Curiosity: How Science Became Interested In Everything, by Philip Ball
I must admit that this book’s best quality is probably the author’s ambivalence about what he is talking about. To be sure, I have a very different perspective on science and curiosity and their larger cultural matters, and this book does a good job at reminding the reader (if such a reminder is necessary) that science has always carried with it a large amount of baggage relating to the larger culture and its own ideas and belief systems. Had the author not been deeply interested in science, he likely would have never written this book, and certainly would not have adopted the standard “scientific” beliefs in evolution and the praise of Darwin and other figures that is to be assumed in such books as this. Yet the author is intellectually honest enough not to want to pass off hagiography on Galileo and other figures but to address their complex and often idiosyncratic beliefs and practices openly and honestly, showing that scientists have always been somewhat odd and that the scientific enterprise has always sat uneasily with related societal concerns about the value of curiosity on its own terms, the desire for science to further useful aims and to serve the interests of power, and the question of magic and religion as well as the negative relationship between science and social conservatism.
This particular book is more than 400 pages and begins with a preface, which only hints at the rich detail about science and scientists that the book contains. After that the author looks at the old questions of the early modern period that related to ancient authorities and the hostility of ancient culture to curiosity (1). After that the author examines secret academies of hermetic studies (2), curiosity (3) as well as the ambivalent view of mankind’s quest for knowledge and immoral freedom (4). The author discusses the ideal of the Renaissance polymath (5) as well as the expansion of knowledge that came from exploration (6) and the problem of cosmology (7). There are chapters on early science fiction related to space travel (8), the simultaneously free and bound nature of creation (9), and the early research on microscopes (10). Finally, the author looks at research into optics (11), the view of scientists in popular culture at the time (12) and the way that curiosity became cold as scientists sought legitimacy for their research (13), after which the author includes a cast of characters, notes, a bibliography, image credits, and an index.
The author’s ambivalence towards the larger culture and his awareness of the problematic nature of the scientific enterprise both in history and at present allowed me to better understand my own ambivalence to that scientific enterprise. The author points out that the search for freedom of curiosity has often involved an interest in escaping sexual restraint, and has pointed out that scientists have often presented themselves as privileged and unaccountable elites with esoteric knowledge that is difficult to replicate and that is inaccessible to common people. Science’s relationship with the exploitation of human and physical creation and the connection of curiosity to profit motives are also areas the author appears to be uncomfortable but also honest about. All of this adds nuance to a history of curiosity’s role in science that is deeply interesting and also deeply revealing. As someone with a high view of teleology and a low view both of scientific pretensions as well as the aristocratic pretensions of foppish ignorance, there are plenty of perspectives shown here that I can relate to. And that ability to relate to the people of the past, despite the fact that we live in a very different time ourselves, that marks the real achievement of the author in presenting the humanity and complexity of past figures in the history of science that also reveals us to be less rational and less removed from the debates of the past than we would like to fancy ourselves. We may not live in this past, but the past lives in us.