Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Invisible Finite by Robert A. Wait, part 1

It's time to rescue another ancient science fiction story from oblivion.

Today's story is "The Invisible Finite" by Robert A. Wait, which appeared in the May 1929 issue of Amazing Stories and was never reprinted. This was the first published story by Wait, an instructor in chemistry at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. He went on to publish three more stories over the next three years, all in Amazing.

As always, I'll be posting the story in a blog-friendly multipart format. And now, the first installment of

The Invisible Finite
by Robert A. Wait

"You may readily see that as the bicycle wheel speeds up and revolves faster and faster, its spokes, though shiny and bright, tend to disappear. The vision is practically unimpaired by these rapidly moving objects even though they be made of steel. Generally, the impression is that an object moving rapidly becomes more and more difficult to observe or even see as the speed of motion increases."

Professor Moore hesitated, to allow the full significance of his statement to sink into the more or less intelligent group of students in his advanced science problems class.

"To those of you who follow closely, I may point out that this very simple phenomenon may, at some time, take on a vastly more important significance. Obviously, if we can cause the spokes of a common bicycle to completely disappear by moving them rapidly before our eyes, it would be possible to extend this principle to still larger and more complex uses. Whole parts of a machine may be made to disappear or even the threads of a cloth might be made invisible by causing sufficiently rapid motion of the same."

He paused, gazed over his spectacles at the more interested students and, as was his habit, smiled in a rather uncertain way as though half expectant that at least the best students would get the full significance of his remarks. This time he was not disappointed, for the attention of the entire class was focused upon the problem being placed before them. To even the least imaginative, the idea of causing a piece of cloth or perhaps a whole automobile to completely disappear was interesting and smacked of Aladdin at his best.

"One more thought to carry away with you, gentlemen," continued the gentle old man, thoroughly pleased by now that his lecture had so caught the fancy of his class, "If you will observe, not only does the rapid revolution of the wheel cause the spokes to become entirely invisible, depending a great deal upon the speed of revolution for total elimination of any noticeable flickerings of each spoke, but also, and most important, objects through and beyond the wheel become clear, distinct, and in fact, appear in detail and clarity exactly as though there were no revolving wheel and spokes between the eye and the object. Generally, of course, to make an object invisible would leave a sort of blank space in the surrounding landscape, inasmuch as the object would still be matter which would not pass light rays striking it from behind. I admit this is a rather fantastic idea and seems rather improbable of realization in practical fields, yet I repeat, young men, this phenomenon, coupled with certain discoveries in the field of the smaller divisions of matter as we know it, leads some of us to hope and suspect the presence of some means used by nature to cause certain of the more rapidly moving particles of matter to completely disappear, thus allowing us to 'see through' them, ofttimes with no consciousness of their presence."

The class bell rang and the students stirred uneasily, humanly desiring the satisfaction of their lunches. The professor sighed, sorry that the period was at an end, for he was deeply interested in his problem, and hoped to interest others to the same extent. Calling his two graduate students to him, he asked them to aid him that afternoon in laboratory work which seemed to be confirming his theories on light, its reflection and interference effects.

* * *

"You will remember that during the World War in 1917 or thereabouts many attempts were made by the government, and by private parties, too, to make a cover on the lower side of airplane wings with such a perfect surface that they could obtain a perfect reflection. That is to say, no lines or shadows showing, there could be no distinction made by the eye between the plane or wing and the surrounding objects or sky."

The professor was speaking to his two graduate students the afternoon following his lecture on the bicycle wheel. They had before them several sets of apparatus that appeared to be most complicated. On one side of the experimental room was a completely fitted laboratory for working with chemicals and the compounds that interested these students of nature in her physical and chemical fields. While speaking to the young men, one a tall young Irishman, Jerry Murphy, the other a dark young Brazilian of exceptional mental ability, Carlos Manoras by name, the grey haired scientist rubbed a piece of shiny metal vigorously. The metal seemed to be an alloy, dark blue to purple in color, very tough, hard, and rolled into unbelievably thin sheets. One after another the sheets were handled by a member of the trio. The process seemed to be one in which the razor-edge sheets were given a coating of an oily liquid and then rubbed clean and dry with especially fine silk cloth.

