Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

Philip Ball. University of Chicago Press, 2015. 320 pages. $27.50.

By Benjamin Franklin Martin

The essential quality of invisibility is ambiguity. Invisibility entices with the promise of surreptitiously acquiring wealth, power, and sex, yet their enjoyment requires visibility. Classical myths, medieval spells, and modern poseurs promised invisibility’s attainment. The “allure”—to use Philip Ball’s term—was so great that Abraham Lincoln and his wife were enthusiasts for such “Spiritualists” and held séances in the White House. A similar fascination captured Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, and then later Pierre and Marie Curie. The Society for Psychical Research, which was founded in 1882 and “studied” such claims, counted among its members two British prime ministers, William Gladstone and Arthur Balfour, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, J. J. Thomson, and respected writers, Alfred Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, and John Ruskin.

Invisibility as a state, as opposed to an aspiration, had always existed for organisms unseen because they were so small. Yet as biologists began to strip that realm of invisibility through microscopes, physicists began discovering new realms of invisibility through radiation. The germ theory pulled the veil from bacteria and eventually viruses. Atomic theory required faith in particles visible only through their effects, dark matter and dark energy imaginable only through mathematical possibility, and string theory possible only through multiple universes and multiple dimensions.

To illustrate further the complexity of dividing the seen from the unseen, Ball investigates camouflage (animal and military), nanotechnology (computers as small as a grain of sand), and even “internet trolls” (spewing their venom confident that technology renders them anonymous).  Ball’s most poignant pages treat the curse of “social exclusion,” the shadow that conceals the ones society wishes to leave unrecognized and unacknowledged; for them, invisibility is not a power but an oppression.

Benjamin Franklin Martin (ΦΒΚ, Davidson College, 1969) is the Price Professor of History at Louisiana State University and a resident member of the Beta of Louisiana Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.