The Unseen – A History of the Invisible

Radio 4 iPlayer imageRadio 4 Broadcast June 2016 – Five episodes.
Presenter: Philip Ball
Producer: Max O’Brien
A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.

Science writer and broadcaster Philip Ball sets out on a quest to explore the peculiar world of the invisible, a mysterious realm where magic and science meet.

Episode One – Invisible Forces (11 minutes)

Broadcast 06/06/2016

In this first episode, Philip finds himself face to face with the death mask of Sir Isaac Newton. At the Royal Society in London he meets librarian Keith Moore who reveals that Newton’s work on invisible forces such as gravity was influenced by his secret fascination with the occult.

The notion that the world was governed by invisible universal forces was a central feature of natural magic. Newton was scorned by critics such as Gottfried Leibniz, who labelled him an occultist, yet he was able to mathematise his invisible forces and prove them to be very real. So the idea of an invisible force acting across empty space didn’t get consigned to the realm of superstitious magic – instead, it became a central feature of physics.

Listen to episode one now on iPlayer

Episode Two – Conjuring the Invisible (11 minutes)

Radio 4 broadcast 07/06/2016
In this episode, Philip pays a visit to a secretive institution in the heart of London – The Magic Circle. There he meets historian of magic and master conjuror William Houston who charts the relationship between science, stage magic and the early days of cinema.

Stage magicians have always been early adopters of the latest scientific discoveries, harnessing cutting edge research and using it to fool their audiences. In the eighteenth century, stage magicians used discoveries in the field of optics to conjure up invisible spirits in occult themed light shows called phantasmagoria.

The magic lanterns used in the phantasmagoria performances were primitive projectors. As the technology progressed, cinema was born. Many of the early cinematographers were keen stage magicians and used classic conjuring tricks to pioneer special effects. The most prominent effects made people and objects suddenly vanish and rendered ghostly figures on the screen. As Philip discovers, the obsession of the cinema pioneers with the invisible and the spirit world was no coincidence, given the magic lantern’s occult past.

Listen to episode two now on BBC iPlayer

Episode Three – The Spirit World (11 minutes)

Radio 4 broadcast 08/06/2016
In this episode, Philip visits London’s College of Psychic Studies to meet archivist and historian Leslie Price. The college is a unique institution, dedicated to furthering research into the psychic arts for over 130 years. In a seance room, surrounded by spirit photographs, Leslie reveals that 19th century developments in communications technologies such as telegraphy had a profound impact on the popular religion of spiritualism. Spiritualists believed that it was possible to converse with the invisible dead and the discovery that we could communicate over vast distances with unseen figures using the telegraph seemed to offer their beliefs a form of scientific verification.

The invention of radio, which sent invisible messages through the air, appeared to lend some support not just to spiritualism but to a whole range of paranormal and psychic phenomena, such as telepathy and telekinesis.

Later, the discovery of invisible X-rays which could peer into our bodies, revealing images of our skeletons like a presentiment of death, was also fascinating to those who believed in the spirit realm. X-rays and radioactivity shattered the notion that the material world was impenetrable, all of a sudden atoms could be broken apart.

Philip explains that those who believed in invisible spirits were hugely stimulated by this scientific research that suggested there is far more to our world than meets the eye.

Presenter: Philip Ball
Producer: Max O’Brien
A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.

Listen to episode three now on BBC iPlayer

Episode Four – The Invisibly Small (11 minutes)

Radio 4 broadcast 09/06/2016
In this episode, Philip examines the philosophical impact of the invention of the microscope and the discovery of the world of the invisibly small. The revelation of the existence of an invisible micro-world profoundly altered man’s picture of himself in the cosmos and his relationship with the divine.

At the Royal Society in London, Philip leafs through an original copy of Robert Hooke’s pioneering work of microscopy, Micrographia. The book contains detailed drawings of tiny insects, their complex physical forms revealed for the first time by the microscope. Hooke’s research also showed that the edges of razor blades and other man made items were infact riddled with imperfections when scrutinised at a microscopic level. This discovery was taken as evidence of the imperfection of mankind compared to God the creator.

The early microscopists were expecting to unveil the hidden mechanisms of the world when peering through their lenses. Instead they found a microscopic realm that was teeming with previously invisible life forms. Philip learns that this discovery had a profound philosophical impact at the time. The image of mankind at the centre of a universe that God created for us was shaken to its core by the revelation of a whole world of microscopic existence that had previously been unknown.

Listen to episode four now on BBC iPlayer

Episode Five – Becoming Invisible (11 minutes)

Radio 4 broadcast 09/06/2016
Our fascination with achieving invisibility stretches back over thousands of years. In ancient myths, invisibility used to be a gift of the gods and the goddesses. Now, after millennia of dreaming about it, science might be on the threshold of letting us master invisibility for real.

While the earliest scientific proposals for invisibility cloaks appear in fiction, today it’s not just storytellers and folklorists who speak of them, but physicists and engineers. And they’ve made them too. Over the past decade there have been scientific reports of cloaks, shields and other devices that can make things seemingly vanish – from humble pieces of paper to fish, cats, people, even entire buildings.

Philip hears from Sir John Pendry, the pioneering physicist who hit the headlines when he published a paper detailing the first working invisibility cloak. In order to see a cloak in action, Philip travels to the University of Birmingham to meet Dr Jensen Li in the Metamaterials Lab. Jensen’s cloaking device proves to be nothing like the cloaks of myth and fantasy, leaving Philip to question whether we should be discussing the real and fictional invisibility cloaks in the same breath.

Listen to episode five now on BBC iPlayer

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