"Needless to say," the deep-voiced young South American took up the thread of thought where the professor had dropped it in adding an especially fine film of the polishing material to his sheet of the beautiful purple metal, "no such a surface was ever developed. If the attempt to get perfect reflection had succeeded, the results would have been very disappointing, for the airplane must at times pass through or below clouds, and even with a perfect reflection, the outlines of the plane would be visible, for the rough surface of a cloud or a landscape would cause the smooth edges of the plane to stand out as though they were painted a brilliant color. The whole plane would present a sort of blank space, as you mentioned this morning."

"Of course, the idea sounds good at first and is, in a sense," rejoined young Murphy, removing his collegiate briar from his mouth long enough to propound a thought. "The big difficulty would be that, from above, the plane would be perfectly visible not only because of reflection but because of the obstruction of the light rays striking the bottom of the 'invisible' plane. It would be a dumb pilot who wouldn't recognize the outlines of a plane below him, since, of course, the landscape below would be cut off from observation by the material part of the wings and fusilage. Matter moving at such a slow rate would not be at all permeable to light rays."

"You are both right," Dr. Moore continued. "While it is, or we'd better say, probably is, possible to create matter in such a fine state of division that the particles are invisible to the naked eye and hence the whole material becomes invisible, or a perfect reflector, since there are no longer any irregularities to be seen, yet we cannot by this means alone cause the existence to become absolutely unrecognizable to the eye, since even such matter would not pass the light rays striking its back."

They piled the sheets up in a well-ordered stack, and the professor clamped them securely together. The whole they covered with a box or sort of cover constructed of pure fused quartz, so well fused and treated that it was practically clear of all flaws or blemishes. Jerry straightened up, cast about with his laughing blue eyes, and finally went over to where a rather large machine stood mounted on a set of wheels, much like the carriage of a movable X-ray apparatus. The machine itself resembled a violet ray machine with a large bulb of cherry-red clear glass superimposed upon its top. This bulb seemed to have five electric connections shaped much like the anode reflector in an X-ray machine. In fact, the five-fingered affair looked as though it might be a freak Roentgen ray generator, the excess anodes giving higher power, perhaps. The blunt ends of the anti-cathodes were exceptionally peculiar in this large tube -- there seemed to be no end! There was no hole, or was there a visible surface. That the anode rod was solid could be proved by feeling the end, but all attempts to see any surface resulted in a sort of confusing impression of void space.

"I see you have treated the ends of these anodes, doctor," observed Manoras, examining the machine that Murphy was trundling toward the covered pile of glistening metal sheets. They appear not to be, yet I am conscious of a visual impression of some sort of matter. The impression is extremely vague and uncertain."

"That," said the doctor, smiling shyly at the two students, "that is my very latest attempt at a perfect precipitation of colloidal platinum in the sub-microscopic sized particles. You can't see very much because the light is reflected by the tiny particles in so many millions of ways that nothing but a vague impression of grey existence gets to your retina. As a matter of fact, most of these particles are of dimensions smaller than the wavelength of ordinary visible light, and so it takes a small group of them to reflect even one wave of light. Naturally, they diffuse it greatly since the colloidal nature of the material makes the deposit far from even or solid in surface nature. You will remember that molecules are invisible to the eye, even aided by the microscopes of highest power. Were we to start grinding a material from small chunks down to fine particles, even though we trace the pieces through a microscope, we will sometime have reached, were it possible to grind that fine, the molecular sized particles. Now, limiting ourselves to to a single molecule, we would have ground a material from quite visible lumps clear down through the colloidal sized aggregations, and finally we would have ground it into invisibility. Truly, that would be most odd, yet it is theoretically possible, as you can see."

"Frankly, professor, what are you trying to do with this work we are helping you to complete?"

(continue to part 2)

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