The history of curiosity is, as Philip Ball points out in this wonderful and highly entertaining study of its role in scientific enquiry, curious. Aristotle dismissed curiosity as an aimless tendency to pry into things that did not concern us. After all, it was Pandora’s curiosity that unleashed the evils of mankind by opening the jar given to her by Zeus. Early Christianity was even more intemperate, condemning curiosity as a mortal sin. ‘We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ,’ insisted Tertullian; while the King James Bible thundered, ‘Be not curious in unnecessary matters’ (Ecclesiastes 3:23). So how did the word from the Latin cura, meaning ‘care’, come to define virtually all Western scientific endeavour, from Bacon’s scientific method to the Large Hadron Collider’s stated mission to continue ‘a tradition of human curiosity that’s as old as mankind itself’?
For Ball, the answer lies in the celebrated but hotly contested origins of the so-called ‘Scientific Revolution’, the period from the early seventeenth century when Bacon, Galileo, Boyle, Hooke and Newton broke free of the classical tradition and made the great discoveries that apparently created the conditions for today’s modern