Every Reflection A Leak

[Image: “Two images of the same room, one reconstructed from video footage of a bag of chips within the room (top) and the other photographed directly (bottom),” as described by Scientific American. Images courtesy Jeong Joon Park.]

“Researchers have now found that by filming a brief video clip of a shiny item, they can use the light flashing off it to construct a rough picture of the room around it,” Scientific American reports. “The results are surprisingly accurate, whether the reflections come from a bowl, a cylinder or a crinkly bag of potato chips.”

It comes down to mathematically modeling “what a known object will look like—how light will reflect off it—when it is placed in new surroundings,” such that you can then reconstruct the proper orientation of what it reflects.

There’s a lot more in the original article, but what immediately struck me about this was how this technology could be used for crime or espionage, both.

You send an unsuspecting group of school kids into a target building, carrying highly reflective silver balloons, or you wear a slyly reflective and precisely designed item of clothing into a business meeting: in both cases, a photographer on a roof across the street or hidden in a park nearby snaps away through a telephoto lens. The reflections spilling off in all directions are like a 360º spherical photograph of the building interior—the art on the walls, the position of furniture. The location of a safe.

Think of the Japanese pop star who was tracked by a stalker after he deduced her location by analyzing the reflection in her eye in a selfie. Every mirrored surface becomes a security leak—“Las Meninas” as burglary tool.

[Image: “Las Meninas” (1656) by Diego Velázquez; if my reference to this painting makes absolutely no sense in the present context, it’s because I’m being pretentious and indirectly referring to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, where he discusses the painting’s use of internal reflection.]

Of course, you may also recall that sounds can be reconstructed from the vibrations of distant objects: “Researchers at MIT, Microsoft, and Adobe have developed an algorithm that can reconstruct an audio signal by analyzing minute vibrations of objects depicted in video. In one set of experiments, they were able to recover intelligible speech from the vibrations of a potato-chip bag photographed from 15 feet away through soundproof glass… In other experiments, they extracted useful audio signals from videos of aluminum foil, the surface of a glass of water, and even the leaves of a potted plant.”

It’s worth noting here how potato chip bags pop up in each example. Ocean’s 14 will open with a surreptitious potato chip delivery…

In any case, political dissidents, high-value corporate CEOs, and adversarial diplomatic attachés will never be safe again. Just a brief reflection from a cigarette lighter or a piece of silverware, just a tiny ripple of sound across the leaves of an exotic orchid in the center of a dinner table, and someone across the city with a telescope has your bank passcode, the location of your home safe, and a complete 3D map of your building interior, even down to where your security guards are sitting.

[This is only somewhat related, but recall that an engineer at Carnegie Mellon has developed “a long-range iris scanner that can identify someone as they glance at their rear-view mirror” in a moving vehicle, Rob Meyer reported for The Atlantic back in 2015.]

“Each dive feels like floating into a science fiction film”

[Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute, via ScienceDaily].

It’s hard to resist a headline claiming that “otherworldly mirror pools and mesmerizing landscapes” have been “discovered on [the] ocean floor.” Otherworldly mirror pools, like some sort of magic cauldron at the bottom of the sea.

But it’s equally hard to parse what exactly this article is stating. It would appear that unusual geological structures found 2,000 meters below the surface of the Gulf of California have had the superficial effect of resembling mirror images of the rocks below them:

While exploring hydrothermal vent and cold seep environments, Dr. Mandy Joye (University of Georgia), and her interdisciplinary research team discovered large venting mineral towers that reach up to 23 meters in height and 10 meters across. These towers featured numerous volcanic flanges that create the illusion of looking at a mirror when observing the superheated (366ºC) hydrothermal fluids beneath them.

In other words, this sounds more like a useful analogy: the rocks up here look like the rocks down there. It’s as if we’re looking into a mirror.

But what I wish this meant—and perhaps it does, but I’m simply misreading the article—is that bizarre thermal effects, combined with unusually high dissolved-metal content in the water, has created a series of mirror planes, or literally reflective, high-density water tables in the deep ocean that visually duplicate anything above or below them.

Because, if so, imagine the possibilities for turning these into lenses, like some wild, far-future, deep-sea water telescope in which light is bounced back and forth amongst dissolved-metal mirrors hovering in the water table. You could concentrate and focus light in the deep ocean, using naturally occurring, highly-mineralized thermal boundaries, perhaps suggesting a new type of visual-communication network in the sea. Future Navy signaling tech, using nothing but water.

Anyway, whatever the case may be, the poetry of this is incredible. Silvered planes in the ocean forming other-worldly, black labyrinths suddenly illuminated by the lights of a passing submarine.

A Natural History of Mirrors

In his book Crystallography, poet Christian Bök describes “a medieval treatise on the use of mirrors.” This treatise, Bök tells us, suggests that when two mirrors reflect one other, the endless abyss of mirrors-in-mirrors created between them might form a kind of spectral architecture.


Further, Bök’s alleged medieval treatise says, “any living person who has no soul can actually step into either one of the mirrors as if it were an open door and thus walk down the illusory corridor that appears to recede forever into the depths of the glass by virtue of one mirror reflecting itself in the other. The walls of such a corridor are said to be made from invulnerable panes of crystal, beyond which lies a nullified dimension of such complexity that to view it is surely to go insane. The book also explains at length that, after an eternity of walking down such a corridor, a person eventually exits from the looking-glass opposite to the one first entered.”

Treatise’s author, according to Bök, “speculates that a soulless man might carry another pair of mirrors into such a corridor, thereby producing a hallway at right angles to the first one, and of course this procedure might be performed again and again in any of the corridors until an endless labyrinth of glass has been erected inside the first pair of mirrors, each mirror opening onto an extensive grid of crisscrossing hallways, some of which never intersect, despite their lengths being both infinite and perpendicular.”

The author of this hypothetical treatise warns, however, that one could become “hopelessly lost while exploring such a maze” – for instance, “if the initial pair of mirrors are disturbed so that they no longer reflect each other, thus suddenly obliterating the fragile foundation upon which the entire maze rests.”

In which case whole crystal cities of mirrored halls, in right-angled topologies of non-self-intersecting self-intersection, would simply disappear – along with anyone exploring inside them.


A kind of rogue experiment might ensue, aboard the International Space Station: an astronaut, crazed with loneliness, sets up two mirrors… and promptly escapes into a hinged labyrinth of crystallized earth-orbiters, his radio crackling unanswered in the control panel left behind.