Science will never overcome our appetite for illusion and fakery
Primitive notions about hidden beings and forces have helped shaped science, argues Philip Ball in his book Invisible: The dangerous allure of the unseen
FOR the past 20 years, Philip Ball has been writing about science. He is indefatigable, polymathic and conscientious. He is also good and, project by project, his books are getting better.
Invisible, Ball's eighteenth offering, uses the notion of absence, apparent absence or hidden presence to unpack trunks of pop science treats. There are chapters on microscopy and camouflage, X-rays and stage magic, nods to the uncanniness of the internet, and a glance at the mischievous delights of experimental psychology.
It hardly matters that there is little new here. Familiarity can, after all, camouflage truths, and Invisible turns out to be more clever than it appears.
Our fascination with invisibility, Ball says, begins in childhood. Almost all of us entertain invisible friends and pets at some point. Children consider themselves truly visible only when they are exchanging glances. Without a corroborative gaze, a child's descriptions of itself become oddly disembodied.
Invisible forces and entities are much older than science, and Ball is interested in how our thoughts about invisibility have shaped and defined our scientific ideas. According to him, science is simply magic that has learned how to spot its own successes. It is as much driven by fantasies of knowledge and power as its disreputable parent.
In defence of this sizeable claim, Ball explores everything from outré optics to popular culture, while reaching back to Plato's fable of invisibility in The Republic. The story is that, on acquiring the power to vanish, the shepherd Gyges became a rapist and a tyrant almost overnight.
Ball draws an important lesson from Plato's fable. The problems we confront, be they the desire to trespass, seduce the king's wife or steal a kingdom, are never just technical; they are always moral ones.
We may try – as technologists, scientists or at the very least rational beings – to attain an objective understanding of how the universe works. But we are people, too, and our descriptions cannot help but be imbued with ideas about acts and consequences, transactions, wins and losses. We cannot imagine a meaningless universe; instead we pursue "underlying laws". In doing that, we stray into the occult, defined by German philosopher Theodor Adorno as "the readiness to relate the unrelated".
Science, like magic, posits invisible entities. It, too, dreams up purely conjectural sympathies and correspondences – if only to explain why much of the physical universe seems to be missing.
It is its rigour that makes science exceptional, extraordinary and valuable. Ball is no dull relativist. He is aware, however, that popular understanding is everything, and that "magic offers visions we can understand".
This article appeared in print under the headline "Now you see it…"