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"Curiouser and Curiouser"

Brian Ogilvie

INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY AND THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION: A Global Perspective. Toby E. Huff. xiv + 354 pp. Cambridge University Press, 2011. $90 cloth, $27.99 paper.

CROSS-CULTURAL SCIENTIFIC EXCHANGES IN THE EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN, 1560–1660. Avner Ben-Zaken. x + 246 pp. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. $60.

Between 1500 and 1700, the European understanding of nature changed dramatically. In astronomy, the ancient geocentric theory of the heavens was succeeded first by Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentric reform, then by Johannes Kepler’s elliptical orbits and Isaac Newton’s celestial mechanics. In physics, Aristotle’s qualitative explanation of motion and change was consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history by Galileo Galilei, René Descartes and Newton. In anatomy and physiology, the Roman physician Galen’s mistaken understanding of the body gave way to Andreas Vesalius’s anatomy and William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. New instruments—the telescope, the microscope, and the barometer and the air pump (which together showed that air has weight)—opened new worlds. And new forms of organization and communication—the scientific society, the learned journal—developed to encourage and sustain this bustling activity. The changes were so dramatic that, for nearly a century, these developments have been referred to collectively as the Scientific Revolution.

2011-09BRevOgilvieFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageHistorians have long puzzled over why the Scientific Revolution happened, and why it happened in Europe. In Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, sociologist Toby Huff addresses both questions. Huff provides an overview of the Scientific Revolution, drawn from reliable secondary literature, along with an idiosyncratic and occasionally puzzling attempt to show why the revolution did not happen in China or the Islamic empires, both of which had rich scientific traditions in the central Middle Ages.

Huff devotes the first part of the book to an account of the invention of the telescope at the beginning of the 17th century. The “discovery machine,” as he terms the instrument, was pointed at the sky in England by Thomas Harriot, who did not publish his observations, and in Italy by Galileo, who announced his early discoveries in spectacular fashion in his Starry Messenger (1610). Galileo and others continued to explore the skies, making new discoveries and quickly reaching consensus about their reality. For Huff, the telescope epitomizes the “infectious curiosity” of the Scientific Revolution: As more and more telescopes became available, discoveries begat further discoveries.

But in China and the Islamic world, the discovery machine failed to catch on. Jesuit missionaries brought the telescope to China and trained Chinese astronomers in its use, but they made no discoveries and did not incorporate the instrument into astronomical practice. The telescope was known in the Mughal and Ottoman Empires, but there too it failed to make a mark in astronomy. Compared with Europe, the world’s other advanced civilizations, confronted with the telescope, evinced what Huff calls a “curiosity deficit.”

In the short second part of the book, Huff examines the institutional context for a European “ethos of scientific curiosity.” In a chapter condensed from his 1993 book, The Rise of Early Modern Science, Huff argues that the legally autonomous corporation, a social institution that had no equivalent in the Chinese or Islamic worlds, played a key role in fostering science. Finally, the third part of the book is devoted to other aspects of the Scientific Revolution: the “infectious curiosity” that produced new discoveries in anatomy, microscopy and pneumatics; and the “grand synthesis” of celestial and terrestrial physics in Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687). These developments represented a huge accumulation of “intellectual capital,” which Europeans savvily invested, reaping dividends in the form of industrial development and world domination from the 18th century through the 20th. Meanwhile, says Huff, the rest of the world stagnated due to “a deficit in scientific curiosity that seems to have prevailed outside Europe from before the seventeenth century all the way to the end of the twentieth century.”

Curiosity plays a key explanatory role in this book, but, curiously, Huff makes no attempt to explore what early modern Europeans thought about the subject. Historians Hans Blumenberg and Lorraine Daston have traced how, in the late Middle Ages, Europeans took a new view of curiosity: By transforming it from the vice of inquisitiveness into a cognitive virtue, they legitimated scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, Huff does not draw on the work of Blumenberg and Daston. Instead of tracing changes in what curiosity has meant, he assumes it has always been the same thing, and that Europeans just happened to have a surfeit of it, whereas others had a deficit. His attempt to establish this point, though, is flawed: Huff identifies things about which Europeans were curious, and then shows that Chinese and Muslim scholars were not equally curious about the same things. Because India had astronomers, Huff writes, “we can assume” that they would find the telescope “of intrinsic interest”—but he does not explain why that would be the case. Because of this methodological asymmetry, he misses areas in which non-Europeans demonstrated that they were quite capable of curious investigation—natural history, for example.

