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Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything

par Philip Ball

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There was a time when curiosity was condemned. To be curious was to delve into matters that didn't concern you -- after all, the original sin stemmed from a desire for forbidden knowledge. Through curiosity our innocence was lost. Yet this has not deterred us.
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A lengthy read, 465 pages. How curoisity was behind the development of science. Beginning with vast collections of curios.
It was interesting to read about the tussles with the various players and their theories. Amazing how much alchemy was mixed with chemistry, easy for us looking back now. The old brass microscope with prepared slides I inherited from my uncle takes on new significance now. It shows the Victorian fascination and wonder in examining God's creation: moss, fly wings, etc under the microscope. ( )
  GeoffSC | Jul 25, 2020 |
Ball, Philip (2012). Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2013. ISBN 9780226045825. Pagine 474. 12,55 €
Appassionato del genere, e avido lettore di questo tipo di libri, ho fatto spesso anche su questo blog (per esempio, qui) la considerazione di quanto sia difficile scrivere di scienza per un pubblico di non specialisti: è necessario saper scegliere un pubblico ipotetico di riferimento (tipo: uno studente appena diplomato alle superiori, oppure un laureato ma in una materia non scientifica o diversa da quella trattata nel volume), una chiave del discorso, un registro. E altre cose più tecniche: nessuna formula? nemmeno aritmetica? esempi numerici sì, ma niente algebra? E poi: limitarsi a un linguaggio semplice e diretto o scrivere “formalmente” in basic English (un’altra delle manie americane di catalogare tutto) o in italiano-base? Cedere o no al rituale di strutturare didatticamente il testo: presentazione dell’argomento / svolgimento del tema / riepilogo finale, nel volume nel suo complesso e, ricorsivamente, in ciascuno delle parti o in ciascuno dei capitoli in cui si articola?
Per niente facile, come avrete capito, e con risultati assai diversi: ne potete avere qualche assaggio nelle recensioni che si sono venute accumulando in questo blog negli oltre 6 anni della sua esistenza.
Ancora più difficile – me ne sono reso conto leggendo, con ammirazione crescente, questo Curiosity – scrivere per non addetti ai lavori, non di scienza, ma di storia e di filosofia della scienza. Cosa che Philip Ball fa da fuoriclasse. Mi voglio sbilanciare: non ho mai letto un libro di storia e filosofia della scienza così ben fatto.
Il libro è articolato in 13 capitoli:
Nel primo si stabilisce il tema della curiosità da un punto di vista contemporaneo: può essere un vizio, ma è un vizio che motiva la ricerca più astratta (blue-sky) ma anche più innovativa (parafrasando una citazione riportata in questo capitolo: la luce elettrica è figlia della curiosità di Faraday, e nessuna spesa in Ricerca e Sviluppo sulla candela ce l’avrebbe data). La curiosità era considerata dai cristiani un peccato (e il giudizio negativo resta nel detto “Curiosity killed the cat”) ma il termine, relativamente poco usato fino ad allora, esplode nella lingua inglese a cavallo del 1650: Thomas Hobbes e Francis Bacon la paragonano alla passione carnale, e favorevolmente perché, a differenza del sesso, la curiosità è insaziabile.
Prima della curiosità c’era la meraviglia, e da qui – oltre che dal neoplatonismo di Leonardo da Vinci – parte il filo conduttore del libro: in questo quadro, è la convinzione che il mondo e la natura nascondano cause segrete e profonde a guidare programmi di ricerca che a noi appaiono bizzarri. Passando per Telesio e il mio adorato Cardano, arriviamo alla fine alla meravigliosa figura di Giambattista Della Porta, fondatore e vertice della napoletana Accademia dei secreti e ispiratore, più tardi, dell’Accademia dei lincei. Della Porta fu accusato di stregoneria dall’Inquisizione, ma a differenza di Giordano Bruno salvò la pelle e – commentando la scoperta che l’aglio non smagnetizza le calamite – ci lasciò in eredità la preziosa osservazione che un piccola verità è meglio di una grande falsità.
