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To Cloak or Not to Cloak

There are a lot of unlikely science fiction tropes out there that we have learned to accept without question: artificial gravity, faster then light travel, energy weapons with a “stun” setting, etc.

There’s nothing wrong with these concepts. They create a fun space in which to tell interesting stories. But they aren’t based in science, and using them puts you constantly in danger of accidently puncturing the believability bubble of your world. Working with them is like sorting needles in a bouncy castle: you just have to be really careful and pay attention to the details.

Today I want to talk about another popular science fiction trope that doesn’t make any sense: cloaking devices.

How do they work? Oh, that’s easy; something something, camouflage, something energy fields something refraction.

No, okay, sorry, you’re right, there’s a better explanation then that. Cloaking devices are essentially very specialized force fields that absorb the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation from visible light right down to radio waves, then emit a spectrum of it’s own which mimics what would have been perceivable if the field wasn’t present. Simple right?

Um…no. Frankly I find artificial gravity more believable.

But, okay, let’s just say for a moment that it were possible. I mean, why not? There’s no such thing as a force field, so who are we to say what it can and cannot do? So, let’s say it can absorb all the waves, and somehow there’s a computer involved that can process the really staggering amount of variables to figure out exactly what would have been visible and/or detectable from any particular perspective, and there is also the equipment available with the capacity to emit all the relevant frequencies of light and other radiations in very precise increments and very precise directions.

That seems…that seems…ridiculous. I’m failing to buy it.

Okay, how about this. How about the force field in question neither absorbs nor emits anything, it only bends. The exact frequencies of light etc. that you need are already present in the room, after all: all you need to do is find a way to refract them around the cloaked object without altering them. And since we have no real-life basis with which to judge the capacities of this totally fictional “force field,” why not pretend that it can do that? I mean, I already said “fine”p when you told me that it could both block an energy weapon and contain an atmosphere. So now there are very specialized force fields that bend light extremely precisely as well.

Fine. So I can’t see the thing that has one of these force fields surrounding it. Now all I need is some basic sonar.

But no, you say! No, this field can absorb/reflect sounds and other vibrations as well! It is invisible to primitive sonar, as well as to more advanced “scanners.” Well, why not? I mean, I don’t have any idea how “scanners” work in the first place, so if you’re going to tell me that there is a technology to counter them, I don’t see why I should be skeptical.

However, if we are going to take in stride the principle of technological escalation, then surely there must be some way to counter this cloaking device. It can’t perfectly bend all forms of electromagnetic radiation, vibration, stray particles, etc. There must be something that it can’t hide from, be it real or imaginary or whatever tachyons are.

Okay. Yes, the nature of technological competition is such that if one side in a war develops a cloaking device, the other side is going to bombard that device with whatever types of particles or waves that they can harness until they find something it can’t hide from.

So we’ve inevitably found the right magic particles to use to detect a cloaked object. Let’s call them “Voronov” particles, after the fictional scientist who discovered them. Now we need to equip all our troops with devices that both emit and detect Voronov particles. Let’s call them…V-scanners! Yeah, that sounds good! So now all our soldiers have V-scanners.

But…but that takes away all the fun of cloaking devices! I mean, what’s the point of being invisible if everyone can see you?

Right, but this is fictional technology, no one knows what its limitations are. Maybe…maybe the scanners are too big to mount on a weapon. So now our soldiers can either carry a V-scanner or a gun.

Which is going to seriously effect tactics, right? Now foot soldiers are going to need to work in pairs. Which seems really inefficient: we’re cutting our firepower-to-personnel ratio in half.

Or maybe not…maybe one person with a scanner can direct a large number of soldiers. Four, five, six even? Of course, that would create a problem where if the scanner man dies, the rest of the soldiers are screwed. So that’s not very good either.

But there’s probably an ideal ratio here, right? Maybe…two gunmen to every scanner-man. Yeah, that sounds good. And we’ll call the grouping a Voronov formation, after the scanners. Which is great, because they will probably proceed in a sort of reversed V with the scanner man at the back behind two gunmen, so the name has a double meaning when you shorten it to “V formation.” Yeah, this seems both thematically satisfying and plausible.

Oh, wait, did you think that all this was just an exercise in exploring the ridiculousness of science fiction technology? No, no, this was me describing my thought process in coming up with the way ground combat against the K’ul works.

Sorry, that was misleading, my bad.

BTW, the K’ul have personal cloaking devices. Thought you should know.