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what does curiosity actually mean?

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Robert Hooke, star of the early Royal Society

Robert Hooke, star of the early Royal Society

You might say that Philip Ball has performed a curious task with his book, Curiosity. He’s taken this term, which we moderns might take for granted, and examined what intellectuals and the public have made of it down through the ages – with a particular focus on that wobbly symbol of the seventeenth century British scientific enlightenment, the Royal Society. I’ve been spending a bit of time in the seventeenth century lately, what with Dava Sobel’s book on the struggle to measure longitude, Matthew Cobb’s book on the untangling of the problem of eggs and sperm and conception, not to mention Bill Bryson’s lively treatment of Hooke, Leeuwenhoek and cells and protozoa in A Short History of Nearly Everything.

That century, with some of its most interesting actors, including Francis Bacon, René Descartes, William Harvey, Jan Swammerdam, Nicolas Steno, Johann Komensky (aka Comenius), Samuel Butler, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Thomas Shadwell, Margaret Cavendish and Isaac Newton, represented a great testing period for science and its reception by the public. Curiosity has always had its enemies, and still does, as evidenced by some Papal pronouncements of recent years, but in earlier, more universally religious times, knowledge and its pursuit were treated with great wariness and suspicion, a suspicion sanctioned by the Biblical tale of the fall. The Catholic Church had risen to a position of great power in the west, though the revolting Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists and their ilk had spoiled the party somewhat, and England in particular, having grown in pride and prosperity during the Elizabethan period, was flexing its muscles and exercising its grey matter in exciting new ways. The sense of renovation was captured by  the versatile Bacon, with works like the Novum Organum (New Method), The New Atlantis and The Advancement of Learning.

In the past I’ve described curiosity and scepticism as the twin pillars of the scientific mindset, but they’re really more like a pair of essential forces that interact and modify each other. Scepticism without curiosity is just pure negativity and nihilism, curiosity without scepticism is directionless and naive.

But perhaps that’s overly glib. What, if any, are the limits of curiosity, and when is it a bad thing? It killed the cat, after all.

The word derives from the Latin ‘cura’, meaning care. Think of the word ‘curator’. However, if you think of one of the most curious works of the ancients, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, you’d have to say, from a modern perspective, that little care was taken to separate truth from fiction in his massive and sometimes bizarre collection of curios. This sort of unfiltered inclusivity in collecting ‘facts’ and stories goes back at least to Herodotus, the ‘father of lies’ as well as of history, and it goes forward to medieval bestiaries and herbaria. These collections of the weird and wonderful were, of course, not intended to be scientific in the modern sense. The term ‘science’ wasn’t in currency and no clear scientific methodologies had been elaborated. As to curiosity, it certainly wasn’t a fixed term, and after the political establishment of Christianity, it was more often than not seen in a negative light. ‘We want no curious disputation after possessing [i.e. accepting the truth of] Jesus Christ’, wrote Tertullian in the early Christian days. Another early Christian, Lactantius [c240-c320], explained that the reason Adam and Eve were created last was so that they’d remain forever ignorant of how their god created everything else. That was how it was intended to be. Modern creationists follow this tradition – God did it, we don’t know how and we don’t really care.

Fast forward to Francis Bacon, who still, in the early 17th century, had to contend with the view of curiosity as a sinful extravagance, a view that had dominated Europe for almost a millennium and a half. Bacon had quite a pragmatic, almost business-like view of curiosity as a tool to benefit humanity. The ‘cabinet of curiosities’ was becoming well established in his time, and Bacon advised all monarchs, indeed all rich and powerful men, to maintain one, well sorted and labelled, as if to do so would be magically empowering. The problem with these cabinets, though, was that there was little understanding about the relations between entities and articles. That’s to say, there was little that was modernly scientific about them. Their objects were largely unrelated rarities and oddities, having only one thing in common, that they were ‘curious’. Bacon recognised that this wouldn’t quite do, and tried to point a way forward. He didn’t entirely succeed, but – small steps.

Ball’s book is at pains to correct, or at least provide nuance to, the standard view of Bacon as initiator of and father-figure to the British scientific enlightenment. In fact, Bacon may have been a Rosicrucian, and his utopian New Atlantis describes a more or less priestly caste of technical experts, living and working in Solomon’s House, and keeping their arts and knowledge largely under wraps, like the alchemists and mages of earlier generations. Bacon, with his government connections and his obvious ambition to be benefited by as well as benefiting the state, was concerned to harness knowledge to productivity and profit, and those who see science largely as a coercion of nature have cursed him for it ever since. Mining and metallurgy, engineering and manufacturing were his first subjects, but he also imagined great changes in agriculture – the breeding of plants, fruits and flowers, as well as animals, to create ‘super-organisms’, in and out of season, for our benefit and delight. The art and science of the kitchens of Solomon’s House produces superior dishes, as well as wines and other beverages, and printing and textiles have advanced greatly, with new fabrics, papers, dyes and machinery. Even the weather is subject to manipulation, with rain, snow and sunshine under the control of the savants. The details of all these advancements are kept vague of course, (and here’s where Bacon’s insistence on ‘secret knowledge’ plays to his advantage, a point not sufficiently noted by Ball in his need to connect Bacon with the the alchemist-magicians of the past) but what is represented here is promise, a faith in human ingenuity to improve on the products of the natural world.

