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Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything

Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything

by Philip Ball

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There was a time when curiosity was condemned.

Through curiosity, our innocence was said to be lost. Yet this hasn't deterred us. Today we spend vast sums trying to recreate the first instants of creation in particle accelerators, out of pure desire to know. There seems now to be no question too vast or too trivial. No longer reviled, curiosity is now


There was a time when curiosity was condemned.

Through curiosity, our innocence was said to be lost. Yet this hasn't deterred us. Today we spend vast sums trying to recreate the first instants of creation in particle accelerators, out of pure desire to know. There seems now to be no question too vast or too trivial. No longer reviled, curiosity is now celebrated.

By examining the rise of curiosity from the dawn of modern science to today, we can examine how it functions in science, how it is spun, packaged and sold, and how the changing shape of science influences the kinds of questions it may ask.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Well into the 16th century, curiosity was frowned upon. Ball (former editor, Nature; Why Society Is a Complex Matter: Meeting Twenty-first Century Challenges with a New Kind of Science) argues that an evolving attitude toward inquiry played almost as important a role in shaping the 17th-century scientific revolution as did the actual discoveries made, theories proposed, or methodological changes wrought in the way science was conducted. He shows that the path to modern science was neither simple nor linear. For example, the distinctions between science and pseudoscience (both of which encouraged curiosity) were not clear from the start. "Experiments" weren't conducted as rigorously as today, and it was often unclear what deserved attention out of the profusion (and confusion) of phenomena that nature offered. Even such giants as Galileo, Robert Boyle, and Newton were neither one kind of practitioner nor the other. Galileo probably fudged the results of some of his experiments, Boyle was fascinated by alchemy, and Newton's preoccupation with biblical chronology is well documented. VERDICT Although Ball doesn't shed new light on the subject, he possesses the gift of making complicated topics compelling and understandable. A substantial work in the history of science, this engaging title should appeal to serious readers, both academic and armchair.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Publishers Weekly
Freelance writer Ball (Critical Mass) worked for 20 years as an editor at Nature, a magazine essentially dedicated to fostering and satisfying the curiosity of everyone from would-be E.O. Wilsons to, well, E.O. Wilson. But according to Ball, the curious haven’t always been held in high esteem—in the classical world, the curious person was regarded as “a meddler and a nuisance or hazard to society.” That may sometimes be the case—the image of a cheap chemistry set blowing up in an inquisitive kid’s face is a familiar one—but the world has benefited enormously from those who shirked the status quo, risked religious condemnation, and pursued wild ideas til they became accepted knowledge. Focusing on the 16th and 18th centuries, Ball looks at the transformation of curiosity from stigma to scientific stimulus through a survey of important figures like Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes, as well as critical inventions and discoveries, including the telescope and supernovae. Ball also traces the evolution of the scientific method, and shows how even respected thinkers like philosopher Thomas Hobbes refused to believe that experimentation could uncover truth. This history of wonder is at times too dense for even dedicated meddlers, but those willing to stay the course will find their curiosity alternately sated and piqued. 38 halftones, 5 line drawings. (Apr.)
Sunday Times (UK)
“Philip Ball’s fascinating book revels not just in the experiments of these early scientists, but also in their humanity, foibles and passions. Curiosity may lead us down blind alleys as often as it enlightens, but Ball shows that it is a vital part of what makes us human.”
