It sounds like science fiction, but the possibility of protecting buildings and other structures from damaging earthquakes via "invisibility cloaks" could be very real. The idea is to surround the structure with a series of rubber cylinders that act as a barrier or cloak against seismic waves.
In a paper published last week, a team from the University of Manchester's School of Mathematics suggested specially treated rubber cylinders of synthetic metamateral, could be placed in the ground surrounding critical structures. This material would absorb and convert the seismic waves into different kinds of waves that would then dissipate quickly before crippling a building.
The cloaking effect is similar to the techniques used to make objects invisible by scattering the waves of light around them. In practice, the building isn't exactly invisible, but is protected by the barrier that absorbs the seismic waves and converts them into sound and heat energy.
According to a statement, professor William Parnell noted, "Five or six years ago scientists started with light waves, and in the last few years we have started to consider other wave-types, most importantly perhaps sound and elastic waves. The real problem with the latter is that it is normally impossible to use naturally available materials as cloaks We showed theoretically that pre-stressing a naturally available material — rubber — leads to a cloaking effect from a specific type of elastic wave."
Fortunately rubber is fairly readily available, though it doesn't appear that entire cities or towns could be protected by a giant cloak. At least not yet. The team suggests that the technology would be best used for isolated or strategically important buildings — it's not clear whether this is because it is not cost effective or whether the technology isn't as successful on a large scale.
Should the theory be put into practice knowing that critical buildings such as dams, or nuclear and power plants could be protected should give people a marginal sigh of relief.
With these kinds of structures, a miss is as good as a mile.