Rethinking the Invisible: Philip Ball’s Historical Account

By Andrew Benedict-NelsonMay 21, 2015

Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen by Philip Ball

SCIENCE DEPENDS on cultural beliefs. Whether it’s an earthy commitment to empiricism or an ethereal sense of wonder about the stars, we commit ourselves to certain notions long before we peer into the microscope or fund the supercollider. And those beliefs are not simple, stable things — just look at the complex misgivings that even the most ardent supporters of science have about technological outcomes like genetic engineering or the atom bomb.

But when we look at the history of the beliefs that support science, there’s a tendency to take a triumphalist tone. That’s easiest to see in television shows like the newly re-launched Cosmos, with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. For all its virtues (including its insistence on grappling with the world’s complexity), the show literally portrays the past as a series of cartoons, where scions of science pursue their inquiries against the forces of superstition and darkness.

This is okay for kids, perhaps, but a scholarly approach to history demands a more subtle approach. Yet even when every nuance is labeled and footnoted, it’s hard not to project the beliefs of today back into the past.

Take the subject of one of Philip Ball’s recent books, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. Ball describes the early modern shift from a traditional, religious conception of curiosity as the blight that got us kicked out of Eden, to a more modern notion of curiosity as the “power cell” of scientific inquiry. He expands on that story to explore the complicated role curiosity plays in science today. The implication is that we don’t simply inherit and apply the beliefs of the past any more than we perform lab work by candle light in the powdered wigs and breeches of natural philosophers. That’s just not how culture works.

Still, it’s easy to read Curiosity as a book that is more or less “about” the Scientific Revolution and the way it changed society’s beliefs. Good for us, we’re inclined to think, for getting rid of those nasty old beliefs — not acknowledging that there are plenty that probably constrain scientific inquiry today. The story of scientific curiosity versus blinkered superstition fits our self-image a bit too well.

Not so with the subject of Ball’s new title, Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. In this book, Ball addresses the relationship between scientific inquiry and our beliefs about the world beyond our senses. It’s a much less conventional subject than curiosity. At first blush one may wonder if it is even possible to write a book about it — so much is unseen. Where and when does one begin? How does one address a subject that, by definition, resists description?

Ball employs a variety of literary, philosophical, and scientific resources to address these questions, some more effectively than others. Yet there is no doubt that this daring choice of subject serves as an excellent reminder that the relationship between science and culture is more like a quirky quantum froth than a stately Newtonian procession.

The organization of Invisible is roughly chronological, delving into episodes from the ancient world to modern times. But as I read, it seemed to me that Ball used three key ideas to address the relationship between science and the unseen: the invisible man, the invisible world, and the invisible future.

The title, cover image, and opening chapters of the book all refer to the first concept, the invisible man — the idea of invisibility as a supernatural ability (think Harry Potter’s cloak or Wonder Woman’s plane). This may seem like an idiosyncratic way into the subject, but it works. After all, Ball reminds us, human beings contemplated the power of invisibility for millennia before they learned to use science to make the unseen seen. Cultures across the world have told stories about people and creatures endowed with the power of invisibility, from pixies and demons to tricksters and kings.

The nature of invisibility in these stories is often unclear. Sometimes it is strictly optic — an ability to become transparent or blend in with one’s surroundings. Other times it is psychological — a glamour, charm, or bedazzlement that prevents the enchanted person from being accurately perceived or remembered. In any case, invisibility is rarely used for purely noble ends, but rather to achieve sexual or economic advantage, or to exact revenge. It may even be associated with elemental evil, as in Lord of the Rings. Plato speculated that a person endowed with such power would soon find himself beyond the moral law entirely.

This note of caution occurs again and again in Ball’s narrative, sometimes as a kind of ethical leitmotif, other times as a more binding cultural or psychological framework. He suggests that any invocation of the invisible, whether in science or science fiction, draws upon these subconscious themes. Even if the effects of invisibility are achieved through technology rather than magic, he argues, “traditional reactions to invisibility can help us comprehend and negotiate the cultural changes that ensue.” When science manipulates the unseen, he seems to say, it also inevitably manipulates our beliefs about the unseen realm and how we interact with it.