Literary Review
Curiosity is a wonderful book that revises popular assumptions about the Scientific Revolution with great wit and insight. . . . Philip Ball wants to retain the excitement and fervor that drove scientific curiosity from the seventeenth century onwards and celebrate the ‘love, the awe, the passion’ that scientists feel but repress in their research because of the curious history of scientific experimentation. In this, Ball distinguishes himself as unquestionably one of our finest—and most curious—writers on the history and future of science."
“Offers a wide-ranging account of what used to be called the scientific revolution—a term that historians of science now tend to use at arm’s length, wrapping it in quotation marks, for fear of sounding simplistic (or, even worse, triumphalist). Almost everyone of importance between Copernicus and Newton is discussed here, and a great deal of information is imparted in a user-friendly and thought-provoking way.”
Guardian (UK)
“A wonderfully nuanced and wise study of the scientific revolution. . . . Philip Ball shows that there wasn't just one kind of science in the 17th century: Bacon, Galileo, Boyle and Newton were all doing different things, appropriate to their respective disciplines.”
Wall Street Journal
Curiosity emerges as a first-rate popular account of how science in Europe began. Accurate, witty, and reliable, the book ably shows modern readers how we got to be modern. Philip Ball adeptly sketches the virtuoso sensibility: a combination of intellectual nosiness and experimental dexterity plus the belief that, as he writes, ‘to understand everything, you could start from anywhere.’”
Washington Independent Review of Books
“When we think of curiosity as a motivator for research, quirky or otherwise, we’re assuming a modern definition for the term, something along the lines of 'a desire to know or learn.' And one of the first things we discover in Philip Ball’s engaging, meticulously detailed and abundantly entertaining history Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything is that the word has had many connotations through the ages. . . . This book [is] a joyful feast for the curious among us.”
Chemical Heritage
“An entertaining and thorough narrative. . . . I highly recommend Curiosity for anyone interested in science.”
New York Review of Books
“In Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, the science writer Ball, a former editor at Nature, reveals how curiosity, combined with wonder, has driven the scientific enterprise since the seventeenth century, and how the ever-transmuting nature of curiosity shifted the practice of science to the highly specialized and impersonal activity that it is perceived as today. Ball traces the intellectual history of curiosity, from the Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN that harks back to a view of nature as holding secrets that must be teased out with experimental apparatuses. He shows how curiosity went from being seen as a vice in medieval Catholic Europe, to a shallow form of inquisitiveness that inspired learned societies like the London philosophical club, and then, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, got recast as a virtue. Changes in the notion of curiosity from vice to virtue, he argues, have gone hand in hand with the development of empirical methods in science.”
San Francisco Book Review
“The book is well-documented and exciting, driving the reader to unexpected vistas.  His clever approach to complex scientific concepts is hypnotizing, directing our intellectual selves to fresh ideas and new horizons.  This book must be read and appreciated.”
starred review Booklist
“To explain the shift that transformed curiosity from a dangerous temptation to a praiseworthy motivation, Ball revisits the intellectually restless lives of great scientists across the centuries, including Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton. But readers soon learn that the work of investing curiosity with a new and positive value also involved astrologers, magicians, courtiers, and mystics. . . . As the story of how a strange coalition of revolutionaries defied traditional restraints on the hunger for new knowledge, Ball’s history of curiosity tells readers much about the dangerous adventure of being a modern human.”

