What Scientists Really Do

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Priyamvada Natarajan reviews Philip Ball's Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything and Stuart Firestein's Ignorance: How It Drives Science, in the NYRB:

In Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, the science writer Philip Ball, a former editor at Nature, reveals how curiosity, combined with wonder, has driven the scientific enterprise since the seventeenth century, and how the ever-transmuting nature of curiosity shifted the practice of science to the highly specialized and impersonal activity that it is perceived as today. Ball traces the intellectual history of curiosity, from the Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to the Large Hadron Collider atCERN that harks back to a view of nature as holding secrets that must be teased out with experimental apparatuses. He shows how curiosity went from being seen as a vice in medieval Catholic Europe, to a shallow form of inquisitiveness that inspired learned societies like the London philosophical club, and then, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, got recast as a virtue. Changes in the notion of curiosity from vice to virtue, he argues, have gone hand in hand with the development of empirical methods in science.

Ball provides one of the clearest explications of the provisional nature of science by tracing the development of the currently accepted germ theory of disease. He shows how the invention of the microscope, which opened up an entirely new, formerly invisible realm, first led to the idea of “animalcules” (developed by Anton von Leeuwenhoek, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke), which was refined by Louis Pasteur and others in the nineteenth century, leading to our present view of pathogens as the agents of disease. Ball traces the entire process from the early proposition and its subsequent refinements, showing clearly what provisionality means—a slow and gradual honing and growing sophistication of our understanding, driven by accumulating data enabled by the invention of ever-newer instruments

This does not mean that theories are mere placeholders waiting to be overthrown (in fact, that happens extremely rarely), but rather that as empirical evidence accumulates they aim at a more comprehensive explanation that subsumes earlier views.

More here.