Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything
- Philip Ball
- University of Chicago Press
- 480 pp
- Reviewed by Paula Novash
- June 19, 2013
Like the “curio cabinets” of the past, this book is stuffed with fascinating accounts of how our views of the natural world have changed.
To bibliophiles, it’s an odd thought that curiosity might ever be considered a bad thing. Our bookshelves most likely contain many admirable volumes we acquired and devoured because the subject matter inspired the authors and intrigued us. Among many semi-quirky choices, I own Monsters of the Gevaudan (author Jay Smith; political, economic and social change in 18th-century France transforms killer wolves into mythological beasts), The Stones of Heaven (authors Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark; Western quest for Eastern imperial green jade leads to misery and uncovers ancient secrets) and A Handbook of Mushrooms (author unknown, 1950s guide to 94 species, beautifully illustrated with text translated from the original Czech).
But 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.
Curiosity has been associated with wonder, taking particular care, accumulating knowledge and power, and the perceived strangeness of an object. It’s also been considered an affront to God, a waste of time and a pointless focusing on trivial information. In the classical world a curious person was presumed to be a meddler, a nuisance and even a hazard.
Ball places these concepts in their social, religious and cultural contexts and uses an evolving definition of curiosity to illuminate our understanding of the 17th-century scientific revolution, with an emphasis on the activities of London’s Royal Society. During that period, according to the conventional narrative, the modern scientific method was birthed as beliefs in cosmic, universal principles gave way to cause-and-effect experimentation and inductive reasoning. But, Ball argues, that’s an overly simplistic view. Instead, he points out, “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.”
And these new philosophers were quite a bunch. Curiosity is stuffed with eccentric characters and enjoyable anecdotes in much the same way that the bulging curio cabinets (the short word for curiosity used in the sense of something considered novel or bizarre) favored by noblemen, physicians and philosophers of the period were crammed with odd objects. For example, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II — sometimes characterized as “more comfortable with wizards and stargazers than with ambassadors and princes,” says Ball — was at various times patron to such significant figures as astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, alchemist Michael Maier and astrologer/mathematician John Dee. But he was also mad, and easily impressed by charlatans and quacks.
Rudolph’s cabinets of curiosities were reportedly fabulous, extending to entire menageries, aviaries, ponds and libraries. Called Wunderkammern, or “chambers of wonders,” the collections might contain thousands of objects, such as botanical specimens, gems, preserved animals, minerals, skulls, weapons and musical instruments — the rarer the better. Ball’s discussion of Wunderkammern is only one example showing not only how the idea of curiosity has changed, but the ramifications these changes have for science today.
The cabinets, says Ball,represent “what curiosity itself was becoming” and “what function it was deemed to have in the study of the natural world.” Then, from differing views about the significance of the collections, a major shift in thinking emerged. Galileo, whose theories of astronomy and mechanics relied on ideas of universal order, was skeptical of them (they’re “nothing but bric-a-brac”); he was concerned that concentrating on unique items muddied the principles underlying natural processes. But the period’s fascination with the remarkable motivated his contemporary Sir Francis Bacon to conclude, as Ball explains, that “deviations were of interest precisely because they offered clues and trails to new secrets, new types of order.”
And thus, “Bacon offered a formal justification for an all-embracing curiosity that could previously have been dismissed as a sign of mere dilettantism or a childish infatuation with wonders.” In other words, curiosity about anomalies becomes an accepted reason for experimentation — one which, Ball points out, has led to discoveries such as quantum theory, “forced upon us by a few niggling problems with what otherwise seemed to be a satisfying and complete scheme of classical physics.”
Thank goodness Ball includes a helpful “Cast of Characters.” Besides the usual suspects — da Vinci, Descartes, Aristotle, Hooke and Newton — Curiosity features a host of more obscure yet equally fascinating (and amusing) personalities. One example is Margaret Cavendish, a 17th-century Duchess and self-taught philosopher with scientific aspirations. Among other theories, Cavendish asserted that magnification cannot be trusted because it distorts, although, she says, “I am not able to give a solid judgment of the art of ‘microscopy’ … by reason I have neither studied nor practiced that art.”
Ball introduces the book’s final chapter by discussing the Harvard-sponsored Ig Nobel awards, which, ironically, celebrate modern science that is “deemed particularly noteworthy in its extravagant whimsicality.” (One such experiment drops a swimmer in a pool filled with maple syrup, to determine if she can move faster than in water.) This self-mockery in the scientific community, he says, diffuses the “tension and suspicion” between stereotypical bloodless, goal-oriented “bean counting in an ivory tower” science and a more wonder-driven view in which the evolution of thinking about curiosity has played an important role.
His conclusion? Scientists are too human to hide behind “a carefully regulated discourse of dispassionate enquiry,” Ball says. “They can disguise their excitement to conform to their professional conventions, but they can’t fool us. The love, the awe, the passion they feel for their work leaks out.” As does our enthusiasm for this book, a joyful feast for the curious among us.
Paula Novash has written on topics ranging from rock climbing to sushi, and edits books, articles and journals in fields that include medicine, linguistics, philanthropy and neuroscience. She has read each of the three volumes mentioned in the introduction more than once.