In focusing on all these benefits, Bacon manages largely to sidestep the religious aversion to curiosity as a form of intellectual avarice. However, Bacon and his more curious compatriots were never too far from the magical dark arts. Few intellectuals of this period, for example, would have dismissed alchemy out of hand, in spite of Chaucer’s delicious mockery of it over 200 years before, or Ben Jonson’s more contemporaneous take in The Alchemist. What differentiated Bacon was an interest in system, however vaguely adumbrated, and a harnessing of this system to the interests of the state.

Bacon tried to interest James I in a state sponsored proto-scientific institution, but this got nowhere, largely because he couldn’t devise anything like a practical program for such an entity, but a generation or two after his death, after a civil war, a brief republic and a restoration, the Royal Society was formed under the more or less indifferent patronage of Charles II. Bacon was seen as its guiding spirit, and there was an expectation, or hope, that its members would be virtuosi, a term then in currency. As Ball explains:

The virtuoso was ‘a rational artist in all things’… meaning the arts as well as the sciences, pursued methodically with a scientist’s understanding of perspective, anatomy and so forth. (It is after all in the arts that the epithet ‘virtuoso’ survives today.) The virtuoso was permitted, indeed expected, to indulge pure curiosity: to pry into any aspect of nature or art, no matter how trivial, for the sake of knowing. There was no sense that this impulse need be harnessed and disciplined by anything resembling a systematic program, or by an attempt to generalise from particulars to overarching theories.

Charles II, in spite of having some scientific pretensions, paid scant attention to his own Society, and neglected to fund it. What was perhaps worse for the Society was his amused approval of a hit play of the time, Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso, which satirized the Society through its central character, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack. The play, as well as many criticisms of the Society’s practices by the likes of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the aristocratic Margaret Cavendish (Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), presented another kind of negativity vis-a-vis unbridled curiosity, more modern, if not more pointed than the old religious objections.

The play-goer first encounters Sir Nicholas Gimcrack lying on a table making swimming motions. He tells his visitors that he’s learning to swim, but they are dubious about his method. His response:

I content myself with the speculative part of swimming; I care not for the practick. I seldom bring anything to use; tis not my way. Knowledge is my ultimate end.

This was the updated criticism. Pointless observations and experiments, leading nowhere and of no practical use. Gimcrack appears to have been based on Robert Hooke, one of the Royal Society’s most brilliant members, who was suitably enraged on viewing the play. Shadwell mocked Hooke’s prized invention, the air pump, intended to create a vacuum for the purpose of observing objects inserted into it, and he presented a jaundiced view of Gimcrack, through the dialogue of his niece, as ‘a sot that has spent two thousand pounds in microscopes to find out the nature of eels in vinegar, mites in a cheese, and the blue of plums.’ These were all examined in Hooke’s ground-breaking and breath-taking work Micrographia.

Most of Shadwell’s mockery hasn’t stood the test of time, but he was far from the only one who targeted the practices and the approach of the Society and of ‘virtuosi’, sometimes with humour, sometimes with indignation. Their criticisms are worth examining, both for what they reveal of the era, and for their occasional relevance today. Many of them seem totally misplaced – mocking the ‘weighing of air’, which they naturally saw as the weighing of nothing, or the examining, through the newish tool the microscope, of a gnat’s leg. It should be recalled that Hooke, through his microscopic investigations, was the first to highlight and to name the individual cell. Yet it was a common criticism of the era, due largely to the ignorance of the interconnectedness of all things that the scientifically literate now take for granted, that these explorations were simply time-wasting dilettantism. The philosophical curmudgeon Thomas Hobbes, for example, firmly believed that experiments couldn’t produce significant truths about the world. It seems that the general public, who didn’t have access to such things, saw microscopes and telescopes as magical devices which didn’t so much reveal new worlds as to create them. If they couldn’t be verified with one’s own eyes, how could these visions be trusted? And there was the old religious argument that we weren’t meant to see them, that we should keep to our god-given limitations.

Generally speaking, as Ball describes it, though the criticisms and misgivings weren’t so clearly religious as they had been, they centred on a suspicion about unrestrained curiosity and questioning, which might lead to an undermining of the social order (a big issue after the recent upheavals in England), and to atheism (they were on the money with that one). They had a big impact on the Royal Society, which struggled to survive in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It’s worth noting too, that the later eighteenth century Enlightenment on the continent was much more political and social than scientific.

