Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: Book Review

Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective, by Toby E. Huff. Cambridge University Press, 2010. 368p.

This work, by Toby E. Huff, is a perspective on the explosion of scientific knowledge in 17th Century Europe and England, and a probing look at why this happened in the West and not in China, India, or the Islamic states.

Using one invention in particular — the telescope — Huff documents how this instrument revolutionized the study of the heavens and how Galileo and others used it to explore the skies and make detailed observations that led to a confirmation of a heliocentric system posited by Copernicus. The paradigm shift away from a spherical, geocentric system electrified the science of the day.

Huff then traces the migration of the telescope into China, India and Islamic countries. In China Jesuit missionaries not only introduced the telescope, they also translated into Chinese the findings of Galileo and others. A few court astrologers (astronomers) were interested, but mainly to help refine the prediction of heavenly events. At the time, China held a flat-earth view of the cosmos and hadn’t even moved to a spherical, geocentric view. The new knowledge was not incorporated into Chinese study. Huff then traces parallel stories from India and the world of Islam.

And it wasn’t just in astronomy. Huff also traces the development and knowledge of forces and dynamics, and medical anatomy in the 17th Century and how in Europe scientists, from the 12th C onward, had been dissecting animals and human corpses, thereby learning about the interior anatomy of the body. Islamic faith considered dissection a form of desecration and it wasn’t allowed. Similar obstacles were in place in India and China.

Huff then postulates on the differences in culture between the West and the rest of the world. Europe and England had more or less autonomous universities and, due to the rise of Protestantism and its goal of having each person read the Bible personally, a steady rise in literacy. Literacy in the rest of the world was circumscribed and schools in China, India, and Islamic countries were mainly set up to teach traditional wisdom and religious law.

The West was living in a time of great intellectual curiosity and had had a tradition, based on Aristotle, of hands-on experimenting to discover the truths of things. Again, there was no corresponding climate in the rest of the world.

Huff’s work is academic, with copious footnotes and an extensive bibliography. He has, in no way, suggested the West was superior to the other cultures of the day, but that it was culturally different. China, India, and the Islamic states had access to the instruments developed in the West, and to the knowledge that was being discovered and disseminated, but their societies didn’t have the requisite intellectual curiosity to pursue the new knowledge.

Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution is one of the best science books I’ve read in awhile. I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of science and especially the emergence of science in the 17th Century and the culmination of many threads of knowledge in the publications of Newton.