the last decade, called ‘Eggcorns’,” says Rabagliati. “Here the speaker has learned a misanalysed locution. The phenomenon is named from the case of a woman who had, all her life, misheard the word acorn as ‘eggcorn’. ‘To all intensive purposes’ is a similar error. These mistakes play on our fear that our knowledge of language might not be as robust as we want to believe – think about all those words that you've read, but never heard aloud. Plus, the errors are fun because they demand some backwards reasoning to reconstruct.” 

More academic research is needed for a final answer on the phenomenon, but one thing is certain. If uncapitalising things on Twitter is cool, writing an 800-word article about it certainly isn't. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.