But Huff is not interested in what non-Europeans were curious about, because it was not modern science. In his account, the “breakthrough” or “march to the modern scientific revolution” appears inevitable. Despite occasional wrong turns onto “garden paths,” European scientists by and large made “progress” toward goals that they could not “resist.” Because Huff sees modern science as the inevitable result of curiosity, he assumes that other sophisticated cultures must have lacked it. The “discovery machine” was like a lighted match tossed into a powder keg; if it fizzled out for Chinese and Islamic scholars, that must have been because their intellectual powder was damp.

For decades, historians of science have explored the particular aspects of European politics, society and culture that gave rise to early modern scientific endeavors, often in very limited contexts. Huff’s earlier work was salutary in that it provided a synthetic, comparative perspective on the large-scale institutional framework in which modern science took shape. Yet this new book gives too little attention to historical context. Even if it is true that there was something inevitable about Newton’s laws of motion, the fact remains that they emerged once, in a specific historical setting; they were the result of a whole series of European developments in mathematics, metaphysics, experimental method and religion. To explain them as the inevitable outcome of Europeans’ superior curiosity is like saying that Europeans discovered the chromatic scale because they had more musical curiosity than the Chinese.

In Cross-Cultural Scientific Exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1560–1660, Avner Ben-Zaken calls into question the idea that Europe and the Islamic world formed hermetically separated cultural blocs during the Scientific Revolution. In an eclectic series of case studies focused on astronomy, Ben-Zaken explores how and why scientific ideas did cross the cultural boundaries between Europe and the Islamic world. This book’s greatest strength is its examination of individual stories and connections across cultures.

We learn that the Ottoman astronomer Taqi al-Din probably learned clock making and Western mathematics when he spent time in captivity as scholar-servant to an Italian mathematician. After al-Din returned to the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Murad III engaged him to build an observatory in Istanbul to rival that of Tycho Brahe on the island of Hven in Denmark. Al-Din was aided in his work by David Ben-Shushan, a Jewish mathematician originally from Salonika. We meet Pietro della Valle, an Italian traveler who wrote a letter to the astronomer Zayyn al-Din al-Lari, in bad Persian, describing Tycho Brahe’s cosmology and hinting that Copernicus was right. Della Valle, the Cretan Jewish physician Joseph Solomon Delmedigo and the English astronomer John Greaves shared the conviction that ancient texts from the Near East contained a prisca theologia, an ancient wisdom that included heliocentric astronomy, if only those texts could be found. And we encounter the curious case of the Ottoman scholar Ibrahim Efendi al-Zigetvari Tezkireci, who in 1660 translated a little-known work by the French court astronomer Noël Duret, thereby producing the first text in Arabic to discuss heliocentrism.

Ben-Zaken has dug deep in several archives to find the manuscripts he examines. Because many of his subjects left little in the historical record, some of his reconstructions are speculative. Occasionally he places great weight on evidence too slim to bear it. For instance, in discussing Tycho Brahe’s astrological interpretations of the 1572 supernova, the 1577 comet and the planetary conjunction of 1592—events that Tycho said augured “radical changes in world politics and religion”—Ben-Zaken acknowledges that Tycho did not mention the Ottomans explicitly. And in fact Tycho claimed that the comet of 1577 would produce its worst effects in western Europe, not in the East. But Ben-Zaken, drawing on an anonymous English pamphlet written a century later, after the Ottoman siege of Vienna failed in 1683, nevertheless insists that Tycho’s predictions foretold the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Oddly, given his focus on cross-cultural exchange and the mixed identities of many of his subjects, Ben-Zaken occasionally writes about cultures as if they were monoliths: For instance, he says that in 1564 a series of planetary conjunctions “appeared in the sky above European and Ottoman cultures.” The book discusses not only western Europeans and Muslims but also the Mediterranean Jewish community, the Karaite sect of Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians.

Ben-Zaken’s exploration of specific cross-cultural exchanges points to further research that can be done on cultural influences in what he calls “mutually embraced zones.” The contrast between his book and Huff’s could not be greater. Huff begins with an answer—the West produced the Scientific Revolution—leaving only the task of identifying its cause. Ben-Zaken, on the other hand, begins with a question: What knowledge did circulate between European and Muslim realms, why did it do so, and how was it received? Although he provides only a series of tentative answers, his approach is a fruitful way to explore how it was that the new scientific theories and methods produced in early modern Europe became the globally practiced science of the 21st century.

Brian Ogilvie is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2006) and is working on a book that examines insects in European art, science and religion from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.

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