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What is the Downside of Invisibility?

Updated on April 8, 2014
H.G. Wells Invisible Man
H.G. Wells Invisible Man | Source

If you could have any super power, what would it be?

Some things never leave you.

To this day, geeks have hypothetical conversations over super powers. I’m convinced that these are also the same conversations that get tossed around the Marvel and DC Comics bullpens. After all, in order to write a convincingly good story, you really need to examine not only the positive aspects of those abilities but also the negative ones and the down sides.

The conversations start with a question and then build to a debate. For example, such a conversation would start like this – “If you could have any super power, what would it be?”

Here’s a good example.

Let's take a character like Marvel’s Rogue (of the X-men). We see she has many positive and negative aspects to her powers. For those of you who don’t know her, Rogue has a unique ability – she absorbs other people’s powers and abilities through touch. She does this when her skin is in contact with someone else’s skin.

In addition to the powers, she also gets the very much unwanted personality and memories of the donor. The powers work in a 1:60 time ratio. If she touches someone for a second, she’ll get their powers for one minute. If she touches the person for a minute, she’ll have his powers for an hour. There is a limit to her power: if she stays in contact with that person too long, the transfer is permanent.

There are also a few downsides to this. The “donors” are unconscious the entire time. If the donor has a particularly strong or aggressive personality, it could threaten to take over her personality completely - until the time is over.

The worst part is she can’t control her powers. If she touches anyone for any reason, the transfer will take place. That means, no touching anyone for any reason. Without some kind of plot device, she'll never know the touch or a kiss from a loved one. That’s got to play hell with the emotions of a young woman.

As much as this sucks for Rogue, from a writer’s standpoint, it's a great story element. Marvel does stuff like this all the time. A character gets spectacular powers, but with each use, it costs him twelve hours life. DC Comics did something similar with the Flash. In order for the Flash to run as far and as fast as he does, he needed to have the caloric reserves within his body as fuel. (This all changed after he started tapping the extra-dimensional speed force for his extra energy.)

But I digress.

What about invisibility? Would you want to be invisible? Yes, I can hear you prepubescent boys in the back row with dreams of breaking into ladies locker rooms. I’m sure that gets old quickly.

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of invisibility.

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells | Source

Defining Invisibility

There used to be a show called Gemini Man starring Ben Murphy as Sam Casey (secret agent). While on a mission, Casey gets exposed to an unknown radiation that made him invisible. The government manages to give him a wrist watch looking device that returns him to visibility and allows him to become invisible for 15 minutes a day. If he goes over the fifteen minutes, he stays invisible forever.

I thought it was a great concept. The show ended after eleven episodes, though.

The show, while interesting to a ten year old, fueled a few basic questions. First of all, how are his clothes invisible? His body is, how are his clothes? Wouldn’t it mean he’d have to be naked anytime he’d use his powers? After all, clothes aren’t part of the human body. It’s different if you’re using a cloak of invisibility that you can drape over your clothes or have a magic ring that would have some kind of field that bends visible light around it - but if it's just your body, you have to think of logisitics.

Biologically speaking, clothes don’t go with the deal. The only character that was successfully able to do this was Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman (Girl), from Marvel Comics. This was done through the use of a costume composed of unstable molecules. These molecules would adjust to the biochemistry of the wearer. If Sue went invisible she didn’t need to worry about stripping.

Oh, and the Invisible Kid from DC's Legion of Superheroes. I can only assume that some kind of 30th century technology helped him use his powers without going around naked. Both Lyle Norg (Invisible Kid I) and Jacques Foccart (Invisible Kid II) could wear their clothes while invisible.

We also have to understand whether this new invisibility power includes the ability to make yourself visible. While it can be pretty cool if you can make yourself invisible at will, you should have the caveat to come back to a state of normalcy. So, we’ll take a look at both circumstances: powers where the person is permanently invisible and then having the ability to undo it when he wants to.

