Tech journalists and military dreamers have talked about real-life invisibility cloaks for a while, and with good reason. With their specialized structures, so-called “metamaterials” can bend light around objects, making ‘em disappear. Metamaterials warp things like infrared light or terahertz waves, neither of which we can see in the first place. In other words, we could still make out the “invisible” object with our own two eyes. Or at least, that used to be the case. Physicists at the University of St. Andrews appear to have made a breakthrough, however. They’ve created a metamaterial that really does work in the “optical range,” the scientists note in the New Journal of Physics. Not only did Andrea Di Falco and his research partners put together a metamaterial that could bend visible light. They built it in a way that could lead to larger-scale manufacturing — and real-world applications. Not just cloaks, but lenses made out of metamaterials that can zoom to the micron level, making it possible to spot germs, chemical agents and even DNA, using basically a pair of binoculars. “It clearly isn’t an invisibility cloak yet — but it’s the right step toward that,” Ortwin Hess, a physicist at Imperial College London, tells the BBC. “A huge step forward in very many ways.” Typically, metamaterials are built on top of rigid, brittle substrates like silicon. But that limits their size, and the wavelengths at which they work. Di Falco’s group instead made materials out of a superthin layer of flexible polymer, since “a ‘real’ cloaking device would have to be deformable and extend over a large area,” they write. If Di Falco and his partners can stack enough of these materials together — and show they can work while folded.
The world awoke to some very encouraging news out of China this morning. The country may scrap a 30-year-old policy that has resulted in millions of orphans. The Chinese government leaked a report on the country’s one-child policy that it commissioned from a high profile Chinese think tank called the China Development Research Foundation. The report’s conclusion: China’s one-child policy should be abandoned immediately in favor of a two-child policy to be instituted until 2020 when all birth restrictions should be lifted. This news is sending shock waves through the international community at large and most especially the adoption community. If the Chinese government adopts the report’s recommendations, the number of orphaned children—particularly girls, who make up the bulk of abandoned babies – will likely plummet in coming years. The one-child policy has been in place since Deng Xiaoping passed the legislation in 1979. The actual policy sets forth rules a bit more complicated than simply one family, one child. Some parents, like married only children and rural parents whose first born are girls, are permitted two children. But, of course, these are the exceptions. For the vast majority of Chinese, the one-child per family rule holds. The policy was designed to control an exploding population in the world’s most populous country and lift millions out of poverty. And by those measures the policy has been effective. It is estimated that in the years since passing the policy China has succeeded in reducing its population anywhere between 100 to 400 million people. But at what cost? Today, more than 30 years after the policy took effect, there’s a gaping gender imbalance, as parents have preferred boys to girls. Additionally, China’s workforce is aging and with fewer younger workers to support the retiring Baby Boomers, resources are straining. China has also earned the ire of the international community because its orphanages are overflowing with unwanted first girls. With China’s middle class developing, its economy more stable and the negative side effects of the one child policy in full blossom, there is abundant pressure on the government to make bold changes. The leaking of this early version of think tank’s report is a signal that the central government may be ready to do just that. Some sources believe that the changes may be imminent as outgoing President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are on a campaign to burnish their images. While it’s certainly welcome news that China may be at the brink giving greater freedoms to its citizens, there remains some doubt as to how big of an effect a change in policy will have on actual families. It is expensive to raise children and for many in China’s emerging middle class the idea of creating larger families holds limited appeal. Also, there remains a risk for China as a whole. Even a slight uptick in population could put enormous pressure on the country’s health, infrastructure and educational resources. Time will tell whether China will overturn the one child policy or simply modify it. What is certain is that either would be a move in the right direction both in terms of human rights and in reducing the number of orphaned children.