Curiosity has a reputation for being dangerous: it wasn’t just the cat that it killed. In Christian tradition, all the ills of the world follow from the original sin of curiosity, the attempt to grasp and literally to consume forbidden knowledge. “When you eat of it”, said the serpent to Eve in Eden, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Through curiosity, our innocence was lost.
Yet this hasn’t deterred us. It’s said that God created Adam only at the end of his six-day labours so that humans should not see how the trick was done. Ever since then, we seem to have been trying to discover just that. The latest effort to solve the puzzle of Creation involves smashing protons into each other in the 27-km tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN on the Swiss border. Was the media obsession with the hair-brained notion that this experiment would destroy the world an echo of the old conviction that curiosity cannot be pursued with impunity?
To publicize the LHC, CERN has leaned heavily not just on the value of curiosity but the appeal of its cousin, wonder. We might not understand what was being probed, but we could appreciate the majesty of the issue. Yet wonder was once seen not as serving science but as hindering it: as being the 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. Yet to the first scientists, emerging in the late evening of the Renaissance, 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 of them put it, ‘to make wonders cease’.
The emancipation of curiosity – its transformation from a vice to a virtue – happened in the seventeenth century, the time that spans the lives of Galileo and Isaac Newton. As a result, it became permissible to ask any question about the world, and modern science began. Some scientists defended curiosity by saying that, rather than a sin, it was a religious obligation – we have a duty to study all that God has made. Yet by the end of that century, curiosity was apt not so much to be condemned for moral reasons as to be mocked, by the likes of Samuel Butler and Jonathan Swift, for its pedantic obsession with trivia. These are battles that have not gone away: science still struggles to justify its quest for seemingly arcane knowledge, and like the early scientists, often tries to do so by promising practical spinoffs. There are still lessons to be learnt from examining how curiosity was set free.
Philip Ball is a science writer, and author of several books including his recent 'Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People'. Join him on Monday 2 April for an evening looking at how curiosity has changed from a vice to a virtue and to investigate what health our inquisitive impulse is in today.