Such an anthropological take on invisibility is even more important in the context of the second trope Ball uses: the invisible world. As with the invisible man, the invisible world was once the province of mystics and magicians. But as Ball demonstrates, the ways in which science and magic comprehend the world are not so different.

For example, after explaining the ways in which invisibility was regarded in various cultures’ mythologies, Ball recounts how real historical figures are alleged to have achieved invisibility. The oldest methods were magic spells involving anything from biblical verses to buried black cats. At first these seem outlandish, and Ball explains that even their authors may not have taken them seriously.

When one deconstructs the principles behind this magic, however, one finds an epistemology not unlike that of the scientist seeking unexpected patterns to explain the unseen world. For example, Neoplatonic thinkers viewed all phenomena as terrestrial manifestations of everlasting, ideal forms. The affinities between these forms were legitimate subjects of philosophical inquiry. For some, they were also what allowed magic to happen. That’s really not so different from the scientist who makes predictions based on the insight that the stars are made of the same stuff as the earth. Channeling Renaissance defenders of “natural magic” (a school that insisted magical effects were simply the result of processes too obscure to be understood), Ball writes: “Mastery of the occult framework of natural magic was nothing more than a question of acquiring a deep understanding of nature: the objective today claimed by science.”

This kinship between science and magic has never completely disappeared. Stage magicians, for instance, have long contributed to and borrowed from the science of optics. In the Victorian era, even as new industrial technologies re-ordered the world, interest in spiritualism and psychic phenomena grew among scientists and laymen alike. Both Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi speculated that their inventions might allow contact with the dead. In the popular mind, the scientist was still closely associated with the magus. In April 1896, for example, Pearson’s Weekly called Wilhelm Röntgen, discoverer of X-rays, “A Wizard of To-Day.” The rays, they wrote, were “the last new mystery that human genius has summoned across the border between the known and the unknown.” The next year, Ball notes, the same magazine serialized H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. Science and science fiction, the known and unknown, were all objects in orbit around the anthropological category of the invisible.

All of these convergences between science and magic have already been explored by historians (to whom Ball gives credit). But by layering them one on top of another in a single, entertaining narrative, Ball makes a compelling case that the metaphors and beliefs scientists use to conceptualize the unseen play a significant role in how we perceive them. It matters that the disease agents uncovered by scientists like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch were portrayed as invisible monsters — “the new demons and ghosts, sanctioned by science,” as Ball puts it. It matters that particles too small to be seen were envisioned as cogs in a machine that could be manipulated by those who understood it. And it matters that these metaphors can be analyzed and debated on cultural terms.

For instance, Ball cites a critique penned by French physicist-philosopher Pierre Duhem in a review of a book on electricity in 1889. To Duhem, the metaphors the author used to explain the unseen world were far too mechanical:

In it there are nothing but strings which move around pulleys, which roll around drums, which go through pearl beads, which carry weights; and tubes which pump water while others swell and contract; toothed wheels which are geared to one another and engage hooks. We thought we were entering the tranquil and neatly ordered abode of reason, but we find ourselves in a factory.

An invisible factory, Ball points out.

In some of the most effective and original stories from the book, Ball shows that scientists’ beliefs about the unseen can have a demonstrable effect on the actual content of their science, too. For instance, any number of 19th-century scientists grappled with the nature of the “ether,” the imagined medium through which light and other waves were thought to travel. It was a subject that one could not invoke without treading into theological or cosmological territory.

Many other subjects of scientific inquiry floated back and forth across the line between the factual and the fantastical. A fair number of 19th-century scientists were also members of the Society for Psychical Research, including psychologist William James and physicist J. J. Thomson. The chemist and physicist William Crookes was also among them; Ball relates in detail how one of Crookes’s key inventions, the radiometer, grew out of his interests in psychic phenomena. Persuaded that some psychics were legitimate, he sought to devise instruments that would measure the subtle energies they exerted during séances. His “light mills” would in fact prove to be important artifacts in the debate over the interactions of light, heat, and gas.

