Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything
Published by Bodley Head, 2012.
Curiosity is dangerous. But it’s far worse than you think, for curiosity was the original sin. In Christian tradition, all the ills of the world follow from the attempt in the Garden to grasp – literally to consume – forbidden knowledge. “When you eat of it”, said the serpent to Eve, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Through curiosity, our innocence was lost.
Yet this hasn’t deterred us; quite the reverse. It is said that God created Adam only at the end of his six-day labours so that the man should not see how the trick was done. Ever since then, we seem to have been trying to discover exactly how that trick was done.
Our innate curiosity has now led us to make a 27-km tunnel called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) below Switzerland emptier than the wastelands of the cosmos, and to spend five billion euros to send particles that can never be seen whirling around it at close to light-speed before they crash into one another. This, we hope, will bring us to within a split second of that moment of Creation, and if it cannot reveal the complete trick then it should sate our curiosity about a brief but crucial part of it.
Perhaps it is therefore no surprise that media responses to the approach of the LHC’s inaugural run became fixated on fringe notions that the experiment would destroy the world, if not the universe. For tradition teaches us that curiosity – especially curiosity about the Creation – cannot be pursued with impunity. Even if this latest threat of apocalypse was more a public plaything than a genuine cause for dread, it implies that we have still not quite made our peace with curiosity.
For the publicity machine of the LHC, however, curiosity needed to be yoked to its regular partner, wonder. Mindful that the real questions being probed by the LHC – the origin of the masses of some subatomic particles, the possible existence of hidden symmetries in nature, or of extra dimensions in space – are too recondite for most lay people even to know what they mean, publicists at CERN and in the physics community cultivated a more generalized sense of wonder at this opportunity to look far back into the beginning of everything. We might not understand what was being probed, but we could appreciate the majesty of the issue.
This particular Big Science project has a genuine claim to wonderment that only an unimaginative churl could deny. Yet wonder was once seen not as serving science but as hindering it: as the very enemy of curiosity. For medieval theologians, the mysteries of God’s creation should be greeted with humble wonder and awe rather than with a determination to pry into them. In the prevailing, chauvinist image of the time, Nature was a beautiful woman who we should venerate rather than trying to lift her veil or strip her naked. And to the first scientists, wonder was the response of the ignorant bumpkin, while the philosopher’s duty was to quell such mind-numbing passions and hunt down explanations for the marvels of nature with cold curiosity – as one observer put it, ‘to make wonders cease’.
Curiosity examines how these tensions ebbed and flowed in the age when curiosity first became sanctioned – when it changed from a vice to a virtue, and it became permissible to ask any and every question about the world. This was the age when modern science began, a time that spans the lives of Galileo and Isaac Newton. The book examines how the potential insatiability and harmful temptations of curiosity were tamed, and how its difficult sibling, wonder, was disciplined – and at what cost in either case. Through this lens, I consider what has become of curiosity today: how it functions in the scientific endeavour, how it is spun and packaged and sold. Curiosity is one of the engines of science, and we will see how it has been played off against the other key driver, practical utility. And I ask how well it is being sustained and honoured now, and how the changing shape of science today influences the nature and breadth of the questions it may ask.