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By Philip Ball


Copyright © 2012 Philip Ball
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-04579-5

Chapter One

Old Questions

To whatever object the eye first turns, the same is a wonder and full of wonder, if only we examine it for a little. Giovanni Dondi (c.1382)

The important thing is not to stop questioning ... Never lose a holy curiosity. Albert Einstein (1955)

'The Large Hadron Collider is a discovery machine. Its research program has the potential to change our view of the universe profoundly, continuing a tradition of human curiosity that's as old as mankind itself.' This is Robert Aymar, former director general of CERN, the European centre for particle physics in Geneva, explaining why the collider has been constructed.

The LHC is the world's most powerful particle accelerator. It uses electromagnetic fields to accelerate protons to 99.999999 per cent of the speed of light, so fast that they travel around the entire 27-km circumference of the tunnels in less than a ten-thousandth of a second. Then the protons are smashed into one another in collisions energetic enough to recreate the conditions in the first instants of the Big Bang from which the universe began. The hope is that this will spawn particles never before seen, which will help us to understand some deep questions about the nature of matter, such as why certain types of particle have mass.

At a cost of $6 billion and twenty-five years in the planning, the LHC is as big as Big Science gets. Why go to all this effort and expense? Aymar appeals to the role of human curiosity. He implies that this is just the latest development in an unbroken history of curiosity about nature that stretches back to our own origins. It is, he says, an extension of what we have always done.

Perhaps it is therefore no surprise that, as the LHC's inaugural run in late 2008 approached, the media became fixated on ludicrous fears that the experiment would destroy the world, if not the universe. For tradition teaches us that curiosity – especially curiosity about the Creation – cannot be indulged with impunity. Even if this latest threat of apocalypse was more a public plaything than a genuine cause for dread, it showed that we have still not quite made our peace with curiosity.

But there's more to the LHC than a desire for knowledge. It seeks justification in practical spin-off benefits. 'We are constantly being told that we live in a competitive world in which innovation is the main driver towards growth and prosperity', says Aymar:

History teaches us that big jumps in human innovation come about mainly as a basic result of pure curiosity. [Michael] Faraday's experiments on electricity, for example, were driven by curiosity but eventually brought us electric light. No amount of R&D on the candle could ever have done that.

The underlying assumption here is that voiced by Stephen Hawking in support of the LHC: 'modern society is based on advances in pure science that were not foreseen to lead to practical applications'. Leaving aside the fact that this presents a distorted view of the symbiosis (in fact it is an intimate merging) between science and technology, it is striking how the narrative that Aymar insists on here about curiosity, science and technology contrasts with the defence of curiosity offered by the French philosopher Michel Foucault:

Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity, futility. The word, however, pleases me. To me it suggests something altogether different: it evokes 'concern'; it evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain readiness to break up our familiarities and to regard otherwise the same things; a fervor to grasp what is happening and what passes; a casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential.

Foucault seems to wish to be enchanted and beguiled by curiosity, to be awakened to wonder, to feel a hunger for experiences strange and new that will break down old ideas and distinctions. Here curiosity is a radical force. In science, on the other hand, curiosity is more often enlisted in the name of taming the world – it is a compulsion to understand. The curiosity (if that's what it is) motivating the Large Hadron Collider is likely to lead to new hierarchies in our conception of matter and space, while this and other 'curiosity-driven' research is advocated as a source of unforeseen practical bonuses. This is very much the sober view espoused by Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century: curiosity as an engine of knowledge and power.

Why has curiosity come to stand for these rather different agendas? Can we reconcile them? Is either borne out by history? Those are some of the questions I seek to examine in this book.

The turning point in Western attitudes to curiosity occurred in the seventeenth century, which began with an essentially medieval outlook and ended looking like the first draft of the modern age. This change can be seen in dramatic fashion simply by charting the use of the word 'curiosity' (and its cognates) in the European literature of the period, as historian Neil Kenny has done. The frequency of usage varies little from the mid-sixteenth century until 1650, when it takes off suddenly, peaking in 1700 but remaining high thereafter.

The transformations in thought, particularly in the natural sciences, that characterize the span of nigh on a hundred years between the death of Elizabeth I (1603) and the coronation of Queen Anne (1702) have often been called the Scientific Revolution. Its stories are familiar: Galileo validating Copernicus's sun-centred universe; Isaac Newton explaining the motions of the celestial bodies with his theory of gravity and outlining the basic laws of all mechanical motion; the Anglo-Irish scientist Robert Boyle tolling the death knell of alchemy; the endlessly inventive Robert Hooke exploring the microscopic world and the Dutch cloth merchant Antony van Leeuwenhoek discovering microbes wriggling therein. The conventional narrative identifies the scientific method itself as the key innovation of the age: a logical system for investigating and interpreting all of nature.