Invisible Man in a cartoon
Invisible Man in a cartoon | Source

Understanding Invisibility

The reason why people are visible is because we are opaque. We absorb light. Theoretically, according to H.G. Wells, classic science fiction author, invisibility is possible if light is bent around an object at the same refractive index as air.

It’s like putting a diamond in ice water. Diamonds are transparent and when they're put in water, the edges disappear because the refractive index is the same as the water.

We see things because when light hits that object, it makes it visible because it absorbs the light. An object becomes visible as part of a light reaction. Light does not pass through us like a window or any kind of transparency. If there were a way for light to bend around us so that our bodies didn’t react to it, we’d be invisible.

The other kind of invisibility is a super-camouflage where a person would look like the surroundings immediately behind him. This is the scenario used in the science fiction movie Predator. A moving hologram of light and image replicators work to make camouflage. The way to make the invisible subject visible is to put an opaque substance on top of the camouflage. That’s why invisibility doesn’t work well in the rain – the water strikes the top of the solid object and the splash of the water makes a “silhouette”.

There’s also the difference between invisibility and camouflage. If a person is truly invisible and light passes through them, they won’t cast a shadow on the ground or a wall. That’s the real difference between being the same color as air and actually having the properties of solid air. Were a person as transparent as glass, the light would shine with no chance of making a shadow.

When people are invisible that does not mean they are intangible. They are still solid objects. So when paint is thrown on an invisible subject the paint is still visible and it will cling to the subject and adopts its shape – like a jelly mold.

All this would fall under the scientific rules and constraints of invisibility. To have true physical invisibility, would require a human being to be naked whenever he became transparent or else you would have a bunch of visible clothes on an invisible body – giving the appearance of a hollow collection of clothes.

When we look at invisibility in the realm of magic, none of these rules apply. For example, let’s take a look at Bilbo and Frodo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. The very fact that they can become invisible with a magic ring may account for the fact that they can have an enchantment “field” that includes all of the wearer’s clothes. Why? Because it’s magic. It works outside the rules of science and logic. If the magic included that the wielder would be intangible as well, then it could. Only the rules of the writer’s imagination would have any kind of governing in how invisibility works.

So, for the purposes of this discussion, we will look at invisibility as a purely scientific and natural attribute.

Invisible Men

Fully clothed, can turn back, works when you want it.
The Invisible Girl (Woman), Lyle Norg (Legion), Jacques Foccart (Legion)
Permanent, fully clothed
Sam Casey (Gemini Man)
Permanent, naked, can't turn back
Mister Griffin (H.G. Wells), Dr. Daniel Westin (The Invisible Man), Chevy Chase (Memoirs of an Invisible Man)

The Ideal Situation

Ideally, the person gifted with invisibility can become visible again at will and somehow is able to do this while keeping his or her clothes on. It would have to be like an on/off switch. There would be no pain or risk in using this power.

The truly invisible would also be undetectable. There would be no shadow. They would also be immune to infrared temperature detection. Sure, it’s nice to not be seen by the naked eye, but realize that while your heart is pumping you still have body heat.

I speak of this ideal scenario because it’s something that would never happen outside the realm of magic.

If you ever got the powers of invisibility, chances are, it would be a permanent condition.

Invisible Man Quiz

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The Most Likely Scenario

I truly believe that one of the constants in this universe is “stupidity”.

We’re all stupid and we fall into stupidity every so often – some more than others. Why? Because all of us are prone to do stupid things. In the twelve to sixteen hours of consciousness that I have each day, I know that I’ll probably do at least six really stupid things in that period. This includes driving while I’m on medication, looking at a text while driving, making a stupid remark on Facebook, and mowing the lawn in the rain. Stupidity is a condition everyone slips into. None of us are immune.

That being said, I think that the first guinea pig that turns himself or gets turned invisible will not be able to change back. This, of course, is a double edged sword. On the one hand, there’s a lot of power in being invisible. On the other hand, there are a lot of lifestyle changes that come with that.