Con il terzo capitolo arrivano le grandi corti rinascimentali, i cortigiani descritti da Baldassare Castiglione e i gabinetti di curiosità. Il vertice è toccato, fuori d’Italia, da Rodolfo II, che ben conosciamo grazie al vertiginoso Praga magica di Antonio Maria Ripellino. Ma oltre che per Keplero e Tycho Brahe e per l’Accademia dei lincei, la storia della scienza passa anche per i Rosacroce e le utopie di Tommaso Campanella (La città del sole) e di Francis Bacon (La nuova Atlantide).
Attraverso Bacon e Shakespeare entriamo nell’Inghilterra elisabettiana e incontriamo il matemago John Dee, ponte tra Londra e Praga. Tornati a Bacon, Ball analizza il suo uso del mito (Pan) e della metafora (la ricerca come caccia). Compaiono anche le metafore dell’astuzia e della tortura (con la consapevolezza che dalla tortura non emerge necessariamente la verità): Bacon è anche il primo, nel Novum Organum, a formalizzare il suo metodo.
Siamo ormai nella prima metà del XVII secolo e incontriamo il nostro vecchio amico John Wilkins e il suo club oxfordiano, culla della Royal Society insieme al londinese Gresham College. Eccoci a Boyle e Hooke, ma anche ai legami cosmopoliti della Royal Society (il primo Fellow non inglese fu l’italiano Marcello Malpighi).
Nel sesto capitolo si discute l’impatto degli oggetti e delle osservazioni portate dalle scoperte geografiche: incluse le lingue (e qui incontriamo di nuovo Wilkins e Galileo, che perseguono in modo diverso l’ideale di una sola lingua universale della scienza).
Il settimo capitolo è dedicato all’osservazione del cielo e alle teorie cosmologiche. C’è qui un ritratto roiginale e innovativo (almento per me) di Galileo Galilei, di cui ho già parlato su questo blog (L’uovo di Galileo e il gesuita strapazzato). Ma nel capitolo, dove compaiono anche Brahe e Keplero, è Newton a giganteggiare, anche senza montare sulle spalle di nessuno.
L’osservazione della luna è importante almeno per due motivi: per averci disvelato l’imperfezione del “creato” e per avere introdotto l’uso degli strumenti come ausilio dell’osservazione (e su questa Ball tornerà, e noi con lui). Nascono anche la fantascienza e i viaggi spaziali come modo di esplorare l’utopia: Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, naturalmente (L’autre monde ou Les ètats et empires de la lune e Les ètats et empires du soleil), ma anche Athanasius Kircher (Itinerarium extaticum sive opificium coeleste e Iter extaticum secundum, mundi subterranei prodromus) e Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes).
Protagonista indiscussa la “pompa a vuoto” (air pump) di Robert Boyle e il suo impatto sulla società e sulla comunità scientifica dell’epoca: tanto per dirne una, Thomas Hobbes fu scettico e critico. Ricordatevi che si riteneva che la natura aborrisse il vuoto, e che il vuoto dunque fosse impossibile. E in gioco c’era anche l’integrità dei campi del sapere.
Anche il decimo capitolo ha un protagonista: il microscopio. Qui compaiono i temi dei limiti della percezione umana (ben illustrati dal documentario Powers of Ten di Charles e Ray Eames). Ma anche un’inaspettata fonte de I viaggi di Gulliver (indimenticabile per me il passaggio in cui Gulliver, disgustato, vene messo a cavallo dei capezzoli delle gran dame di Brobdingnag): l’osservazione è per sua natura voyeuristica e pornografica, figuriamoci quella dei dettagli osservati al microscopio.
