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Last night, before I slept, I thought about the Invisible Man.

This sounds odd, but I was recalling a letter I read recently in the 'New Scientist'. The writer referred to H.G.Wells' classic cautionary tale, 'The Invisible Man.' Now I haven't read that book - which is astonishingly modern, given it was first published in 1897-for over 40 years. It remains however vivid in my memory, while thousands of other works of fiction are long forgotten.

Rather than fun, invisibility, Wells argued, would generally be a horrible experience.We probably think of invisibility as being a gift without boundaries. In a fairy tale, for instance, a man or woman need only don a magic cloak before gliding around in effortless undetection. Not only do their bodies disappear, but their clothes as well. Somehow, they also acquire the useful ability to pass through solid objects like doors or walls. No secret is therefore safe from the unseen intruder. Now if we going to become invisible, that's a neat way to go, providing we can also reappear whenever it suits.

Fortunately for the rest of mankind, the invisible person in a fairy tale generally has a stable personality: the thought of an invisible practical joker, much less a malicious character doesn't bear thought.

In Wells' tale however, it's soon clear Griffin is just the sort of person any sensible person would want to keep a close eye on, being a vigorous, young fellow driven half mad with the conflicting passions of arrogance, rage, fear and despair. He's an interesting, though unpleasant person: only one of a cast of well drawn but repellent characters. This doesn't surprise me. Perhaps I haven't read enough Wells, but I can't recall a single character from any of his books that I've liked. I'm not even sure, given the opportunity to converse with the dead, Mr.Wells is a man I'd contact: a mutual feeling I'm sure.

One reads Wells for his daring ideas, astonishing imagination and relentless logic, qualities never more ably demonstrated than in this grim fable.

This is an immensely passionate book, but passionate about what it's hard to judge. Was Wells a social reformer, satirist or frightful snob? Probably something of each. He rails not so much against poverty as the tawdriness of modernity. He expects us to embrace his vision of the Perfectible Man and is grumpy when, rather than attending an improving lecture by Mr.Wells, we slope off to a bawdy music hall.

Yet with all the book's strange tensions, the theme is wonderfully thought out. Clothes one might assume, for example, would be the last thing an invisible person need consider. They are however the first and an abiding cause of Griffin's misery. Anything that makes the body appear to vanish won't affect the clothes we wear. I say 'appear to vanish' because Griffin never actually disappears in the sense of becoming a non-physical being. As he can't wear anything without exciting attention (and consternation if we imagine the sight of a headless and handless suit walking down the street) he must trudge naked through the streets of London. Even then, he is detectable because his bare feet leave an imprint on the fresh snow. There may be more inhospitable places in this world in which a naked man may shiver, but London in winter is a cheerless prospect.

Not only that, but Griffin is starving. Each time, he eats or drinks, the food or liquid can be seeing traveling into or being digested in his gut (or being squeezed into the bowels, but let's leave that nasty possibility alone). If we're being pendatic, I think Wells is deliberately skating over this problem. I don't know how long it takes for the body to empty itself from a meal, but I imagine there is matter that rests in the colon for weeks or months, which could be seen in an invisible man. If we claim that at some point, food becomes us and therefore invisible, the question of little bits of food in the teeth remain. No, no: this is all becoming too forensic for words. Let's move on.

Homeless, cold, naked and starving, Griffin was also in constant danger of being accidentally knocked over by people on the pavements or flattened by carriages on the street. Griffin already suffers from a major chip on his unseen shoulder (nobody but Dickens can better describe the seediness of poverty than Wells) so a few hefty though accidental blows are quite enough to trigger dark acts of revenge, which soon spin out of control. Torn by a thousand unresolved conflicts, Griffin like the awkward mythical beast of the same name - part lion and part eagle - remains forever uncomfortable with himself and his times.

As the story opens, a man enters a pub and orders food and drink. The sinister figure immediately attracts attention, because his hands and head are wrapped in bandages. When at last he's coaxed into removing his hat, the brim of which was pulled down, it can be seen his eyes - or rather his eyeless sockets - are hidden behind tinted glasses. He attempts to hide his mouth beneath a muffler, but occasionally one glimpses that in place of lips, teeth, gums and tongue, there's only a black hole - but hey, nobody's perfect!

One might think poor old Griffin has more than enough woes, but the writer in the 'New Scientist' claimed that any invisible man would also be blind. His reasoning was that light enters the cornea, stimulates the optic nerves, thus causing sight. If we have no eyes, cornea or optic nerves, there can be no sight. It's a brave man who'll try to correct a polymath like Wells, and I think the reader's argument is flawed.

The point is that the Invisible Man exists: he just can't be seen. The rest of his nerves work, otherwise why would he feel pain and cold? Is there therefore any reason why one set of nerves - the optic nerves - would fail?

To become invisible, we don't need to wrap ourselves in a magic cloak or gulp down some disgusting potion - we simply need to bypass other people's perception of us.

Sadly, many of us living alone in big, anonymous cities are virtually invisible. If you're plain, old and poorly dressed, you'll be probably only register as a vague shape to avoid running into on the pavement. Most of us are too lazy, busy and self-centered to observe others and it takes a rare individual to accept that everyone, no matter how unpromising their appearance, has their own individuality and dignity and may well have something fascinating to share if we only took the trouble to inquire.

The more we learn about perception, the more invisibility seems feasible. Studies show that we don't instantly recognize each other as a whole. We recognize bits of a person - lips, eyes, hair and using memory and reason decide this is a partner or the man next door. Break this chain and we either fail to recognize a person - your mother's body has been taken over by an alien - or see bits, like a familiar arm, dangling unattached in space.

Cases of temporary invisibility are reported.

One I found interesting involved a woman who decided to hire a video. She walked to the store and was about to enter when a man brushed past her, opened the door allowing himself to enter, then let the door slam in her face. Surprised by his rudeness, she entered the store. Seeing an assistant, she asked the girl's opinion of a recent release. The young woman appeared not to hear. After several attempts failed to gain a response, she gave up and decided to take the video out anyway. There was another person in front of her at the check out counter. After this person was served, the clerk appeared to stare right through her and went back to working on his computer. Time passed and the woman became irritated. She spoke several times, loudly demanding attention, but to no avail. A man joined the queue behind her and instantly the clerk looked up and began to serve him. Furious at this cavalier treatment, the woman flung down the video case and left the shop.

As soon as she arrived home, she fired off an angry email to the owner of the video store, accusing his staff of rudeness. Within minutes, the owner responded. He wrote that he was very disturbed at what she claimed, but no staff member could recall her. At this, the woman rang the owner and asked if his store's security camera was working. Assured it was, she asked if the date and time was shown on the film. Finding it was, she marched down to the store and demanded that the tape covering the time she was in the store be screened. To the shock and embarrassment of the staff, there she was, clearly on screen being ignored by all.

It's hard to imagine a more disconcerting experience than becoming invisible. Some of us imagine we're indifferent to other's opinions, but to be forever treated as though one wasn't there would shake even the most egotistical confidence.

Perhaps ghosts, if they exist, are simply victims of selective perception. To see others when they cannot see us would be bad enough, but to see those we love being harmed while being unable to help them would be ghastly.

If scientists ever devise a way for individuals to bypass collective perception, the greatest benefit will be to make us more fully appreciate the odd and wonderful gift of perception.

Stephen Collicoat

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by Stephen Collicoat

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