But rather than try to analyse these criticisms, I’ll provide a rich sample of them, without comment. None of them are ‘representative’, but together they give a flavour of the times, or of the more conservative feeling of the time.

[Is there] anything more Absurd and Impertinent than a Man who has so great a concern upon his Hands as the Preparing for Eternity, all busy and taken up with Quadrants, and Telescopes, Furnaces, Syphons and Air-pumps?

John Norris, Reflections on the conduct of human life, 1690

Through worlds unnumber’d though the God be known,

‘Tis ours to trace him only in our own….

The bliss of man (could pride that blessing find)

Is not to act or think beyond mankind;

No powers of body or of soul to share,

But what his nature and his state can bear.

Why has not a man a microscopic eye?

For this plain reason, man is not a fly.

Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n,

T’inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav’n? …

Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;

Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:

His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,

His time a moment, and a point his space.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

There are some men whose heads are so oddly turned this way, that though they are utter strangers to the common occurrences of life, they are able to discover the sex of a cockle, or describe the generation of a mite, in all its circumstances. They are so little versed in the world, that they scarce know a horse from an ox; but at the same time will tell you, with a great deal of gravity, that a flea is a rhinoceros, and a snail an hermaphrodite.

… the mind of man… is capable of much higher contemplations [and] should not be altogether fixed upon such mean and disproportionate objects.

Joseph Addison, The Tatler, 1710

But could Experimental Philosophers find out more beneficial Arts then our Fore-fathers have done, either for the better increase of Vegetables and brute Animals to nourish our bodies, or better and commodious contrivances in the Art of Architecture to build us houses… it would not onely be worth their labour, but of as much praise as could be given to them: But as Boys that play with watry Bubbles, or fling Dust into each others Eyes, or make a Hobby-horse of Snow, are worthy of reproof rather then praise, for wasting their time with useless sports; so those that addict themselves to unprofitable Arts, spend more time then they reap benefit thereby… they will never be able to spin Silk, Thred, or Wool, &c. from loose Atomes; neither will Weavers weave a Web of Light from the Sun’s Rays, nor an Architect build an House of the bubbles of Water and Air…  and if a Painter should draw a Lowse as big as a Crab, and of that shape as the Microscope presents, can any body imagine that a Beggar would believe it to be true? but if he did, what advantage would it be to the Beggar? for it doth neither instruct him how to avoid breeding them, or how to catch them, or to hinder them from biting.

[Inventors of telescopes etc] have done the world more injury than benefit; for this art has intoxicated so many men’s brains, and wholly employed their thoughts and bodily actions about phenomena, or the exterior figures of objects, as all better arts and studies are laid aside.

Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 1666

[A virtuoso is one who] has abandoned the society of men for that of Insects, Worms, Grubbs, Maggots, Flies, Moths, Locusts, Beetles, Spiders, Grasshoppers, Snails, Lizards and Tortoises….

To what purpose is it, that these Gentlemen ransack all Parts both of Earth and Sea to procure these Triffles?… I know that the desire of knowledge, and the discovery of things yet unknown is the pretence; but what Knowledge is it? What Discoveries do we owe to their Labours? It is only the discovery of some few unheeded Varieties of Plants, Shells, or Insects, unheeded only because useless; and the knowledge, they boast so much of, is no more than a Register of their Names and Marks of Distinction only.

Mary Astell, The character of a virtuoso, 1696

There are many other such comments, very various, some attempting to be witty, others indignant or contemptuous, and some quite astute – the Royal Society did have more than its share of dabblers and dilettantes, and was far from being simply ‘open to talents’ – but for the most parts the criticisms haven’t dated well. You won’t see The Virtuoso in your local playhouse in the near future. Wide-ranging curiosity, mixed with a big dose of scepticism and critical analysis of what the contemporary knowledge provides, has proved itself many times over in the development of scientific theory and an ever-expanding world view, taking us very far from the supposedly ‘better arts and studies’ the seventeenth century pundits thought we should be occupied by, but also making us realize that the science that has flowed from curiosity has mightily informed those ‘better arts and studies’, which can be perhaps best summarized by the four Kantian questions, Who are we? What do we know? What should we do? and What can we hope for?

a particle of curiosity

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Curiosity, switched on, can take you to a fabulous place very quickly. Look at this piece of paper. What is it made of? What does it look like? If you were a nanoparticle – but what kind of nanoparticle? – landing on this paper, would you, in fact, land? Would you pass through it? And how long would that take you? And what would it feel like? What colours would you see? What patterns would you make? What dangers would you encounter? Would you be able to demarcate boundaries? Should you revel in the experience or take copious notes? It would be magical, but do you believe in magic? Perhaps only if your nanoparticle life is a matter of a moment….

Written by stewart henderson

May 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm