cover image Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

Philip Ball. Univ. of Chicago, $27.50 (336p) ISBN 978-0-226-23889-0

English science writer Ball (Serving the Reich) leads readers on a fascinating whirlwind tour of the history of the idea of the invisible. He examines both the why and the how of invisibility, pondering the concept’s allure and the opportunity it gives individuals to seize “power, wealth, or sex,” as well as the intriguing ways that myth, magic, and science intersect in its study. In the Middle Ages, magic books were “scarcely complete without a spell of invisibility,” but scientists began to test such spells experimentally by the 18th Century. Belief in invisible forces continued thanks in part to German physician Franz Mesmer’s claimed ability to harness “animal magnetism.” As the 19th century closed, scientists had discovered invisible forms of electromagnetic radiation, such as X-rays, that could make the unseen visible, yet such phenomena also gave rise to the “para-physics of telepathy and telekinesis.” Ball also discusses modern optical manipulation through camouflage, in which invisibility becomes less an “inability to see so much as an inability to distinguish.” It’s a tour-de-force history, capped off with an animated discussion of H.G. Wells’s novel The Invisible Man, as Ball observes that Wells illustrated not only the power and the curse of invisibility, but science’s failure to harness its power productively. (Apr.)