From The Telegraph:
It is only in recent years that science has become, in publishing terms, popular and attractive. But long before Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould, Primo Levi had sought to make science accessible to the layperson in his 1975 literary-scientific commentary, The Periodic Table. A lapidary integration of chemistry and autobiography, the book continued a tradition of writing from Galileo to Darwin which vanished in the 20th century following academic specialisation. Philip Ball, like Levi, displays a polymath’s enthusiasm for knowledge of all kinds, and writes of science with humility and intelligent generosity.
Ball’s new book, a readable survey of the role of curiosity in science, is a good example of what the French call haute vulgarisation – high-class popularisation. In pages of limpid prose, Ball brings difficult ideas down a level. Until the early 17th century, when pretty well anything of human concern was fit for study, curiosity was seen as dangerous and condemned as such. The view has never quite gone away. Even Karl Marx was shocked by Darwin’s materialist view of nature as bleak survivalism in On the Origin of Species (the book was a “bitter satire”, Marx reckoned, on human progress). Beneath Darwin’s bleak vision, however, was a childlike sense of wonder at the mysteries of the natural world and a delight in extracting order out of chaos. In Ball’s opinion, Darwin personifies “the modern struggle with curiosity”. The Bible had warned against curious-minded individuals like Darwin conducting investigations where they should not. (“For in much wisdom is much grief”: Ecclesiastes.) Even today, upholders of Biblical morality condemn Darwin as godless: man is not a lonely mutation grubbing with the brutes – he stands at the very pinnacle of God’s creation. In tasting of the fruit of knowledge, Darwin had sinned against the divine order of things.