Here are the downsides to invisibility:

  • You’ll be naked – Yeah. Not that you’ll be seen by anyone but as you walk around au naturel, you might find it a trifle cold. It’s easy to be naked in the late spring, summer, and early fall; but you really will hate trying that in the late fall, winter, and early spring. Unless, of course, you do it indoors. Let’s also remember that when you walk around nude you might have to do something about the sound of your bare feet against a linoleum floor. There is that sound of flesh slapping against a smooth flat surface.

    You may also want to keep yourself clean and free of any perfumes, antiperspirants, and body odor. You may not be seen, but you may be smelled. If you have a signature cologne scent, and you're part of a covert operation, nix the scent.

  • Nausea – Think about this one. You’re invisible. The food you eat won’t be. I don’t think there will be anything more disgusting than watching yourself masticate what you eat. Not that everyone eats in front of a mirror, but until the food you eat becomes part of your body, you’ll need to check yourself in a mirror to see that whatever is in your stomach is not visible. This includes what you eat, what you drink, how you digest, and anything that might be working its way through your colon. Until you get used to that, you may have some problems keeping things down. Before going out, you’ll need to make sure you have an empty stomach and you might want to clean “everything” before going out. You will need to be aware of your caloric intake especially if you go out naked on an empty stomach.

    And smoking, too. Breathe in cigarette smoke to your lungs, you'll see the smoke.

  • Forgetting what you look like – That’s not completely true. In the 70’s, prior to Gemini Man, there was a show called The Invisible Man, starring David McCallum. While he was completely invisible, he found a method of making a skin-tight realistic mask that he’d wear whenever he wished to be visible. The logistics gave the actor some screen time. Should that happen to you, you might be able to see yourself if you use some kind of pancake make up on your face. The make-up is visible, even if you aren’t. Shaving wouldn’t be much of a problem; so long as you use shaving cream. If blind people can shave themselves you shouldn’t have any difficulty. Still, there is something to seeing your own face in a mirror – if only to track your own aging.

  • Holding things – The real point of being invisible is to be undetectable. That means even while you’re naked, you can’t hold anything. Otherwise, you’ll get people asking strange questions like, “Why is that apple floating in the air?” or “A cigarette shouldn’t do that. “

  • Vision problems – I don’t know what the statistic is for people who have near sightedness, but I’m sure it’s high. Unless the subject went for Lasik surgery just prior to whatever made him invisible, he won’t be able to wear glasses or contact lenses. Spying on people doesn’t work well If you can’t see them or if you are accompanied by a pair of “floating glasses”.

  • Holes in Water – The real problem with invisibility is that it is not intangibility. An invisible object is still a solid object. Therefore an invisible man in water or any kind of liquid would leave a man sized hole or, if underwater, would show two lung sized bubbles. While a transparent object in transparent water would leave no visible lines under water, a transparent man standing in a body of water, waist deep, would show a “hole in the water” which would appear as empty space all the way down to the bottom of wherever he stood.

  • Watch where you walk – Just as in Die Hard, walking around barefoot has some definite disadvantages. Remember, invisible men don’t wear shoes. I know walking across gravel barefoot is an uncomfortable prospect; just as walking across broken glass. It could be problematic. Even if you find some soft ground to walk on, you now have to worry about footprints. Foot prints in the sand (or worse the snow… brrrr), will certainly give you away.

  • Infrared and heat sensitive tech – Just because people can’t see you doesn’t mean you can’t be detected. I would imagine that if you walk around naked for any amount of time outside, you are likely to catch cold. Should you be running a fever, you will pop up like a light bulb in any area that looks for a heat signature. Yes, you can be detected by infrared and heat equipment. Now, I know what you’re thinking – you’re thinking that no one has that kind of equipment. It is more common and accessible than you think. If people who like to go ghost hunting can get their hands on that kind of tech, you can bet that people who know you’re coming can get it, too.

