Bodley Head, £25. Order at £20 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen by Philip Ball, book review

From myth to murder, invisibility and its challenges have long fascinated humans

"But as the history of invisibility shows, myth is no blueprint for the engineer. It is more important than that." Philip Ball concludes his journey from witchcraft to warcraft with this portentous final sentence which aims to link ancient cultural anxieties about invisibility to modern attempts to use metamaterials and a "negative refractive index" (the way that science is learning to master invisibility, through optical manipulation).

He's written a guide that takes us from Lydian shepherds via Robert Hooke to BAE Systems. Invisibility: what used to be the ultimate magic spell has devolved into whisking hard power into thin air, and what used to be a notion replete with sexual, voyeuristic and moral perils is now simply the warehousing of death.

For Plato, invisibility was not only a wondrous power but a moral challenge, and he is one of several ancient sources for the story of Gyges. Gyges was a shepherd who chanced upon a magic ring; once liberated, the ring is revealed as having the power of invisibility. Soon this bucolic swain has killed the king and ravished the queen, all done with the aid of invisibility.

J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings deploys this story for Gollum where it slips its user deathwards like a kind of moral radiation. In other versions of the invisibility myth, it's a helmet that infers invisibility – Athena gave Perseus a helmet that masked him from view, and Homer refers to a "Helmet of Hades". The invisible is the realm of the ghostly. The cloak of invisibility – familiar in Harry Potter books – starts life in a Grimm's fairytale where an old soldier uses it to spy on dancing girls. Did Harry really never use it to visit the girls' showers?

Until relatively recently the idea of becoming invisible has always been cast as a moral test. H G Wells, who wrote The Invisible Man in 1897, rejected film script after script when Hollywood failed to grasp his key central point – that it is the invisibility itself that drives the protagonist insane, not the potion he took to make himself invisible.

Invisibility is a constant social preoccupation. A quick, unscientific survey of recent news items reveal features on the "invisibility" of cyclists and the "invisibility" of women on BBC TV comedy shows. Here, solving invisibility is presented as a good thing. Being invisible these days is still seen as a moral danger.

Apart from the ghostly, I count in this book three categories of the non-paranormal invisible. "Glamour" where invisibility is thrown over something like a cloak, "dazzle" where artifice produces a misdirection effect, and finally something unnoticed that is simply incredibly small and unobserved (bacteria, viruses) until the requisite technology comes along. Is it better to cover or uncover? As a species we're hardwired to fret about invisible forces, and the idea of being deceived haunts and appals us. We're obsessed with identifying deception as an ancient survival skill.

This is an enjoyable, well-written book, but I'm not sure the two distinct halves fit together. The first is full of spells, arcana, myth and apparitions, with material that will be familiar to anyone who reads on the subject – some of which, I daresay, is also present in my book which touches on the subject, A Natural History of Ghosts. That said, there were details here that I really didn't know. Magic?

Witchy spells recounted here in their entirety are riveting in their mountebank oddness. They are elaborate, unwholesome and bizarre; supercharge a garden bean with supernatural power and pop it in your mouth and you will be granted invisibility (Pythagoras always associated beans with ghosts). There are familiar accounts concerning the origins of the Society for Psychical research (described as 'an odd beast' by the author) and the scientists around it, and of fabricated theatre phantoms including Pepper's Ghost.

In the end I'm not sure whether we quite grasp "the dangerous allure of the unseen" as proposed in the title of this book, and I get the distinct feeling that this book would have been better had the author sat with it and let it settle a few more years.

Ball makes a good case for our weird and usually irrational fascination with invisibility, though the possible moral downside, so very clear in myth, is nowhere near so cut-and-dried in the practical problem-solving realms of advanced science.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk