Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Why It's Not Always Good to Be Seen

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Why It's Not Always Good to Be Seen

Article excerpt

Byline: CLAIRE HARMAN

INVISIBLE: THE DANGEROUS ALLURE OF THE UNSEEN by Philip Ball (Bodley Head, PS25) IN THE 1680s, John Aubrey noted with amusement how two merchants who tried to follow a recipe for invisibility failed in their attempt when a rooster dug up their magic beans prematurely: perhaps they shouldn't have substituted a cat's head for that of a suicide, he pondered; perhaps they did the planting on a Tuesday rather than a Wednesday. Hard to think what else could have gone wrong.

There's as strong a fascination with mastering the unseen and unseeable today, though, as science writer Philip Ball shows us in his fantastic feast of ideas and information on the subject, what used to be the province of the occult is now more likely to be occupied by physicists, nanotechnicians and Nasa. Invisibility is power, a sidestepping of all the normal rules of society, from the small child who shuts his eyes and fancies himself invisible to the anonymous internet troll. Plato's story of Gyges, the shepherd who found a gold ring that made him disappear at will, warns what we'd all try to do with such power -- use it to cheat, steal, shock and awe.

What we can't see with the naked eye is always disturbing. When Robert Hooke published the first detailed drawings of flies' eyes and snowflakes that he observed under his microscope in 1665 he left people stunned. His contemporary, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, not only showed that pond water was teeming with weird-looking "animalcules" but that human semen (his own, "transferred with jarring haste from the marital bed") was too. God was in the detail, but in discomfiting ways; with so many invisible life-forms literally under our noses, and unknown depths to the ether, it became harder to place man at the centre of everything.

As microscopy advanced, and even the sludge in breweries turned out to be alive, micro-organisms seemed like the modern equivalent of evil spirits and "war" was declared on bacteria, viruses and germs at first sight. …

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