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The best books on The Origins of Curiosity

recommended by Philip Ball

Modern science emerged only when it became acceptable to ask any question about anything – and that required erosion of traditional hierarchies, says the science writer

Interview by Alec Ash

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Humans have presumably been curious since the first homo sapiens tried knocking two pieces of flint together. But when did science get real about figuring out how things really work?

That’s a tricky question. It’s certainly true that the instinct to know more about our environment must go back as far as humanity does, and before. That makes perfect sense because there’s an evolutionary advantage to knowing more about what surrounds you. So from that point of view, there’s no mystery why we are curious.

In my new book, however, I really interrogate this slippery concept of curiosity. If you look back to classical times, it’s clear that people in ancient Greece were asking questions about how nature worked that to us look just like curiosity, but they would never have used that word or its Greek equivalent. To them, curiosity was something quite different, all about prying into things that didn’t concern you. There was a hierarchy to asking questions about the world. Some questions were clearly important and some weren’t worth asking, often those to do with particulars rather than overarching themes or principles.

The case I argue is that science in the modern sense only really took off when that hierarchy started to be eroded – when it became acceptable to ask any question about anything. That really began to happen towards the end of the 16th century and particularly in the 17th century. Curiosity also had theological connotations. Most obviously in the Christian tradition, curiosity was problematic and impious, trying to pry into God’s creation. If something was hidden, a lot of medieval theologians thought, then it was something that God intended us not to know about.

So curiosity was anathema to religion?

Yes, it was. The position of a lot of theologians in the Middle Ages was that there was no need to be curious, because everything we needed to know was in the scriptures, or in Aristotle and Aquinas which had acquired the status of quasi-scripture. The idea was that there was no need to look any further than that.

When we talk about curiosity, what do we really mean here?

I think it means that we can ask any question. That there is no reason why trying to understand the minutiae of a gnat’s leg is out of bounds. It’s not necessarily too trivial. Some of the people who supported the rise of curiosity in the late 16th and early 17th centuries made the point that scientists still make today – that you never know where something is going to lead when you start asking questions. It’s small questions that have led to some of the biggest discoveries.

We were very clearly reminded of that at the beginning of the era of quantum theory, where there were very small inconsistencies between what experiments told us and what theory told us ought to happen. It would have been tempting to disregard that, and say there’s just some little detail wrong, but because scientists at the turn of the century worried away at those little inconsistencies, we opened up a completely new way of understanding the world.

And the renaissance of curiosity in the 17th century that you write about led to this?

I think it’s that impulse to follow our own desire to get to the bottom of things that has allowed modern science to emerge. And it’s those sorts of questions that still motivate a great deal of modern science today. The questions being probed at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN seem very esoteric, but they are ultimately questions about big things such as what the fundamental relationships are between the forces and the particles that make up the world, and whether there are extra dimensions to the universe.

So we’re often given the idea that scientists are trying to answer grand questions about how the universe began and where we’re going, and some scientists are trying to do that, but the majority aren’t. They’re actually asking very small questions about particular aspects of the way that atoms or molecules behave – questions that don’t seem to have any broader ramifications for our conception of ourselves in the universe. But this has, I believe, always been the mainstay of science, and it’s by looking at questions like this that we find the larger questions. That was certainly true for Darwin. He was looking at the minutiae of the natural world, and by doing so he realised that there was a grander scheme to it all.

Let’s get into your books. Your first choice looks at the period 1150-1750.

This is a wonderful book by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park which first got me interested in these questions of curiosity. It looks at questions that have a lot of relevance for science, without at all being a book about science. Rather, it’s a book about the development of thought, and about how our cultural conceptions of certain aspects of thought have evolved. In this case, the real question that they are looking at is in the second part of the title – the order of nature.

That question, in the period that they consider, was filtered through the idea of there being wonders in the world. By that, I mean extraordinary phenomena or oddities, often things that didn’t seem to fit within the classical scheme of the world that Aristotle and Plato had developed. It’s the kind of impulse that seems to have motivated Pliny, for example, to put together his Natural History – a huge, multi-volume work about all aspects of the natural world which in some ways is a catalogue of the weird and marvellous and completely fantastical. And it led to theological questions about why these oddities existed. Were they nature gone wrong, or were they put there by God for our own instruction?

What are some of these monstrosities under discussion?

