Festival Talk #8: Philip Ball

Touching on myth, art, literature and history, as well as science – the invisible was just the sort of blend of topics that attracted Philip Ball. The author comes to Verden i Bergen to talk about the roles the idea of invisibility has played throughout time and culture.

Tekst: Øyvind Vågnes

Røntgenstrålar og forsvinningskapper

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, Philip Ball 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.

Ball worked at Nature as an editor for 20 years and still writes regularly for the journal. His writings on science for the popular press (New Scientist, The New York Times, The Guardian) have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology. He is a frequent blogger for Prospect magazine and a columnist for Chemistry World, Nature Materials, and BBC Future. In 2004 he presented a serial on nanotechnology, ‘Small Worlds’, on BBC Radio 4.

Ball comes to Bergen to talk with Øyvind Vågnes about his most recent book, Invisible, which presents the first comprehensive survey of the roles that the idea of invisibility has played throughout time and culture. The two recently had a pre-conversation chat.

– Am I completely wrong to surmise that you’ve been on your way to this book for quite a while? Not only because you published Stories of the Invisible: A Guided Tour of Molecules some 14 years ago. I’m not sure that you would agree, but in a sense invisibility is a recurring motif in much of what you’ve written – in books about the molecular world and about the elements, or in books about the patterns of nature, where shapes and movements often are created by forces unseen, in a biography of water, or in a book about that great, most often invisible gift to culture and humankind, music. At what point did you decide to dedicate yourself to writing the story of invisibility? There seems to be something almost intangible not only about invisibility, but also about its story, about getting a grasp of it and shaping it into narrative.

– I suppose you could see it this way, although one of the things I’m saying in Invisible is that so much is invisible in one way or another, so perhaps it is inevitable that earlier topics would touch on that – especially the invisibly small, which crops up the moment one is writing about chemistry. (I once tried to get an art project going that would confront the fact that «sculpting» at the molecular scale inevitably makes invisible objects – how then can they meaningfully be displayed?)

But the genesis of Invisible is one I can pinpoint quite easily. I had been asked to give a talk at the art-science organization Arts Catalyst about «materiality», speaking on new materials. And it occurred to me that our materials culture is in some ways heading towards making them invisible – they do all kinds of smart things «out of sight», for example using radiofrequency communication or wifi or locked away in hermetically sealed iPods. I was asked after the talk – in fact by the artist Anais Tondeur, whose work I like a lot – whether anyone had written about this perspective, and on invisibility more generally. I told her that, to my knowledge, they hadn’t. But the question stayed with me, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised what a rich topic this could be, touching on myth, art and literature, and history, as well as science: just the sort of blend of topics that attracts me. And so that was it.

Of course, the topic is still broader than my book could acknowledge: it goes in so many different directions. So yes, in many ways the «narrative» of invisibility is very hard to grasp. Kathryn Schultz did a great job (naturally) in her review of my book in the New Yorker, and she made me realise that there were some issues I wish I’d addressed, about what kind of relationship we have with the invisible. It’s partly allure and partly fear, as I say in the book – but there’s surely more besides.

– «Science and technology take on the forms that we need for them,» you write in your book. I was fascinated by the fact that many of the researchers involved in the early study of X-rays, cathode rays and radioactivity were so interested in the paranormal to the degree that «Science and Spiritualism fed one another.» Is this a part of the history of science that tends to be overlooked or neglected because it is embarrassing? You repeatedly warn your readers against easy mockery in attempting to understand the intersections between scientific and occult milieus.

– I think that scientists today – or at least, many of its anointed spokespersons – have a rather simplistic view of many aspects of life beyond standard lab science, and this is just one example. They like to edit or cherry-pick history, distort religion, sniff at the humanities, and dump all non-scientific viewpoints into a box labelled «woolly thinking», if not «superstition». I have defended the magic tradition in particular against this sort of over-simplification, and the occult is a part of that. I don’t mean by this that scientists are too sceptical about claims of the paranormal and so forth (I’m a sceptic in that sense) – but they are insufficiently curious about what such claims are made and what they mean, as well as failing to acknowledge how some of these ideas have overlapped and merged with science in the past. I’m not sure that I’d say this is an issue that has been overlooked in the history of science, because historians of science very much do not share this kind of «scientism» but are open-minded about the way people have thought in the past – that’s pretty much the essential qualification for being a historian! But scientists themselves tend not to know about this stuff, and often not to particularly want to know about it. I guess I feel that several of my recent books, such as Unnatural and Curiosity, are about challenging such easy assumptions in science – in fact, I see these two as making up something of a trilogy with Invisible.

– We’ll get to talk more about Invisible on Saturday, a conversation I look very much forward to. You’re an extremely versatile and productive writer – can I ask you what you’re working on these days?

– The book currently in production is a survey of the role of water in Chinese culture, called The Water Kingdom. A great deal of Chinese history, culture, philosophy, politics and art can be explained and understood by considering China’s relationship with water, particularly in terms of the importance of managing its major waterways. So the book essentially uses water as a vehicle for opening up this vast country and its history. This will be published in later summer/early autumn of 2016.

I am now working on a book on quantum mechanics, aiming to explain how developments in the past couple of decades are giving us a new view of what it is really about – specifically, it is a theory of information.