The maids of honour often invited Glumdalclitch to their apartments, and desired she would bring me along with her, on purpose to have the pleasure of seeing and touching me. They would often strip me naked from top to toe, and lay me at full length in their bosoms; wherewith I was much disgusted because, to say the truth, a very offensive smell came from their skins; which I do not mention, or intend, to the disadvantage of those excellent ladies, for whom I have all manner of respect; but I conceive that my sense was more acute in proportion to my littleness, and that those illustrious persons were no more disagreeable to their lovers, or to each other, than people of the same quality are with us in England. And, after all, I found their natural smell was much more supportable, than when they used perfumes, under which I immediately swooned away. I cannot forget, that an intimate friend of mine in Lilliput, took the freedom in a warm day, when I had used a good deal of exercise, to complain of a strong smell about me, although I am as little faulty that way, as most of my sex: but I suppose his faculty of smelling was as nice with regard to me, as mine was to that of this people. Upon this point, I cannot forbear doing justice to the queen my mistress, and Glumdalclitch my nurse, whose persons were as sweet as those of any lady in England.
That which gave me most uneasiness among these maids of honour (when my nurse carried me to visit then) was, to see them use me without any manner of ceremony, like a creature who had no sort of consequence: for they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on their smocks in my presence, while I was placed on their toilet, directly before their naked bodies, which I am sure to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or from giving me any other emotions than those of horror and disgust: their skins appeared so coarse and uneven, so variously coloured, when I saw them near, with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than packthreads, to say nothing farther concerning the rest of their persons. Neither did they at all scruple, while I was by, to discharge what they had drank, to the quantity of at least two hogsheads, in a vessel that held above three tuns. The handsomest among these maids of honour, a pleasant, frolicsome girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples, with many other tricks, wherein the reader will excuse me for not being over particular. But I was so much displeased, that I entreated Glumdalclitch to contrive some excuse for not seeing that young lady any more.
Il protagonista qui è il fosforo, come in un capitolo del Ciclo Barocco di Neal Stephenson, e più in generale la luminescenza e la teoria dei colori (di nuovo Newton). Sulla teoria dei colori sarei tentato di scrivere a lungo ma – come diceva quello – mi manca lo spazio sulla pagina [… cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi. Hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet.]
Il penultimo capitolo è dedicato alle satire dedicate agli scienziati dai loro contemporanei. La compagnia degli scettici e dei denigratori è folta: si va da Alexander Pope a John Donne, da Samuel Butler al citato Jonathan Swift. Ma accontentatevi di una quartina puerile tratta dalla Satira sulla Royal Society di Samuel Butler:
What is the nat’ral cause why fish
That always drink do never piss;
Or whether in their home the deep
By night or day they never sleep?
A conclusione di questo tour de force, si analizza lo status della curiosità nella scienza contemporanea.
Completano il volume un’ampia bibliografia, un bel apparato di note (funzionale soprattutto all’edizione digitale) e una deliziosa lista dei personaggi che compaiono nel libro.
Lettura raccomandatissima.
Naturalmente, i passi che mi sono annotato sono moltissimi. Non siete obbligati a leggerli, ma se lo fate ne trarrete giovamento (consueti riferimenti alla posizione Kindle):
[Michael] Faraday’s experiments on electricity, for example, were driven by curiosity but eventually brought us electric light. No amount of R&D on the candle could ever have done that. [108-109: la citazione non è di Philip Ball, ma di Robert Aymar, ex direttore del CERN di Ginevra]
Unlike carnal passion, said Hobbes, curiosity was not expended with ‘short vehemence’ but was inexhaustible – as his one-time mentor Francis Bacon said, ‘of knowledge there is no satiety’. [195]
[…] in the manner of Isaiah Berlin’s fox who would know many little things, or as the hedgehog who knows a single thing profoundly. [203]