Monstrous births, for example. If there were births of deformed horses or cattle, or of course people, they were seen as portents that happened because God was trying to tell us something, or warn us in the same way that strange weather or comets were seen as warnings. It’s interesting how that concept evolved into seeing them as natural phenomena as well – that they didn’t represent God’s hand but did nevertheless represent a deviation from natural laws.

It’s interesting to me how that idea carries through to modern science, where deformities and abnormalities – particularly in the natural world in terms of biological growth – often provide clues to the way things happen normally. Strange things that happen in the brain, for instance, give us important information about how the normal brain functions.

Oliver Sacks territory.

Absolutely. In a sense, Oliver Sacks writes about mental monsters that point to a broader scheme of, in this case, how the brain is organised.

Your next book takes us forward to 1559.

This book gives fantastic context for how people have thought about nature as a treasure trove of secrets. It goes back to the question of whether it is acceptable to pursue your curiosity. William Eamon has a very nice section on religious attitudes to curiosity in the Middle Ages, when trying to find out nature’s secrets was very much frowned upon. The book also takes us through to the idea that began to emerge in the middle of the 16th century, of nature as full of secrets that we could decode.

The story centres around 1559, with the publication of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Della Porta’s book Natural Magic. There was a whole vernacular style of “books of secrets” that were being released at that time, extremely strange compendia of information which linked into older, magical ideas. Della Porta’s volume was a classy version of these popular booklets. But behind it there was a philosophy of natural magic, that by then had matured into the concept of nature as a network of hidden or occult forces governing everything that happened. The aim of a natural philosopher like Della Porta was to be able to understand these forces and manipulate them, bringing about things that wouldn’t occur in the normal course of nature.

Can you drop us a couple of examples? I gather there are passages about how to sire a multicoloured horse, or create an egg the size of a human head.

One of the classic examples which was much debated in the 16th century, often attributed to [Renaissance physician and occultist] Paracelsus is called the weapon salve. This was the theory that you could heal a weapon-inflicted wound by applying an ointment not to the wound but to the weapon. It makes no sense and sounds like complete nonsense from our perspective, but the idea was that there was a hidden, occult force connecting the two, so you were transmitting the agency from one to the other.

If you think about it in the terms of the day, it wasn’t an obviously crazy notion, and that’s why it created so much debate – according to natural magic, there was no reason to think why it couldn’t work. You would imagine that anyone who tried it would find out soon enough that it had no effect whatsoever. But then again, most medicine at that time was worse than useless, it was positively harmful, so anything medical that was equivalent to doing nothing perhaps stood a better chance of putting things right than any of the conventional medicine.

Your third pick runs up to 14 volumes in some editions. Why should we bother with it?

This is a crazy, multi-volume set authored by a historian called Lynn Thorndike in the early 20th century. He sets out at the beginning his notion that the history of magic and of experimental science are closely allied, and that in some ways magicians were the first experimental scientists. He initially just wanted to look at that idea in the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe, but somehow he ended up doing the whole job, from ancient times through to the end of the 17th century, which was when magic started to disappear from European society.

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Thorndike himself is quite intolerant of these magicians, and sees what they were saying as crazy and completely unsupportable. But nevertheless this was an early effort to try to be sympathetic to what in previous times had just seemed like pure superstition – the idea that there were magical forces.

There are still a lot of folk who believe in the occult today.

The problem for this tradition of magic is that all of the stuff in it which was of any value – ideas of occult forces that fed into, for example, Newton’s conception of gravity or early studies of magnetism – eventually became assimilated into science. What was left was the folk traditions that have always existed, that really are pure superstition. So if you talk about the occult now, it is clearly discredited. Any value in that kind of thinking had long since transferred itself onto science, and we’re just left with the residue. But there’s a continuity between those early ideas about magic which goes through Rosicrucianism and eventually comes out in Mormonism in the United States.

So Mitt Romney believes in magic, then?

Well, there’s a close connection between ideas of the occult and any sort of fundamentalist religion – and certainly Mormonism. This, and things like homeopathy, are what we are left with from what were once serious intellectual traditions.

The Age of Wonder takes us forward to the scientific enlightenment of the Romantic period, in the late 18th century.

This comes directly after the period I looked at myself. Daston and Park argued that there was an age of wonder in medieval times, when wonder was regarded as a virtue and curiosity was a vice. Medieval wonder was all about being awed and dumbstruck at what God could create, and your questions stopped there. Whereas the wonder that Richard Holmes is thinking about in this book was an emergent appreciation of the awesomeness of nature – the Romantic notion of the sublime. This was almost a backlash to the strict rationalism that eventually emerged from the so-called scientific revolution during the Enlightenment.