  • Sleeping with a mask in total darkness – This could be hard to get used to. I’m sure eventually, you’ll be able to pass out from sheer exhaustion. But think about this – when an invisible man closes his eyes, his eye lids are invisible, too. It stands to reason that if an invisible man can’t see his own hand, he won’t be able to see the inside of his eyelids. That means difficulty sleeping. A mask or blindfold might help. However, when you think about it, the reason why blindfolds work well is that the blindfolded person’s face assists in creating an environment of darkness. So, ideally, to fall asleep an invisible man might need to be in the dark and blindfolded to get the bliss of regular sleep.

The Invisible Man on Amazon

Final Words

When you think about it, invisibility isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

At first, the intoxicating yet perverse joy of walking around undetected is pretty cool – provided that there’s a way to turn back. We all like the novelty of doing something extraordinary and then coming back to the ordinary. When we stay too long in the realm of the extraordinary, our minds get used to the idea and then it becomes ordinary again.

Oh sure, screwing around with your friends lives by moving something or making something seemingly float in mid-air has its moments, but when you’ve done it over and over again, it gets old quickly. There’s only so much spying you can do. Unless you’re a psychotic, the appeal of being an invisible assassin takes a bit of mental fortification.

And even if you are a psychotic, what fun is it to kill someone without making your victim terrified by the thought of their own mortality while in your presence.

Those of us who are comic book fans would love to be the next Susan Storm Richards, Lyle Norg, or Jacques Foccart – to be able to become invisible at will, fully clothed, and have the knowledge that you can become visible again just as easily. And who knows? Perhaps, one day in the future we’ll have a suit that will allow you to become fully transparent – no shadows and no strings attached. Unfortunately, that will come after much experimentation and a few trials where a guinea pig will have vanished or died in the early trials.

So, we're more likely to be H.G. Wells' Mister Griffin.

Invisibility will more likely be a curse for those of us who are not mentally prepared for it. After all, most of the science fiction written about it has spoken of the afflicted person going quite mad with power.

In a worst case scenario, getting stuck as an invisible man means a life of make-up, bandages, sunglasses, and a whole host of things that would require a new and possibly less comfortable lifestyle. At best, the invisible man would pretend to be some kind of hospital patient while wrapped up in bandages and wearing gloves. The peace would come in not caring if people can or can’t see him.


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    • cperuzzi profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Peruzzi 

      5 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      Rogue is not unique.

      Many scifi authors address powers and create a price for using them. Marvel and Orson Scott Card are famous for it. The first time I remember seeing power with a price was in "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" when the wizard would create these tiny demon spies from his own life force. The wizard, played by Tom Baker, would age whenever one of them was killed.

      Rogue has tremendous powers at the cost of never being able to touch anyone she loves and having to absorb the memories of the person whose power she steals.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Great job on explaining the perils of invisibility - I used to want this power when I was a kid and even sometimes now for the jokes on friends but i do realize being naked all the time could be a bad thing. Rogue is a great example of dealing with powers.

    • cperuzzi profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Peruzzi 

      6 years ago from Freehold, NJ

      Thanks! This one took a while to write up. Usually I get the entirety of a hub out in one massive vowel movement and spend the next day cleaning and polishing it. This required a little bit of research and some imagination. I also got the chance to stroll down memory lane to check out the old David McCallum (currently with NCIS and formerly with The Man from UNCLE) series of The Invisible Man from 1976.

      So far, the most interesting take I've seen on this has come from Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (read the graphic novel - don't see the movie) for his views on Hawley Griffin (H.G. Wells version of the Invisible Man).

      Thanks for the read.

    • LCDWriter profile image

      L C David 

      6 years ago from Florida

      I pretty much just love this! What a fascinating read. I love your conversational tone and your serious-yet-tinged-with-humor look at what it would be like to be invisible. Voted up and sharing!


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