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Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything

Philip Ball

(University of Chicago Press; US: Apr 2013)

If you’re looking for a bit of light reading about the history of mankind’s inquisitive nature, look elsewhere. If, however, you’re interested in an in-depth, exhaustive inquiry into the concept of curiosity over time as science and philosophy have grown into the disciplines we know them as today, by all means read on.


Anyone who has heard a toddler repeatedly asking “Why? Why? But why?” may suppose humans have always been curious, but inquisitiveness is not a natural state of consciousness, it would seem. In the slow beginnings of natural philosophy, most people were engaged more often in trying to support their families than asking questions. Those few who might have been curious were disconnected from one another, not often working together or sharing their knowledge before technology like the printing press even made such things possible.


Even for those who might have had time and the means to wonder at the natural world, in the past it wasn’t always encouraged or acceptable to inquire into the unseen workings of Mother Nature. Religion, politics, education – these were all factors in circumventing or discouraging a curious mind. At times the authorities acted decisively to bring scientific inquiries to an end, and science suffered major setbacks.


When did natural philosophers get better at asking and answering questions? And when were the most prosperous times for them to pursue their curious questions without fear of reprisal? Philip Ball, a freelance writer in London, dives into the question of how natural philosophers of ancient times (and into the Middle Ages) morphed into our idea of modern-day scientists: experimenting, questioning, and finding out answers. Over time they picked up some of the steps that would become known as the scientific method. They started comparing results, double-checking their answers, and building a solid knowledge base. Once upon a time it was downright gauche to question the hows and whys of our world. Thankfully, times have changed. Ball delivers an exhaustive account of the economic forces, shifts in educational systems, and other factors that have shaped science as we know it. So far.


There was a shift during the scientific revolution from asking sprawling questions to considering just about everything, with nothing deemed too trivial or frivolous. It was in the 17th century that science emerged as a modernizing force. It became acceptable to question why the butterfly has tiny feathers on its wings but isn’t a bird, or why two seeds might look alike but a different shoot could emerge from their shells once planted. There’s no record of the Heavens striking down such inquiries, though the earthly representatives of the Church could be a little more heavy handed.


Ball examines the juicy details about secret scientific societies that recruited clever men of their era and met under the cover of night. Some of the great minds eschewed such societies while others reveled in their arcane activities. You’ll marvel at some of the curio collections, sometimes called Wunderkammern, or chambers of wonders. These could contain shrunken heads, insect and animal specimens, or chunks of sparkly rocks, among an incredible assortment of objects. The value of each item wasn’t as important as its uniqueness and capacity for inspiring awe.


Unfortunately, Ball’s pedantic tone makes the text quite dense and challenging to absorb. You have to be ready for the effort of focusing on the lengthy and convoluted paragraphs in order to learn something. If you’re up to the challenge, the depth and extent of Ball’s research will be very rewarding.


As any proper scholar would, Ball includes at the back of Curiosity a Notes section, a Bibliography, and an Index. A nice addition is the Cast of Characters at the back, with the names of all the included scientific personages, the dates of their lifespans, and a sentence on what they’re known for, or who they worked with.


In today’s world, there doesn’t seem to be an end to the questions we can ask. With the Internet at our fingertips, time is all it takes, and not much time at that, to seek out almost endless information. We can build on past discoveries and join knowledge more efficiently than ever before. Any curious person with a connection to the world wide web can find themselves drawn down the rabbit hole of abundant information.


Perhaps rather than simply being curious, the journey is now about asking the right questions, and understanding how the world’s knowledge is indexed along with the steps necessary to retrieve it. Some ability to avoid distraction by the Internet’s controlling forces (cats and porn, natch), may translate into becomming a better scientist or researcher. Those who are able to harness the vast data streams housed in the cloud will be best positioned to sift the wheat from the chaff, and build the technologies of tomorrow with the straw houses of today.


Ball looks at great luminary minds of the past who sometimes proceeded with their scientific inquiries in unstructured and, honestly, unscientific ways. We can do better.

Rating:

Lara co-hosts and produces the long-running tech and social media HD video podcast, commandN. She works in information management in Atlantic Canada after completing a professional Master's program in Library and Information Studies (MLIS) in 2010. Lara holds an MA in literature from Durham University (UK), and a BA from Boston College (US) in English and philosophy. She has been writing for PopMatters since early 2007. Her favorite authors include Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jasper Fforde. You can often find Lara on Twitter @larakillian.


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It's a thick work full of tangents and an occasional jangle of jargon that pops up like a current of cold water.
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