Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

Language: English

Pages: 336

ISBN: 022623889X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

If offered the chance—by cloak, spell, or superpower—to be invisible, who wouldn’t want to give it a try? We are drawn to the idea of stealthy voyeurism and the ability to conceal our own acts, but as desirable as it may seem, invisibility is also dangerous. It is not just an optical phenomenon, but a condition full of ethical questions. As esteemed science writer Philip Ball reveals in this book, the story of invisibility is not so much a matter of how it might be achieved but of why we want it and what we would do with it.

In this lively look at a timeless idea, Ball provides the first comprehensive history of our fascination with the unseen. This sweeping narrative moves from medieval spell books to the latest nanotechnology, from fairy tales to telecommunications, from camouflage to ghosts to the dawn of nuclear physics and the discovery of dark energy.  Along the way, Invisible tells little-known stories about medieval priests who blamed their misdeeds on spirits; the Cock Lane ghost, which intrigued both Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens; the attempts by Victorian scientist William Crookes to detect forces using tiny windmills; novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s belief that he was unseen when in his dressing gown; and military efforts to enlist magicians to hide tanks and ships during WWII.  Bringing in such voices as Plato and Shakespeare, Ball provides not only a scientific history but a cultural one—showing how our simultaneous desire for and suspicion of the invisible has fueled invention and the imagination for centuries.

In this unusual and clever book, Ball shows that our fantasies about being unseen—and seeing the unseen—reveal surprising truths about who we are.

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physics’, in Wissenschaft und Öffentlichkeit in Berlin, 1870–1930, ed. C. Goschler. Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart. R. Hessler (1912). Dusty Air and Ill Health. Printed privately. P. Holt (1992). ‘H. G. Wells and the Ring of Gyges’, Science Fiction Studies 19(2), 236–247. Available at R. Hooke (1665/2007). Micrographia. BiblioBazaar, Charleston, SC. A. A. Hopkins (1898/1976). Magic: Stage Illusions, Special Effects and Trick Photography.

Spiritualism, was also much taken by Cook. During a séance she would retire from the room into a curtained alcove (‘cabinet’) and fall into a trance, and in her place appeared a spirit called Katie King. King would not, needless to say, look exactly like Cook – she was allegedly taller, with different coloured hair and skin – but she seemed strangely substantial for a phantom. On some occasions Crookes walked arm in arm with her around the room and ‘asked her permission to clasp her in my arms’ –

the atomic nucleus than filled the spaces outside it. Some scientists suspected that our visible world was a phantom, an illusion (‘albeit a very persistent one’, as Einstein is said to have put it) created by the sensations that invisible force-fields activated. What looked like solid particles might be simply knots in the ether. The dazzling dance of light inside Geissler discharge tubes prompted scientists to wonder if matter might be nothing more than a ghostly manifestation of this

show or being threatened with physical or verbal assault. In history and myth, there is much ambiguity about where ‘keeping a low profile’ merges with magical powers of concealment – not least, in the idea that Jesus could make himself disappear. This notion stems from a passage in the Gospel of John describing how Jesus was threatened by the Pharisees (8:59): Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so

pigs. He was assisted in this highly dangerous research by Emile Roux, who helped Pasteur to develop a vaccine from forms of the microbe weakened by heating. From the 1880s, advances in the laboratory culturing of microorganisms by Koch, Pasteur and others led to the identification of the microbes responsible for many important diseases. In the early part of that decade Koch identified the bacteria that cause tuberculosis and cholera, while Pasteur found the invisible culprit for rabies and

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