Sunday, June 17, 2012

Five notable books on the origins of curiosity

Philip Ball is a science writer, with a degree in chemistry from Oxford and a doctorate in physics from Bristol University. He was an editor for the journal Nature for over 10 years, and now writes a regular column in Chemistry World. Ball's books include Critical Mass: How One Things Leads to Another, which won the 2005 Aventis Prize for science books, and the recently published Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything.

At The Browser, Ball discussed five top books on the origins of curiosity with Alec Ash, including:
Wonders and the Order of Nature
by Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park

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.
Read about another book Ball tagged at The Browser.

Learn more about Philip Ball and his work at his website and blog.

Writers Read: Philip Ball.

--Marshal Zeringue