This cosy tale tends to imply that natural philosophers simply got better at asking and answering questions, forsaking tautological or mystical reasoning in favour of explanations that invoked cause-and-effect mechanisms, amenable to measurement and testing. There is some truth in that, but it will not get us very far in understanding what these proto-scientists thought and why. Least of all does it justify the conventional narrative in which science merely expands to crowd out superstition. The now well-known interest of Newton and Boyle in alchemy is merely one manifestation of the true origins of the new philosophy in a mode of thought that arose largely outside the formal university system. To the new philosophers, the natural world was replete with secrets that they must hunt down diligently with an experimental approach that was closely allied to the tradition of natural magic. This 'hunt' was to be engaged by international, sometimes occult fraternities of virtuoso-scientists, themselves a construct of utopian visions of which Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1624), the foundational text of the Royal Society of London, was the most influential.

Underpinning all this was a profound change in the nature of the questions one might ask. Nothing was too mean or trivial to be neglected, for as Boyle said, it was all God's work and therefore worthy of attention. A glance at Boyle's own notebooks reveals the dizzying consequence. His lists of 'things to be remembered' suggest that he would, if he could, have made an exhaustive inventory of all that existed or occurred under the sun: 'Remember', he wrote,

    the use of a Coach
    the eyes of Puppys newly whelpt
    the Feathers, Claws and Beaks of birds yet in the shell
    the Gunpowder whole and ground
    Insects and other Creatures that lye as it were dead in the Winter
    Moses's Serpent and the Transmuted water
    that Beauty do's not make the Parts, but result from them as do also
      Health, Harmony, Symmetry
    that Internal Forms may be but lasting Dispositions to be wrought upon
      by External Objects
    the seal'd weather glass &c. and the consequences of such thing
    Monsters, and the longings and frights of teeming women
    the unskilfull Restitution in Springs made by hammering &c.
    to breake a Glass buble in a Barometre.

Popular accounts of the Scientific Revolution rarely stop to think how odd this is. While there was a long, if controversial, history of asking questions about nature and human activity, such enquiries had tended to limit themselves to what was obviously useful, or important, or universal: why plants grow, why winds blow, why we get sick, how the stars and planets progress across the sky. But suddenly, the slightest blemish seen on the surface of a distant planet might spark earnest and learned debate, or the question why fleas can jump so high, or why concentric coloured rings could be seen in mineral flakes under the microscope. The early meetings of the Royal Society embraced a phantasmagoria of phenomena and inventions – some evidently valuable, such as watches for helping chart longitude, others sounding like superstitious or fantastical rumour, such as monstrous births and weird lights in the sky.

And this glimpse of Boyle's restless mind hints at the problem of such eclecticism: how does one make sense of it all? If you can ask anything, then there is no end to the questions. How do you organize all the observations? How do you decide which phenomena are important and which are frivolous? Is anything truly frivolous? But then the task of science is hopeless, because you must always suspect that the next question will challenge your current theory.

Because my survey of the roles of curiosity in science is located almost wholly in the seventeenth century, it might seem unlikely that it will have much to say about the particle physics of the twenty-first. On the contrary, I contend that we can only truly understand what today's scientists – what people like Aymar – say and believe about curiosity if we examine this critical period in which it first came to be explicitly claimed for the purposes of science. It was in the seventeenth century that science first emerged as a modernizing force and altered both our conception of the world and our ability to manipulate it. Pronouncements like those used to justify the LHC are very much predicated on a narrative that roots itself in the conventional, triumphal picture of this 'Scientific Revolution'.

Historians of science tend now to look askance at the bald assertion of a Scientific Revolution. Or rather, they typically adopt the view eloquently expressed by Steven Shapin in his 1996 book on the subject, which begins 'There was no such thing as the Scientific Revolution, and this is a book about it.' Which is to say, perhaps, that the traditional accounts give us the right facts but connect them together in a warped manner. I agree with Shapin that something changed profoundly in natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, but that it prejudices an examination of this transformation to imagine that we know what we are talking about even in using the words 'scientific' and 'revolution'. I argue that one better way to understand this critical period is to look at changes in the meanings and the values it attached to the notion of curiosity. In homage to one of the most perceptive historians of this era, I suggest that there is no such thing as what Robert Aymar calls a 'tradition of human curiosity that's as old as mankind itself' – and this is a book about it.

