Our theme for the month of February is “color.”

When I was little, I learned about the five senses, and I learned that sight came from my eyes. When I closed my eyes, I could no longer see anything, and when I opened them, whatever I directed them towards became a part of my vision.

Within the past decade, scientists have begun to tease apart what our eyes see and what our brain “sees,” and they’ve realized that the brain is involved more intimately and earlier in the process than we used to think was necessary. The visual cortex begins to interpret images and even change them before it even processes fully what they are, meaning that we often see things that aren’t actually there. 

Optical illusions are the clearest example of this: some people see the duck first, and some the rabbit, and it’s not because either person needs a new glasses prescription. But we might even see figures or scenes playing out in tree branches in winter, or clouds might look like things that are decidedly not clouds. 

So when Surrey NanoSystems patented Vantablack, the darkest known substance in the world, which absorbs up to 99.96 percent of visible light, the eyes that observed it and the brains that interpreted it turned it into things it was not. Wrinkled foil became smooth. A BMW became two-dimensional. Where once there had been substance, there was now the absence of anything. It was darker, to the human mind, than the void of space.

Vantablack gets its name from the description of its composition, or “vertically aligned nanotube array,” along with what the human senses have decided it is—or black. It is not technically a color, but a material. Specifically, it is a forest of nanotubes that is grown via a chemical vapor deposition process. I like to imagine this is like the magic growing crystals I could buy at the Discovery store twenty years ago (when I was nine years old). My cursory research suggests it’s nothing like that, but that can’t stop my dream. I want Vantablack to start from visibly nothing and ooze, as if in sped-up stop-motion, into visibly: nothing. 

It reminds me of the way magic is often described in books and television shows that have reason to describe it. Someone starts with raw potential, the ability to generate something without the ability or desire to control it, and it quickly gets away from them and inevitably causes some minor disaster. Think Mickey Mouse and the magic mops, or Aang’s first attempts at firebending. Someone does the notorious thing of asking if they could instead of whether they should.

Like when Surrey NanoSystems licensed Vantablack S-VIS, a sprayable paint that has the eerie visible-light-absorbing qualities of Vantablack, to the studio of a single artist, Anish Kapoor. This controversial partnership launched a hilariously serious internet war between Kapoor and Stuart Semple, which peaked when Kapoor posted a picture of Instagram of his middle finger dipped in Semple’s signature “Pinkest Pink.” 

Vantablack, like deli meat and sanitary napkins, started in government R&D and moved into commercial spheres because human brains saw something that wasn’t already there. Artists and enthusiasts were captivated by the nothingness that stared back at them: while the product has established, quantifiable uses, especially in astronomy and aerospace engineering, it quickly found a niche in a world it wasn’t designed for. It has captured the imagination in its impossible emptiness, prompted fights over its exclusivity, and caused us all to consider again the way our senses both serve and deceive us. In subtle ways, Vantablack seems to have proven Nietzsche’s supposition: if you look long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

3 Comments

  1. Geneva Langeland

    The only void darker than Vantablack: a black cat snoozing on a navy rug in a dark room. Impossible to detect. Guaranteed to be stepped on.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Informative, interesting, and thought-provoking— impressive (as always)!

    Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    Ah yes, the “darker than black” days. Love everything about this post: vantablack, vantablack magic, magic, the controversy (so funny). Good stuff.

    Reply

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