Sunday, June 17, 2012

Five top 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:
The Age of Wonder
by Richard Holmes

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.
Read about the other books Ball tagged at The Browser.

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

Writers Read: Philip Ball.

--Marshal Zeringue