‘Curious’ derives ultimately from the Latin cura, meaning care, and until at least the seventeenth century a ‘curious’ person could simply refer to one who undertook investigations with diligence and caution. [220]
Daston and Park argue that until the seventeenth century, wonder was esteemed while curiosity was reviled. [264]
His Liber de ludo aleae (Book on Games of Chance) presents one of the first accounts of probability in relation to the rolling of dice – a topic that Cardano had ample cause to study, since his unconventional interests and theories excluded him from the universities and often forced him into gambling to pay his bills. [785]
[…] to be a martyr to science, it seems, you have to have been ‘right’ – or perhaps one must even say, to fit within a particular narrative. In some ways, Della Porta’s natural magic was more threatening to the Church than Copernicus’s heliocentric astronomical theory, since it sought to erode the superstitions on which ecclesiastical authority depended. The efficacy of holy relics and faith healing demanded an unquestioning acceptance of miracles that a naturalistic explanation undermined. And religious condemnation of demons, along with Church rites to quell their interfering ways, were rendered superfluous if the likes of Della Porta were going to leave these wicked spirits no role to play. [857-585]
[…] a small truth is preferable to a great falsehood. [951]
[…] the perpetual anxiety in the natural sciences about the difficulty of distinguishing what is superficial and contingent from the real devils in the details. [1108]
The role of serendipity in scientific advance – responsible for, inter alia, the discovery of oxygen (some say), synthetic dyes, penicillin, Teflon, microwave ovens and the Big Bang – is now rehearsed to the point of cliché. It is used with justification as an argument for supporting so-called blue-skies research: curiosity-led investigations that have no fixed agenda (although in truth most serendipitous discoveries have come from research driven by other specific motives). In today’s target-obsessed age it is no bad thing to keep banging this drum; but in Bacon’s time this argument for an open-ended, curious exploration of nature was novel. [1687]
[…] Joseph Glanvill wrote that ‘Nature works by an Invisible Hand in all things’ […]. [1707]
The historian Carlo Ginzburg has argued that the evidence-based reasoning that distinguishes science from other modes of thought has its roots not in the classical, geometric and mathematical proofs of Copernicus and Galileo but in the imagery of the hunt.
Diligence alone will not suffice for the hunter, who needs also a certain guile, or what the Greeks called mêtis: cunning intelligence. [1717-1719]
But just as it was obvious that the answers a man gives under duress are not necessarily the true ones, so it was open to debate whether one could trust what nature might reveal in such straits. [1732]
As we shall see, it is Bacon’s picture (derived from the natural magic tradition), and not Galileo’s (which drew as much on scholastic deduction from theorem and axiom as it did on observation), that conditioned the emergence of experimental, empirical science – what has been called the Scientific Revolution. For Galileo, experiment was still as much a demonstrative tool as it was a search for new things to explain. But the professors of secrets were never quite sure what they would find in their lenses and crucibles. [1764]
1. Variation: vary the experimental conditions. For example, will a piece of amber still pick up straw if it is heated rather than rubbed?
2. Production: repeat the same experiment in different situations: in cold and warm rooms, for example.
3. Translation: use experiments developed to investigate one phenomenon in the context of another.
4. Inversion: look for the effects of opposites. If a magnifying glass can make things hot, can it also make them cold?
5. Compulsion: test things to destruction. ‘In other hunts the prey is only caught’, he explained, ‘but in this it is killed.’
6. Application: apply the results of some experiments to other situations. For example, by knowing the weights of equal volumes of wine and water, one can deduce whether a sample of wine has been watered down.
7. Conjunction: see if a chain of experiments produces different results than each one alone. For example, roses are known to bloom late if their early buds are plucked off or if their roots are exposed in the spring. What happens if one does both?
