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The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen


The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen

If offered the chance—by cloak, spell, or superpower—to be invisible, who wouldn’t want to give it a try? We are drawn to the idea of stealthy voyeurism and the ability to conceal our own acts, but as desirable as it may seem, invisibility is also dangerous. It is not just an optical phenomenon, but a condition full of ethical questions. As esteemed science writer Philip Ball reveals in this book, the story of invisibility is not so much a matter of how it might be achieved but of why we want it and what we would do with it.

In this lively look at a timeless idea, Ball provides the first comprehensive history of our fascination with the unseen. This sweeping narrative moves from medieval spell books to the latest nanotechnology, from fairy tales to telecommunications, from camouflage to ghosts to the dawn of nuclear physics and the discovery of dark energy.  Along the way, Invisible tells little-known stories about medieval priests who blamed their misdeeds on spirits; the Cock Lane ghost, which intrigued both Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens; the attempts by Victorian scientist William Crookes to detect forces using tiny windmills; novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s belief that he was unseen when in his dressing gown; and military efforts to enlist magicians to hide tanks and ships during WWII.  Bringing in such voices as Plato and Shakespeare, Ball provides not only a scientific history but a cultural one—showing how our simultaneous desire for and suspicion of the invisible has fueled invention and the imagination for centuries.

In this unusual and clever book, Ball shows that our fantasies about being unseen—and seeing the unseen—reveal surprising truths about who we are.

Read an excerpt: "Recipes for Invisibility".

336 pages | 70 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Culture Studies

Folklore and Mythology

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


“A former editor at Nature and the author of nineteen previous books (he should write about that superpower), Ball leads us on a very fun, largely chronological journey through invisibility, beginning with myth and early magicians, ending with quantum physics, and stopping along the way at Newton, Leibniz, microscopy, photography, spiritualism, B movies, and science fiction. He is lucid and interesting on every topic he touches, from the ghost in ‘Hamlet’ to those unseen extra dimensions posited by string theory.”

New Yorker

“The history of invisibility provides a rich seam of stories and analysis for Philip Ball, one of the most engaging contemporary science writers. . . . One of the best passages in this excellent book concerns the quest for the most effective camouflages to apply to warships, aircraft and army equipment. The claims of competing schemes from dazzle to drab, multicolor to monotone—and the surprisingly colorful characters promoting them to the world’s armed forces—are every bit as entertaining as the spells and concoctions of those seeking true invisibility.”

Financial Times

 “Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen by Ball is the kind of book I really enjoy. For one thing, the writing is crisp and often witty (a virtue not as common as it should be among nonfiction works). For another it is packed with abstruse information. Most crucially, Ball’s extensive research, rather than being a parade of intellectual swank, works to encourage connections and make the reader think, another experience that is rarer than it might be.”


“Prolific English science writer Philip Ball seems to produce a fascinating book every year, and 2015 is no exception. In Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen, he confronts a timeless idea hidden in plain sight.”

Publishers Weekly

“Exploring what no one can see, Ball uncovers what everyone wants. . . . Skeptics might dismiss the legends and legerdemain, but who can brush off the instances of invisibility Ball finds in modern science, where Maxwell’s Demon taunts physicists, and dark energy baffles cosmologists? More frightening is the science that has already coaxed monsters out of unseen regions of microbiology—and now threatens to produce malevolent nanorobots through microengineering. Ball even investigates an emerging technology of metamaterials for enveloping soldiers with a cloak of invisibility. Yet his conclusion locates the ultimate meaning of invisibility not in new technology but rather in archetypal metaphor. A surprisingly illuminating foray into the unseen.”


“As a harvest of fascinating facts delivered with sharp wit and insight, it is hard to fault. And like all good works of cultural history, it reveals how extraordinary the ordinary is when viewed from a different angle.”


“Invisible, by veteran British science writer Philip Ball, is more than just a history of an ancient, exotic (and perhaps hopeless) quest. The book is full of insights drawn from a broad survey of history, literature and philosophy; wherever the invisible is being contemplated, Ball is there to select the juiciest anecdotes. . . . For anyone interested in the interplay between science and spirit over the centuries, and especially in the Victorian world, Ball is a lucid, witty and highly entertaining guide.”

Globe and Mail

“Invisible exemplifies Ball’s compelling craft of narrative, providing a seamless assembly of historical, cultural, and scientific tales, thus synthesizing a compendium of knowledge about invisibility. Despite Plato's warnings, it seems nothing will prevent humans from pursuing the feat of the unseen.”


“Humans have always been fascinated with the unseen, as evidenced by efforts to find ways to render themselves or objects invisible and to devise ways to see into the unseen world surrounding them.  A respected science writer, Ball (who has been an editor at Nature for many years) takes readers on an entertaining tour through the ages, starting with the ancients' belief in myths and continuing into the present via the Victorian fascination with spirits and the occult, the discovery of X-rays, the development of microscopes, and the mostly secret research into ‘stealth’ materials. . . . Highly recommended.”


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Why We Disappear
2. Occult Forces
3. Fear of Obscurity
4. Rays that Bridge Worlds
5. Worlds Without End
6. All in the Mind
7. The People Who Can’t Be Seen
8. Vanishing Point
9. Bedazzled and Confused
10. Unseen at Last?

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