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With the recent landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, it seems safe to assume that the idea of being curious is alive and well in modern science—that it’s not merely encouraged but is seen as an essential component of the scientific mission. Yet there was a time when curiosity was condemned. Neither Pandora nor Eve could resist the dangerous allure of unanswered questions, and all knowledge wasn’t equal—for millennia it was believed that there were some things we should not try to know. In the late sixteenth century this attitude began to change dramatically, and in Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, Philip Ball investigates how curiosity first became sanctioned—when it changed from a vice to a virtue and how it became permissible to ask any and every question about the world.
Looking closely at the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, Ball vividly brings to life the age when modern science began, a time that spans the lives of Galileo and Isaac Newton. In this entertaining and illuminating account of the rise of science as we know it, Ball tells of scientists both legendary and lesser known, from Copernicus and Kepler to Robert Boyle, as well as the inventions and technologies that were inspired by curiosity itself, such as the telescope and the microscope. The so-called Scientific Revolution is often told as a story of great geniuses illuminating the world with flashes of inspiration. But Curiosity reveals a more complex story, in which the liberation—and subsequent taming—of curiosity was linked to magic, religion, literature, travel, trade, and empire. Ball also asks what has become of curiosity today: how it functions in science, how it is spun and packaged for consumption, how well it is being sustained, and how the changing shape of science influences the kinds of questions it may continue to ask.
Though proverbial wisdom tell us that it was through curiosity that our innocence was lost, that has not deterred us. Instead, it has been completely the contrary: today we spend vast sums trying to reconstruct the first instants of creation in particle accelerators, out of a pure desire to know. Ball refuses to let us take this desire for granted, and this book is a perfect homage to such an inquisitive attitude.
Freelance writer Ball (Critical Mass) worked for 20 years as an editor at Nature, a magazine essentially dedicated to fostering and satisfying the curiosity of everyone from would-be E.O. Wilsons to, well, E.O. Wilson. But according to Ball, the curious haven't always been held in high esteem in the classical world, the curious person was regarded as "a meddler and a nuisance or hazard to society." That may sometimes be the case the image of a cheap chemistry set blowing up in an inquisitive kid's face is a familiar one but the world has benefited enormously from those who shirked the status quo, risked religious condemnation, and pursued wild ideas til they became accepted knowledge. Focusing on the 16th and 18th centuries, Ball looks at the transformation of curiosity from stigma to scientific stimulus through a survey of important figures like Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes, as well as critical inventions and discoveries, including the telescope and supernovae. Ball also traces the evolution of the scientific method, and shows how even respected thinkers like philosopher Thomas Hobbes refused to believe that experimentation could uncover truth. This history of wonder is at times too dense for even dedicated meddlers, but those willing to stay the course will find their curiosity alternately sated and piqued. 38 halftones, 5 line drawings.