8. Chance: for after all, there is still a place for haphazard ‘try and see’. ‘This form of experimenting’, he admitted, ‘is merely irrational and as it were mad, when you have a mind to try something, not because reason or some other experiment leads you to it, but simply because such a thing has never been attempted before . . . the very absurdity of the thing may sometimes prove of service.’ [1812: il piano di lavoro di Francis Bacon]
[…] disciplines that today are separated not just by chasms but at times by fortifications. [2183]
Nullius in verba [2381: il motto della Royal Society, non prendere per oro colato la parola di nessuno]
Certainly, facts have a stubborn insistence […] [2459: ricorda la testardaggine dei fatti di cui si parla in Il Maestro e Margherita di Bulgakov]
[…] physician Marcello Malpighi, who became the first Italian FRS. [2487]
In 1675 he donated the collection to the University of Oxford, stipulating that it was to be housed in a building that would bear his name: the Ashmolean. Like the Ark, it admitted the public for a fee, and in effect it became the first public museum in Great Britain, opening its doors in Broad Street, next to the Bodleian Library, in 1683. [2921]
And lacking either the notion of or the resources for what we would now call clinical trials (it was not obvious then why a hundred patients should furnish any more reliable a test than one individual), the virtuosi tended to rely on self-experimentation. [3006]
[…] they were also motivated by the Judaeo-Christian belief that a universal language could actually generate knowledge rather than merely communicate it. [3040]
This harmonie universelle betrays an adherence to the old Lullian tradition that knowledge ultimately consists in symbolic or arithmetic rather than semantic form. [3055]
In exposing Europeans to quite different methods of writing, such as Chinese, as well as to cultures that had no written forms at all, travel and exploration highlighted the contingent nature of the familiar Roman alphabet. Wilkins was particularly struck by the way that Chinese characters forego the European method of constructing words from an alphabet and instead use a symbolic means of representation to denote things. [3068]
On the other hand, this made Wilkins’ system rather effective for concealing information, and it is ironic that Robert Hooke used it in that regard to record his jealously guarded balance-spring watch mechanism in 1675. [3097]
It isn’t incidental that the greatest astronomer of the late Renaissance was the son of a music theorist – for music had been allied with the architecture of the heavens since the times of Plato and Pythagoras. [3255]
[…] when Robert Bellarmine, the principal of the Jesuit College in Rome, consulted its leading mathematician Christopher Clavius about Galileo’s claims, Clavius endorsed them, reporting that he too had personally seen the moons of Jupiter that Galileo described. [3265]
In fact, according to a thesis advanced (independently, and in different contexts) by philosophers Pierre Duhem and Willard Van Orman Quine, experiments are logically unable to falsify any hypothesis, because the problem is under-determined: one never has enough information to be confident in a negative conclusion. If an experiment gives a result that doesn’t agree with a prior hypothesis, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the hypothesis is wrong. It could instead be that the theoretical understanding of the apparatus is incomplete. Because experience permits scientists to be surer about some theories and assumptions than others, science can nonetheless function as an effective predictive and problem-solving method. But it is as well to remember that this ‘scientific method’ is founded on empiricism rather than logical rigour. [3297]
The principle here is sound: to identify the cause of a phenomenon experimentally, one must find what uniquely must be omitted from the procedure in order for the effect to be suppressed. But in practice that can be an extremely difficult thing to i ( )
  Boris.Limpopo | Apr 29, 2019 |
It is difficult to imagine that at one time, not so long ago, curiosity was not seen as the virtue most people regard it as today, and that experimenting was often viewed as idle (and ultimately pointless)tinkering. In this book we see how the scientific revolution was really more of an evolution, and that many of the early practitioners of science in the 16th to 18th Centuries were not what we might consider today as scientifically minded, although they were quite innovative for their time.
Clarity is not this particular book's strong point. The prose is heavy and professorial, often feeling more like a listing of historical facts than a smooth presentation of a point. Still, it is an interesting subject, and I may have learned a few things from reading it. ( )
  DLMorrese | Oct 14, 2016 |
A story of ~200 or so Englishmen and other Europeans who lived mostly in and around the 1600s. That century's religion-impeded scientific revolution (Galileo-Kepler-Newton, at least) has been rehashed in innumerably many books, including perhaps a majority of physical-science popularizations, but this volume's treatment is much longer, broader, more detailed, and more scholarly. Not really my cup of tea, but it could appeal to likers of history -- those likers of history who also have respect for science, that is.
1 voter fpagan | Oct 12, 2013 |
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There was a time when curiosity was condemned. To be curious was to delve into matters that didn't concern you -- after all, the original sin stemmed from a desire for forbidden knowledge. Through curiosity our innocence was lost. Yet this has not deterred us.

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