Book: Curiosity

Curiosity: How science became interested in everything
Philip Ball, Vintage (2012), RRP $49.99

Curiosity was seen as a threat to society in the classical world and early Christianity condemned it as a sin. But sometime between the late 1500s and 1700s, attitudes in Europe changed to such a degree that now curiosity is seen as an essential part of human nature. The change, according to Phillip Ball, was gradual and far from obvious.

In this fascinating book Ball describes how curiosity was transformed from a sense of wonder through natural philosophy to the professional curiosity of modern day science.

The emphasis in Curiosity is not on the progress of science, gradual or otherwise, triumphing over the medieval church. Rather Ball describes a nuanced, almost chaotic, extended period of change. The change is one from the scholastic belief that truth was a “question of authority and status: a fact was verified if it could be found in an authoritative text, but otherwise it was mere hearsay” to experimental philosophers who imagined methods to turn facts into laws. These facts were derived either from observation of nature or via the startling new practice of “experiment”.

So we arrive at the modern world, if not in an exactly straight line. Rather it is reached by a plethora of men (invariably) who held, from a modern perspective, simultaneously competing and confounding ideas. The strength of Ball’s book lies in his ability to turn his research into astute and captivating observations of these people and what they perceived as they unwrapped nature. At the same time he chronicles how the invention and use of novel instruments – the telescope, microscope and the air-pump – rocked beliefs about the world and the acceptable limits to curiosity.

Curiosity is a fascinating insight into what frames the questions that scientists ask, it is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how science shapes, and is shaped, by society.

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