How curiosity became transformed
Curiosity; seen as a hazard to society in the classical world, early Christianity condemned it as a sin, and now, in the modern world, it is seen as an essential part of human nature. Somewhere between the late 1500s and 1700s attitudes in Europe changed. The change, according to Phillip Ball in Curiosity, was gradual and far from obvious. In this fascinating book Ball describes how curiosity was transformed over this period from a sense of ‘wonder’ through natural philosophy to the professional curiosity of modern day science.
The emphasis in Curiosity is not on some progress of science, gradual or otherwise, triumphing over the medieval church. Rather Ball presents a nuanced and 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 for turning facts into laws. These facts were either from observation of nature or via the startling new practice of ‘experiment’.
So we arrive at the modern world not by a straight line. Rather it is reached by a plethora of men (invariably) who held what from a modern perspective are competing and confounding ideas at the one time. 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 chronicling the how the invention and use of novel instruments, the telescope, microscope and the air-pump, rocked the beliefs about the world and what were 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.
Philip Ball, Curiosity: how science became interested in everything | 2013 | Vintage| 465 pages | ISBN 9780099554271