Hmmm...just curious: new in bookstores

curiosity cesare ripa Philip Ball is a writer to be envied -- he's a non-affiliated academic who ranges far and wide wherever his curiosity takes him.

In the case of his new book, curiosity holds up a mirror to itself -- and to all of Western civilization. With Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (University of Chicago Press), Ball shows the long, difficult road that science has taken in order to be allowed to ask every and any question about the natural world.

The book balances on two questions which he asks  early in the book:

"[I]n the wider world mightn't there be something ill-disciplined, even improper, about a voracious curiosity that permits nothing to be too trivial or obscure?"

"Was there after all something in the old accusation that it is weak-willed to succumb to the wiles of curiosity?"

The answer, too, is given early: "[T]he problem of our times -- and also its great good fortune -- is that temptation is everywhere."

The remainder of the book is a delicious expansion on this point. Long before the Hubble Telescope or the Mars rovers, there were multitudes of truth-seekers who risked punishment and Pandora-like warnings in order to ask the simple question, "Why?" (Cesare Ripa's emblem for the personification of Curiosity, above, gives us an unfriendly-looking figure who's deeply in need of a comb.)

Ball's non-affiliation with any academic institution (according to his website, he did serve as an editor at Nature for many years) clearly shows, and that isn't a bad thing. He's spent enough time working to earn a living that he knows you don't serve yourself or your audience by writing something that's inaccessible.

When, for instance, he describes  a century's worth of evolving attitudes to curiosity, he manages to pull it off in a single, deftly-written sentence: "The turning point in Western attitudes to curiosity occurred in the seventeenth century, which began with an essentially medieval outlook and ended looking like the first draft of the modern age."

If that's all you learn about how the 17th century changed, it's more than enough. Hits the nail right on the head.

Ball is an exhilarating treat to read, either in this new book or in his others ("Universe of Stone," about Chartres Cathedral, is a personal favorite). Let your curiosity be your guide, and don't worry about it: As Ball reminds us, humanity's earned that right.