Science and magic have both always drawn on invisible and occult forcesby Philip Ball / August 8, 2014 / Leave a comment
I suspect that, like me, the first time you encountered someone using a mobile phone with an earpiece and microphone, you saw it as further evidence of our declining social services—this poor fellow gesticulating wildly and talking to voices in his head should really be in residential care.
By filling the ether with voices, we have sacrificed the ability to police the borders of sanity purely in behavioural terms. The psychic implications of Wifi have been insufficiently acknowledged. It’s no longer just a matter of being able to communicate instantly and invisibly over vast distances—something that the German abbot Johannes Trithemius claimed to achieve at the end of the 15th century only with the aid of spirits or demons. No, now almost every point in space in the industrialized world can deliver, invisibly and nearly instantly, access to almost the sum total of all human knowledge—including a facsimile of Trithemius’s Latin book on codes and communication, Stenographia. Not even the craziest Renaissance visionary would have imagined such a thing.
It’s often said that what once was magic is now technology—or as Arthur C Clarke put it, advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But we rarely appreciate what that truly means, encumbered as we are with the simplistic idea that magic is and was superstition while technology is the application of science. In fact magic—of the sort practiced by Trithemius—was a rational system for achieving wonderful effects by manipulating the occult (which is to say, hidden or invisible) forces of nature. That’s also a fair description of science, which didn’t replace magic so much as grew from it. Several of the forces once deemed occult, such as magnetism and gravity, are now uncontroversially a part of science.
In the 19th century Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell provided a framework for understanding such forces as the product of invisible, all-pervasive fields. The theory of fields—now expressed in terms of quantum mechanics—is the bedrock of modern physics, to the extent that particles with apparently solid and tangible properties such as mass are now regarded as manifestations of these immaterial fields. The celebrated Higgs boson is merely the particulate corollary of the Higgs field, which is the true agency of much of the mass that matter possesses.
Maxwell is the pivotal figure here. His theory of electromagnetic fields leads in two directions. One is to deeper levels of theoretical understanding—he revealed light itself to be the manifestation of vibrations in the electromagnetic field, thought at first to be waves in the ether until Einstein’s theory of special relativity showed the ether to be superfluous. (We forget that Einstein himself didn’t see it quite that way, and in any event the ether remains a linguistically useful fiction.) So Maxwell showed us at last what light—a phenomenon long associated with magic—really is. But Maxwell’s theory also anticipated new technologies. It predicted that the ether will vibrate at other frequencies, and in 1887 Heinrich Hertz discovered those of low frequency: radio waves. Within a decade, Marconi was using them to transmit messages over long distances. And in 1895 Wilhelm Röntgen discovered electromagnetic waves of very high frequency: X-rays, soon blessed with their own fantastical attributes. In this way, Maxwell’s field theory seeded the age of telecommunications and wireless.
But the occult origins of a belief in invisible forces and influences did not simply vanish. They emerged in new forms. It was no coincidence that the late 19th century also saw the re-emergence of an interest in the occult and the heyday of Spiritualism, the communion with spirits. Science did not banish that idea, but rather seemed to vindicate it. If the telegraph, telephone and wireless radio enabled people to speak to each other unseen over vast distances, was it too much to believe that etheric vibrations might also mediate between the living and the dead? Some scientists speculated that X-ray-like vibrations emanating from the brain could support telepathy. Early radio hams scanned the ether for messages from Helsinki and Berlin in the same way that mediums scanned it for messages from the departed.
And all the while, light itself remained an agent of the magical and marvellous. Ever since the 18th century, stage magicians and impresarios such as Étienne Gaspard Robertson had used optical devices such as the magic lantern to conjure up spectacular illusions: projections of ghosts and demons, delighting and terrifying audiences with what were in effect the first horror films. Some of these illusionists had a scientific training and used their shows not only to entertain but to debunk the claims of Spiritualists. John Henry Pepper, whose famous “ghost” projected onto a slanted glass screen graced theatrical performances of Hamlet and A Christmas Carol in the mid 19th century, began his career as a science lecturer and populariser.
So when optical projection merged with photography to become cinematography around the fin de siècle, it was at first seen as just another fancy illusion. The early practitioners, such as the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès, began as stage illusionists, and the subjects of their short films were often supernatural: in cinema, ghosts found their natural medium.
It was to be expected, then, that television too became a haunted medium, with its own mythology of spectral figures who appeared on the screen even when the set was unplugged. No surprise either that the demons of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) enter the world through the TV screen, as does the malevolent ghoul of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998). Jacques Derrida seems to have discerned all this; in 1983 he said “I believe that ghosts are a part of the future, and that the modern technology of images like cinematography and telecommunication enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us.”
It’s entirely in keeping that, as folklore scholar Owen Davies says, “Cyberspace has become a part of the geography of haunting.” There are many stories of internet messages from beyond the grave, lingering in online chatrooms just as they once lingered in country houses. More even than the telephone or television, the invisible babble of the internet seems almost designed to house spirits. By animating the ether, we have populated it too. Thanks to the invisible magic of wireless, the isle is indeed full of noises, and sometimes voices, that “show riches/Ready to drop upon me.” But our preconceptions about this spirit world are often less benevolent than Shakespeare’s.