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The Invisibly Small

Science writer Philip Ball examines the philosophical impact of the invention of the microscope and the discovery of the world of the invisibly small.

Science writer and broadcaster Philip Ball sets out on a quest to explore the peculiar world of the invisible.

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.

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

Available now

11 minutes