This singular passion

For the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, curiosity was one of the defining characteristics of humankind (and as such, a good thing):

Desire, to know why, and how [is called] CURIOSITY; such as in no living creature but Man; so that Man is distinguished, not onely by his Reason; but also by this singular Passion from the other Animals.

It was curiosity, said Hobbes, that motivates 'the continuall and indefatigable generation of knowledge'. It was 'a more than ordinary curiosity' about a particular optical phenomenon that made Isaac Newton determined to discover 'from whence it might proceed' – to search for the principles behind it. Unlike carnal passion, said Hobbes, curiosity was not expended with 'short vehemence' but was inexhaustible – as his one-time mentor Francis Bacon said, 'of knowledge there is no satiety'.

But curiosity does not mean and has never meant just a single thing. Even if we accept the modern definition of 'eagerness to know or learn something', there are many ways to be curious. One can flit in gadfly manner from one question to another, acquiring little bits of knowledge without ever allowing them to cohere and mature into a real understanding of the world's mechanisms. One can store up snippets of information like a miser, never putting them to good use. One can pose questions idly or flippantly, with no plan for coherent enquiry into nature. One can be curious about matters that really are none of one's business, such as the sexual habits of one's neighbours. But one can also seek knowledge with serious and considered intent – and may then do so either in the manner of Isaiah Berlin's fox who would know many little things, or as the hedgehog who knows a single thing profoundly. One can be curious obsessively, or passionately, or soberly, or with clinical detachment.

But this is only to scratch the surface of what the word could connote in earlier times. 'Curiosity', says Neil Kenny, 'was understood in so many ways that it had no ineliminable core that always characterized it.' People could be curious, but so could objects: it was an attribute as well as a state of mind. If we call something curious as Alice did ('curiouser and curiouser'), we generally mean to allude to some quality of strangeness in it. This sense is implied in the cult of cabinets of curiosities (explored in Chapter 3), where the 'curios' may be objects that are unusual and intricate but which offer little purchase for the enquiring mind that wants to understand and explain the world. To call an object curious could mean that it was rare, exotic, elegant, beautiful, collectable, valuable, small, hidden, useless, expensive – but conversely, in certain contexts, common, useful or cheap. At any rate, the curious object was one towards which curiosity might properly be directed: to call it 'curious' was not simply to label it as singular, odd or worthy, but to say 'Look at this – and look closely.'

Small wonder, then, that it is often impossible to say whether a particular writer is for or against curiosity. At least three of the key figures in this story – Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Galileo – use 'curiosity' to mean different things at different times. Yet when writers, philosophers and moralists of all ages have pronounced on curiosity, they have typically had only one or some of these many meanings in mind, and their judgements both good and bad can therefore hardly be said to speak to the full range of what it means to be curious. Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, two of the foremost 'historians of curiosity' (a small but perceptive bunch), say of the curiosity praised by Hobbes and that condemned by medieval theologians that, while they share some kinship, they are 'not of the same emotional species'.

'Curious' derives ultimately from the Latin cura, meaning care, and until at least the seventeenth century a 'curious' person could simply refer to one who undertook investigations with diligence and caution. When Robert Hooke said of the blue fly under his microscope that 'the hinder part of its body is cover'd with a most curious blue shining armour', he meant that it appeared to be carefully crafted. From cura also comes the curator, the person who looks after obligations or objects with care, whose modern incarnation as a collator and administrator of collections in a museum or gallery stems directly from the tradition of collecting that spawned the cabinets of curiosities.


Excerpted from Curiosity by Philip Ball Copyright © 2012 by Philip Ball. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance writer who lives in London. He worked for over twenty years as an editor for Nature, writes regularly in the scientific and popular media, and has authored many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and the wider culture, including, most recently, Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


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