Science Book a Day Interviews Philip Ball


Special thanks to Philip Ball for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked previously at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology. Philip is the author of many popular books on science, including works on the nature of water, pattern formation in the natural world, colour in art, the science of social and political philosophy, the cognition of music, and physics in Nazi Germany. He has written widely on the interactions between art and science, and has delivered lectures to scientific and general audiences at venues ranging from the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) to the NASA Ames Research Center and the London School of Economics.- From Philip’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Invisible?

I was asked to give a talk in London on “materiality”, meaning the contemporary directions in materials research, and I explained that one of these directions is in fact towards “dematerialisation” – technologies are becoming intangible and invisible, thanks to wifi, RFID and other broadcasting technologies and to the miniaturisation which makes devices such as iPods hermetically sealed slabs of plastic with the material components out of view and out of reach. The talk was for a science/art organisation, and I was approached afterwards by an artist, Anais Tondeur, who asked me if anyone had written more about this notion for invisibility. At the time I simply replied that, to my knowledge, they hadn’t. But as soon as I started thinking about it afterwards, I realised what a wonderful topic invisibility was, and just the kind of subject that appeals to me, since it mixes science and science history with cultural, literary, psychological and mythical issues. Very quickly the whole story began to unravel.

#2 – You write about the psychology and history of invisibility. How did you go about this research? What was the most interesting part of history to you about invisibility?

There were a few obvious starting places, one being the wonderful introductory essay written by the author Christopher Priest for a recent edition of Wells’ The Invisible Man. Christopher himself has a strong interest in all sorts of aspects of invisibility, and he was a most generous correspondent as I was writing the book – his own novel The Glamour is a wonderfully insightful take on the psychology of invisibility. I have also had a long interest in the history and traditions of magic, and of course invisibility features strongly in that. I was also interested in “invisible” secret societies, from Robert Boyle’s “Invisible College” (possibly connected to the nascent Royal Society) to the Rosicrucians. Well, one thing led to another, as I always hope it will. One of the topics I enjoyed finding out about most was the interactions of nineteenth-century physics with spiritualism, and the increasing focus of those physicists on invisible phenomena. I was also very interested in the connections between music-hall illusionism and the early cinema, which made cinema a “medium of spectres”, as Derrida put it.

#3 – The invisible man, to most reader’s disappointment is impossible. Are there inherent paradoxes with invisibility?

Well, mythical and fairy-tale invisibility is straightforward: it just happens in an unproblematic way via some charm or talisman or whatever. That’s because invisibility here serves a symbolic or moral role. But if we try to turn it into a technical challenge, it turns out to be extraordinarily difficult, and seems likely to be almost inevitably compromised and disappointing in some way. This is what Wells’ invisible man discovered, and even Wells had to cheat a little on the science to make it work. That’s why invoking this mythical idea to motivate/justify/explain some scientific advance (such as metamaterial invisibility cloaks) is more complicated than scientists seem to recognise.

But on the other had, we already have invisibility, and always have – in the sense that there are some things that we do not notice, intentionally or otherwise, or that others are skilled at making us not notice. We don’t necessarily need to do fancy things to light to make things vanish – a good stage magician can accomplish that through sleight of hand and misdirection.

#4 – More modern attempts at invisibility have to do with cloaking, whether personal or of ships. Are we on the cusp of this happening? Or is it about 50 years away? Is there a fundamental concept that needs to be understood before we can continue?

The modern work on optical metamaterials, which manipulate light in unusual ways, is wonderful and exciting. But I’m not sure that it will ever provide the kind of invisibility that most people would recognise – making you or me disappear, say. There might be types of “adaptive camouflage” that will make this possible to some degree, by more or less matching the appearance of something to its background using, say, banks of light-emitting diodes. But it’s not clear that that illusion can ever be perfect for all observers, especially for fast-moving objects. I think we will develop useful kinds of “quasi-invisibility”, but nothing (in the foreseeable future) to compare with Harry Potter’s cloak.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Although I’m not, on this occasion, in China for this reason, my next book is about China. And water. And how those two things go together in a way that can provide a window into a huge amount of Chinese history, culture, philosophy and politics. It is a huge project, like everything else about China. But I am learning a great deal, which is always what I want from a book project.

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