Invisibility Part I: The stories

Have you ever wanted to be invisible? To be able to see the world without being seen?

For centuries, humans have wanted, have dreamed of being invisible. The power it gives, the freedom it provides is unthinkable. In a lot of different civilisations, invisibility is associated with the Gods and therefore, weaved into stories.

In hinduism, invisibility is often described as a gift available with great men which helps them in wars. One such warrior, Ghatotkacha, who was the son of Bhima (a pandava) and hidimbi (a rakshsi). Ghatotkacha had the ability to fly, increase or decrease his size and become invisible, which allowed him to help the pandavas in the great Mahabharata war against the kauravas.

Ghatotkacha fighting in kurukshetra in the great Mahabharata war. Picture credit:

Hinduism also had weapons, such as sabdavedastra, which prevented someone from becoming invisible.

Greeks on the other hand, popularized the concept of requiring an external object to become invisible. According to the Greek legends, the Uranian cyclops (one eyed creatures) gave Zeus, the king of Gods his lightening bolt, Poseidon, God of seas his trident and Hades, God of death, an invisibility cap. Also known as the Helm of Hades, it is constantly with Hades. In the Greek myths, it was also used by Hermes, the messenger god, to defeat Hippolytus. Athena, Goddess of wisdom, used it during the Trojan war to help her follower Diomedes to defeat Ares, God of war. She gave it to Perseus too, who was the son of Zeus. Once there was a beautiful woman called Medusa, who was raped by Poseidon in the temple of Athena. Athena, in her anger, turned Medusa into a monster with head full of snakes. Whoever gazed in Medusa’s eyes instantly turned into stone. It was to defeat her that Athena gave the cap of Hades to Perseus.

Manannán mac Lir, a sea god in Irish mythology has a similar object called féth fíada which turned him invisible to human eyesight. Alberich in norse mythology is the keeper of many valuable items, including tarnkappe, which is a cloak of invisibility.

However, it wasn’t just the myths that talked about invisibility. In the Thief of Baghdad, Ahmed ( the protaganist) is given a cloak of invisibility.

A cloak of similar kind is also mentioned in two of the Grimm’s fairy tales.

The First one is The twelve dancing princesses. In this, a king has 12 princesses who sleep every night but in the morning, their dancing shoes will be worn out. The king asked them for reason but got no answer. He, then, declared that the person who solves the mystery will be given his daughter and his kingdom. An old soldier, who had received an invisibility cloak from an old woman in the forest, spies on the princesses. He observes them going through a path with first silver trees, then golden trees and finally diamond trees to meet 12 princes. He follows them to a castle, where the princesses dances with the prince. He later tells this to the king, who in return, get him wed to his eldest daughter.

The twelve dancing princesses
Source: wikipedia

The second story is of The king of the golden mountain. A long time ago, a man was returning home, when a black mannikin came and told him that he will make him rich if in 12 years the man will bring him the first thing that rubs his leg today upon returning home. The man agrees, but on returning home, his son rubs his leg. Twelve years later, the man takes his son with heavy heart and gives him to the mannikin. The mannikin puts the boy in a boat and shoves it. The boy is carried to another shore where he meets a snake. This snake is a princess, who will turn back to her original form if the boy allows himself to be beaten for 3 nights. Then boy agrees, and later marries the princess. He then asks to see his parents. The princess gives him a ring to take him to his parents, but warns him not to call her there. But on meeting his parents, the boy calls her. At night, the princess wears the ring and returns to the golden mountain. The boy wanders the forests and finally finds 3 giants fighting over a sword, which will cut anyone’s head, a pair of slippers, which will take them anywhere and a cloak of invisibility. The boy tricks the giants, takes the invisibility cloak, steal the sword and the slippers and returns to his kingdom.

The king of the golden mountain
source: wikipedia

In popular culture, the concept of invisibility is famously discussed by J.R.Tolkien, in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo has a cloak which, when worn, makes him look like a boulder; and by J.K.Rowling, in Harry Potter, where Harry potter has the invisibility cloak he inherited from his father, which is one of the deathly hallows.

These were but a few examples of how the stories of invisibility has developed over time and over various civilizations. No matter how different we are, how different our cultures, our stories always have a binding factor to keep us connected.

