The Roman “Invisibility” Cloak – A Triumph for Roman Engineering

I guess the title of this post is designed to be a little misleading, because you might be thinking of Klingons and invisible space ships, but let us stop and consider what an “invisibility” cloak actually means. In the case of Klingons, light does not come from somewhere else and be reflected off their ship back to your eyes. One way to do that is to construct metamaterials, which involve creating structures in them to divert waves. The key involves matching wavelengths to structural variation, and it is easier to do this with longer wavelengths, which is why a certain amount of fuss has been made when microwaves have been diverted around objects to get the “invisibility” cloak. As you might gather, there is a general problem with overall invisibility because electromagnetic radiation has a huge range of wavelengths.

Sound is also a wave, and here it is easier to generate “invisibility” because we only generate sound over a reasonably narrow range of wavelengths from most sources. So, time for an experiment. In 2012 Stéphane Brûlé et al. demonstrated the potential by drilling a two-dimensional array of boreholes into topsoil, each 5 m deep. They then placed an accoustic source nearby, and found that much of the waves’ energy was reflected back towards the source by the first two rows of holes. What happens is that, depending on the spacing of the holes, when waves within a certain range of wavelengths pass through the lattice, there are multiple reflections. (Note this is of no value to Klingons, because you have just amplified the return radar signal.)

The reason is that when waves strike a different medium, some are reflected and some are refracted, and reflection tends to be more likely as the angle of incidence increases, and of course, the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. A round hole provides quite chaotic reflections, especially recalling that during refraction there is also a change of angle, and of course a change of medium occurs when the wave strikes the hole, and when it tries to leave the hole. If the holes are spaced properly with respect to the wavelength, there is considerable destructive wave interference. The net result of that is that in Brûlé’s experiment much of the wave energy was reflected back towards the source by the first two rows of holes. It is not necessary to have holes; it is merely necessary to have objects that have different wave impedance, i.e.the waves travel at different speeds through the different media, and the bigger the differences in such speeds, the better the effect. Brûlé apparently played around with holes, etc, and found the best positioning to get maximum reflection.

So, what has this got to do with Roman engineering? Apparently Brûlé went on holiday to Autun in central France, and while being touristy he saw a photograph of the foundations of a Gallo-Roman theatre, and while the image provided barely discernible foundation features, he had a spark of inspiration and postulated that the semi-circular structure bore an uncanny resemblance to half of an invisibility cloak. So he got a copy of the photo and superimposed it on one of his photos and found there was indeed a very close match.

The same thing apparently applied to the Coliseum in Rome, and a number of other amphitheatres. He found that the radii of neighbouring concentric circles (or more generally, ellipses) followed the required pattern very closely.

The relevance? Well, obviously we are not trying to defend against stray noise, but earthquakes are also wave motion. The hypothesis is that the Romans may have arrived at this structure by watching which structures survived in earthquakes and which did not, and then came up with the design most likely to withstand such earthquakes. The ancients did have surprising experience with earthquake design. The great temple at Karnak was built on materials that when sodden, which happened with the annual floods and was sufficient to hold the effect for a year, absorbed/reflected such shaking and acted as “shock absorbers”. The thrilling part of this study is that just maybe we could take advantage of this to design our cities such that they too reflect seismic energy away. And if you think earthquake wave reflection is silly, you should study the damage done in the Christchurch earthquakes. The quake centres were largely to the west, but the waves were reflected off Banks Peninsula, and there was significant wave interference. In places where the interference was constructive the damage was huge, but nearby, where interference was destructive, there was little or no damage. Just maybe we can still learn something from Roman civil engineering.