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Curiosity: How science became interested in everything

1 rating: 2.0
Book on the history of science by Philip Ball
1 review about Curiosity: How science became interested...

What do we really want to know?

  • Oct 22, 2013
Author Ball frames a fascinating subject:  what do we want to know?  what should we want to know?  what is (and isn't) appropriate to know?  What does science want to know and why, what does theology want us to know, what to accept by faith, and what never to question?  All of these questions Ball categorizes as curiosity in this deep and  sometimes too dense study of the history of science and the scientific revolution, which Ball states was neither.

In part as a corrective for those who believe that science developed out of and distinct from magic, alchemy, and natural philosophy in a small, defined set of events in clear contrast to those past and concurrent ways of thinking, Ball shows how these ways of thinking all overlapped and intertwined in their subject matter and methods.  Ball documents how early thinkers now adopted as founding figures of science (such as Galileo, Newton, and Robert Boyle) who made a clear break with the "unscientific" past, actually thought in ways and studied subjects more congruent with their alchemical peers.  He also traces philosophies of appropriate areas of study back to Aristotle and Plato and shows how much influence these ancient Greek philosophers still carried in intellectual life centuries later.  As the definition of curiosity broadened, the allowable (and patron-approved and funded) areas of study expanded in the fertile span of years from the 16th to the 18th centuries that are at the core of Ball's history.

The subject matter is sometimes better than Ball's approach to it.  While he throws out names, quotes, sources and historical allusions in dense arguments and rapid and sometimes confusing transitions, his central questions can be boiled down to this:

1.  What was allowable and would be funded?  The church, and the governments and kings it both owned and answered to, had a large part to say in answer to this question.  Science, even before the days of "big science", cost money and needed royal approval to proceed unhindered.  Government, church authorities, and wealthy patrons could provide (or withhold, as the church did from Galileo) these vital necessities-and also direct how they were used.  Ball talks about the "cabinets of curiosities" wealthy collectors assembled to satisfy their own curiosities and shows how these data collection efforts sometimes drove science and sometimes favored magical and alchemical displays of wonder-and sometimes the recipients of the finding or the collections moved freely between both ways of thinking.

2.  What did the thinkers themselves consider worthy of curiousity?  What did they want to know?  The answer was sometimes everything, which some thinkers considered indiscriminate collection that wasted precious money and brainpower.   In contrast, Ball quotes Francis Bacon:

God has framed the mind like a glass, capable of the image of the universe, and desirous to receive it as the eye to receive light; and thus it is not only pleased with the variety and vicissitudes of things, but also endeavours to find out the laws they observe in their changes and alterations.

This quote powerfully amplifies the philosophy that I espouse in The catholic reader, the lunch.com website where I post my reviews.  On the other side were those, proto-scientists included, who wanted to drill down on specific topics with deeper focus and increasingly, more specialized instruments like microscopes, telescopes, and air pumps.  This approach brought counter- arguments traced by Ball, some satirical on stage and humorous in print, such as this one liner:  "All philosophy is based on two things only:  curiosity and poor eyesight . . . the trouble is, we want to know more than we can see.". But it also engaged new worlds for investigation as telescopes opened up the solar system and microscopes revealed whole universes of new data for study closer at hand.

As I said, Ball's reach can exceed his grasp, as the fascinating topics sometimes bog down in meandering writing that is too dense for the lay reader to follow.  But if the title and topic, and hopefully this review as well, peak your curiosity, indulge it here.

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October 22, 2013
Thanks for sharing.
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