The beautiful part of these stories is that it keeps the idea alive. The idea of the impossible. They also form the basis of tomorrow’s science. In the next part of this post, we will see the science behind this, and finally the fiction that was born out of this science.

Until then, take care!

A Stargazer’s Journey — van Tol’s Writing Vortex

This is amazing…

Yosef stared up at the stars every night. He did not know what they were or why they shone whenever the sun’s light went out. It was one of those unanswerable questions like: where does the snow go during the summer? Although ignorant, Yosef loved that he could see the shimmering dots with such […]

via A Stargazer’s Journey — van Tol’s Writing Vortex

Science Fiction

With the advent of science, stories started to fade. It continues to do that every single day. When I was a little girl, I used to wait eagerly for the days when my parents would buy me new books, I used to love flipping through the books, the rustle of the pages, and the smell of a new book…there was nothing comparable to that. Now, just a generation over, children are reading books in their laptops and kindles, I feel like they would miss out on these small stuff, they would not know what it was like to hold a new book, the magic that a book brings into our lives.

The same is with the stories. As we move through time, often science replaces our stories, which makes it harder for the writers in turn. I mean, what could be easier than to write the story of  a handsome prince, an incarnated God who fought and defeated evil by performing miracles like moving mountains and forming a bridge on the ocean using unsinkable stones? What about the one where the God’s son walked on water and turned water into wine? It was a time when people believed.

But now, when we live in a godless era, when most of the things have already been described by science, it becomes a very difficult job for a writer to be able to create the child like wonder from their stories. This brought forth the science fictions or “sci-fi”. Great minds, like H G Wells, Jules Verne and Ursula K Le Guin created stories based on the science that we know. May it be invisibility, time travel or immortality. Science fiction has become our new stories, our way to keep our curious spark alive. There are people who dislike them, there are those who hate them even, but our stories are the ones that built our society, and now that our society is becoming more and more scientific, we need science fiction to advance our society in a better direction.

As it was aptly said once by a very famous sci-fi writer and a Professor of Biochemistry in Boston University-

“Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all”– Isaac Asimov

It is a slow journey, but it is happening. Perhaps one day, very soon, people will look back in time to a simpler time when they used to hold an ebook reader in their hands to read a book. Who knows. But there is another aspect to this. Our society needs to change too. Science is changing, our stories are changing, but our society, on the whole, must change with them for a better tomorrow.

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science fiction gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”– Isaac Asimov


The beginning…

Science and stories, in its most rudimentary stage, are often considered as opposites. Science is hard facts, interspersed with experiments and conclusions, while stories are what comes out of our minds and our hearts, whatever it maybe; it is an art. One is fiction, while other can’t be. However, both are not as different and independent from each other as one might think. Every time I think of science and stories, I think of the following quote-

“Science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle”– Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles.

Stories have been inspired by science, and where would science be if there were no stories. Think about it- A very very long time ago, when mankind was just learning to walk upright, hunt with stones and start fires, an unknown, unnamed little child looked upon the vast sky, saw millions of stars and thought – what are they? He must have stared at them for a long time, trying to figure them out, to understand them, maybe to count them. He must have been a little scared, but also a bit curious perhaps. He must have spread the word, for since then, for time immemorial, people have craned their necks and looked upon the stars.

These stars must have brought forth a lot of ideas, speculations and ultimately, stories, because we have to explain the things over our heads. Stories about stars being wives of the moon, or of their being light from a burning realm came forward among many, many tales that were spun to explain these mysterious but interesting things. This, after a point of time, supported the beginning of religions, for who else could have created us but the gods who placed the stars on the sky, or the gods who slew the giant’s head above us and formed the sky?

Although these stories did not conclusively describe the stars, what they did was to keep alive the spark inside us to finally figure out their mysteries, until we can bear it no more, and one day, a man cursed with unimaginative parents (since they couldn’t think of a name that won’t get their son beaten up in the school playground everyday!), named Galileo Galilei, decided to finally take a long tube with lenses and looked up. This was the day that began the science of astronomy. So now we tell stories about Galileo!

And it all started with that one little unnamed child.

There is an old Indian saying-

The only thing that moves faster than light and air itself is human mind.

What could better define the complexity of our minds than the stories we invent and the truth we discover. This is why, here in this blog, we will talk about science and stories, both separately and together and everything else in-between.

Until next time!