More traditional religious beliefs were also a part of the mix. The physicist James Clerk Maxwell was an evangelical Presbyterian. He fretted over the theological implications of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of the universe will increase over time. He wondered if a “heat death” of the universe might ultimately be avoided if entities or creatures were to sort individual hot and cold molecules, thus holding off entropy. His colleague William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) wrote a paper exploring the plausibility of the idea, nicknaming the creatures “demons.” This irked Maxwell’s biblical sensibilities; he wrote that he wished Thomson would “call him no more a demon but a valve.” Meanwhile, Crookes pondered whether such valves might explain the properties of elements like uranium.

To today’s reader, this may all sound like superstition. But Ball defends the use of imagination and metaphor as an essential part of science’s investigation of the invisible:

Maxwell’s subvisible demon shows how the projection of imagination into unseen realms still played a vital role in science. It’s tempting to conclude that invoking invisible agencies like this amounts to no more than a disguise for ignorance. But Maxwell’s thought experiment reveals how the impulse might serve precisely the opposite purpose: it clarifies and signposts where our ignorance resides, while at the same time bridging it, allowing science to press on despite inevitable gaps in knowledge. Invisible forces, agents and worlds in science show us what is missing, and what therefore needs to be added in order to close loopholes and broaden the reach of theories.

Ball suggests that this kind of imaginary science continues today, citing hypothetical constructs like the multiverse and string theory. But he also suggests our relationship to the invisible world is changing. As Ball’s focus progresses into the present day, he introduces a new theme: the invisible future. In previous generations, beliefs about the unseen (whether generated by science or culture) referred to the natural world, leading people to draw inferences about Nature or God. But Ball argues that technological advances are creating a new world where much of the unseen will be governed by human activity and will need to be interpreted in terms of human intention.

We’ve already been given hints of what this world will be like, Ball argues, in the bleeps and bloops of the devices that surround us, activated by invisible signals and fields. All these things are unseen, yet made by people, not God. This feeling of being caught in an invisible, man-made network will only be deepened by new techniques for achieving invisibility (metamaterials that can bend light backward, displays that mimic whatever is behind them) to invisible machines that reshape the world around us (from ubiquitous communications networks to self-organizing nanobots that rival Maxwell’s “demons”).

We’re accustomed to the idea that science has made the invisible world less magical: that it has banished both the fairies and the gods. Theodor Adorno called it the “disenchantment of nature.” Like curiosity, it’s a theme that has been well explored in the history of science. But Ball’s assertion that we are on the cusp of a technological re-enchantment re-frames the whole idea, making it seem more like an epochal choice than the inexorable outcome of scientific advance. How and what will we choose to believe about the unseen in such a world? Ball quotes the art historian Barbara Maria Stafford, who framed the question this way:

Diffused into everyday objects like clothing, jewelry, cash, paper, tables, chairs, and walls, the invisible ‘smart dust’ products of pervasive computing, we are told, will set up an intelligent force field. Yet when thus seamlessly embedded into mundane artefacts, will such technological mysteries be responsibly integrated into the spiritual, humanistic, and practical concerns of civil life?

Ball himself issues the challenge in a different form in his conclusion, arguing that “when science claims to work magic, it had better be prepared for what magic really means."

How to best solve that riddle is anyone’s guess, but a book like Invisible reassures us that we’ll have plenty of options. My scheme for interpreting the book, for instance, leaves out many of Ball’s interesting digressions, from child psychology to ghosts in Shakespeare to film theory interpretations of The Invisible Man. Some readers may find these subjects tangential or even extraneous to the argument of the book. But I found that these outliers were reminders that the humanistic data set plotted by Ball is a real one. We have many beliefs we can use to make sense of the unseen, more than can be accounted for by any one discipline or hierarchy. A book like Ball’s suggests that, as long as we take the investigation of those beliefs as seriously as we take the investigation of the physical world, we’ll always find a way in the dark.


Andrew Benedict-Nelson is a founder of GreenHouse.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Benedict-Nelson is an author and consultant based in Gardner, Kansas. His work has addressed the social determinants of health, how to improve patient experiences, and the professional development of nurses. He is currently working on a book that will help readers develop more effective strategies for social change.


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