I found Richard’s book inspirational not only because it’s so beautifully written, and deeply informed about the cultural currents of those times, but also because of what it says about how to think and write about science. He says we have to find a more inclusive and generous way of writing about science, that no longer separates science from the rest of culture.

Do you think we are achieving that today?

We have some fantastic writing about science today, and the best science writers do a great job of making complex scientific ideas seem very lucid. But it is still difficult for us to get away from presenting it as a dollop of science separated from everything else, such as culture. I’ve increasingly tried to avoid that – to show how science is embedded in culture, feeds into culture, and is affected by it. And that is what Richard does in this book too, for the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

My Polish grandmother was a Rosicrucian, but I never quite understood what they believed in. What do we learn about them from this book?

It always interests and slightly amuses me what Rosicrucianism is today. It’s sort of like the Rotary Club. Whereas in the early 17th century it was an invented cult. Someone published pamphlets anonymously, saying that there was a secret brotherhood – the order of the rosy cross – that existed throughout Europe. Those who are in it know who they are, it said, and it’s time for them to get together and bring about a new order. This was connected to the religious currents of the time and was basically a Protestant idea, seen as an element of the Protestant struggle against Catholic oppression.

So that is where Rosicrucianism came from, and in this book Francis Yates argues that the early enlightenment – the emergence of science in the 16th century – drew on part of that tradition. It’s widely agreed that Francis Yates pushed this idea too far, into realms that can no longer be upheld. Nevertheless, the idea that there was some kind of link between the development of science and the emergence of secret brotherhoods in the early 17th century has to be taken seriously. You see this motif of secret brotherhoods appear again and again among the writers of that time who then went on to be influential in the history of science, particularly Francis Bacon.

Is curiosity alive and healthy today?

It’s certainly very much talked about. We increasingly talk about curiosity-driven science, which generally means science that doesn’t have to justify itself with an economic bottom line. It’s science that simply looks at a question because it wants to know the answer to it. I suggest in my book that when we look at the history of curiosity, it’s more complex than that. In particular, curiosity has always had an agenda to it. For Francis Bacon, it was an agenda of furthering state power by creating a useful technology. For scientists like Robert Boyle, it was a religious duty of trying to find out as much about what God had created as we could.

So it’s worth stepping back and asking what the agendas of curiosity are today. Space science, for example, is often sold on the basis that it’s curiosity driven – that we just want to explore our cosmos – whereas everyone acknowledges that in the beginning it was driven by the Cold War, and now increasingly by commercial objectives. That may or may not be a bad thing, but we need to acknowledge it.

A final devil’s advocate question – whether we’re looking at the cosmos or the Higgs Boson, isn’t curiosity-driven science too much of an expensive distraction from the really valuable, life-changing science?

Think about when [English scientist] Robert Hooke looked through his microscope in the 17th century, including at insects. He looked at a fly’s head, and saw these multi-faceted eyes. On the one hand, that told him something new about what flies looked like close up. But it also revealed to him the intricacy of the world at scales that we cannot see, and it suggested to him that if it’s that intricate down there, why should we imagine that it ever stops? This opened up to him the vision of an infinitely capable God who could make things on scales way beyond human capability. His discovery, with the microscope, suggested to him a completely new view of our position of the world.

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That, I believe, is why we should be doing stuff like we are at the Large Hadron Collider [looking for the Higgs Boson or “God particle”]. There are worlds within worlds within worlds. The closer you look, the more you see. Asking what may seem to be very recondite, obscure questions have the potential to reorder our conception of the world and our position within it. I think that ought to be motive enough to follow that kind of curiosity, instead of appealing to the notion that we will get practical spin-offs from it. You may do, but I don’t think that you will get any that will repay the original investment, and I don’t think that’s the reason for doing it.

Interview by Alec Ash

May 18, 2012

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Philip Ball

Philip Ball

Philip Ball is an English science writer. He worked for the journal Nature for over 20 years, and continues to write for them, among many other publications. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He has a degree in chemistry from Oxford and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University.

Philip Ball

Philip Ball

Philip Ball is an English science writer. He worked for the journal Nature for over 20 years, and continues to write for them, among many other publications. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He has a degree in chemistry from Oxford and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University.