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Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything [Paperback]

Philip Ball
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

2 May 2013

There was a time when curiosity was condemned.

Through curiosity, our innocence was said to be lost. Yet this hasn't deterred us. Today we spend vast sums trying to recreate the first instants of creation in particle accelerators, out of pure desire to know. There seems now to be no question too vast or too trivial. No longer reviled, curiosity is now celebrated.

By examining the rise of curiosity from the dawn of modern science to today, we can examine how it functions in science, how it is spun, packaged and sold, and how the changing shape of science influences the kinds of questions it may ask.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (2 May 2013)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0099554275
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099554271
  • Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 144,690 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.

Product Description


"Philip Ball, like Levi, displays a polymath's enthusiasm for knowledge of all kinds, and writes of science with humility and intelligent generosity." (Ian Thomson Telegraph)

"Ball's fascinating book revels not just in the experiments of these early scientists, but also in their humanity, foibles and passions" (Ian Critchley Sunday Times)

"A wonderfully nuanced and wise study of the scientific revolution" (Guardian)

"Fascinating" (Daily Telegraph)

"Philip Ball's scintillating history of curiosity brims with treats" (Nature Magazine)

Book Description

A tour through the history of human curiosity, from its original condemnation as sin, blossoming through the lives of Galileo and Newton, to its current role central to modern society.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
I read this book in one day, it is exceptionally well written and an important popular book.

In my impression, and despite the title, it is first and foremost a history of the scientific revolution, from the first books of secrets to the Royal Society and Newton Hooke and Huygens. The book can be seen as an extension / continuation of his work and interests in Chartres and Paracelcus.

He makes the point, completely correctly, that no-one was working (or could possible have worked) towards creating a scientific revolution. It happened as an unexpected and unforeknowable outcome of men (don't remember any women) working within established modes of thought, contemporary life, society, and economics. Human curiosity and wonderment is then the central driving force of this story, which is told largely thematically and far outside the structure of most traditional histories.

He refers negatively a few times to historians such as Toby Huff who tell a positivist story, but doesn't refer (in my opinion thankfully...) to Kuhn's structure of scientific revolutions.

My main sadness was his apparently complete unawareness of the work of Floris Cohen "How Modern Science Came into the World" a long book conveniently summarised in "Die zweite Erschaffung der Welt" (coincidentally, Cohen has apparently also written a book on music, like Ball). Cohen pays much more attention to the important interaction of science and craft (and the persistent gap in capability between the two) than Ball, and his "packaging" of the Scientific Revolution into several stages is an extremely helpful thought-model.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good popular history of science 20 Nov 2013
By David W. Drake - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a well written and interesting narrative history of science up to the early 19th century. All the big--and many lesser known but important--scientific names are here.
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but all over the map. 10 May 2014
By mam - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book was the reading for my book club, so I felt obligated to finish it. While I learned a great deal about various topics, including the scientific revolution and the history of the British Royal Society, it was a slog. To me, the scaffolding of "curiosity" simply wasn't sturdy enough to hold (up) my interest.
3.0 out of 5 stars How curiosity became transformed 2 Mar 2014
By Kevin Orrman-Rossiter - Published on
Curiosity; seen as a hazard to society in the classical world, early Christianity condemned it as a sin, and now, in the modern world, it is seen as an essential part of human nature. Somewhere between the late 1500s and 1700s attitudes in Europe changed. The change, according to Phillip Ball in Curiosity, was gradual and far from obvious. In this fascinating book Ball describes how curiosity was transformed over this period from a sense of ‘wonder’ through natural philosophy to the professional curiosity of modern day science.

The emphasis in Curiosity is not on some progress of science, gradual or otherwise, triumphing over the medieval church. Rather Ball presents a nuanced and almost chaotic extended period of change. The change is one from the 'scholastic' belief that truth was a "question of authority and status: a fact was verified if it could be found in an authoritative text, but otherwise it was mere hearsay" to experimental philosophers who imagined methods for turning facts into laws. These facts were either from observation of nature or via the startling new practice of 'experiment'.

So we arrive at the modern world not by a straight line. Rather it is reached by a plethora of men (invariably) who held what from a modern perspective are competing and confounding ideas at the one time. The strength of Ball's book lies in his ability to turn his research into astute and captivating observations of these people and what they perceived as they unwrapped nature. At the same time chronicling the how the invention and use of novel instruments, the telescope, microscope and the air-pump, rocked the beliefs about the world and what were the acceptable limits to curiosity.

Curiosity is a fascinating insight into what frames the questions that scientists ask, it is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how science shapes, and is shaped, by society.
4.0 out of 5 stars missing an overall thesis 22 Jan 2014
By Steve - Published on
In this book, you won't find a clearly stated theory of how curiosity evolved within early science, with facts presented that appear to support the theory. Instead, you'll find a series of generally insightful micro-analyses of specific documents and people. Also included in this book are several chapters on early science (for example, the study of light) where curiosity isn't even mentioned. It's not clear why this mostly superfluous material was included except to bulk up the book.

One theory for the development of curiosity in science would describe the development of incentives (social, economic, etc.) and the removal of disincentives for the exercise of curiosity within early science. There are undoubtedly other foundations upon which a theory of curiosity could be built - this is just an example to prime the pump.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some food for thought…if you're curious 6 Jan 2014
By David Last - Published on
This is a more unwieldy account of early modern thinking than we find in Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve. Addressing roughly the same period through a cast of characters ranging from German alchemist Agrippa in the 15th Century through to English astronomer Halley in the 18th, Ball is better than Greenblatt at describing the social context within which the pursuit of experimental science flourished. The Church appears frequently as oppressive enemy of rational thought, with the inquisition clearly giving the renaissance a run for its money. The secret societies (Chapter 2, Academies of Secrets) established in 15th Century Italy for the purposes of testing and publishing recipe books of secret knowledge (some valid, some nonsense) seem to have served the function of laboratories of the day. In the end, there are more disjointed individual anecdotes of learning than a coherent narrative of how the disciplines and universities emerged. For that, McNeely and Wolverton (2008) are a better guide.
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