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Book Review: Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution (Toby Huff)

Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution is in many ways a companion book to his earlier The Rise of Early Modern Science. That book was a comparative study of the approach to science in the major world cultures, discussing in great detail and breadth why it was that modern science only arose in Europe. This 2011 book complements Huff’s earlier book by more narrowly showing the results of different ways of thinking, in China, India and the Muslim world, when exposed in the early 17th Century to a specific new European invention, the telescope. The sweep of this book is less broad than Huff’s earlier book, but this is an easier read, and very informative in its own right.

Huff’s premise about the material aspects of the modern world, which he does not claim is original, is that while we frequently treat the Industrial Revolution as the basis of the modern world, preceding that was a scientific revolution, on which the Industrial Revolution wholly depended. By “science,” Huff means not technology, which can be obtained from tinkering, but “a search for the underlying principles and properties of nature.” This scientific revolution was a purely European phenomenon, which “produced an enormous flow of discoveries that transformed scientific thought,” and “resulted in the accumulation of an enormous amount of intellectual capital absent outside Europe.” And this intellectual capital (shades of Thomas Sowell, who also emphasizes the intellectual capital of a culture as the determinant of its success) was essential for the emergence of Newton’s thinking, on which all modern science, and the modern material world, is based.

But across most of the globe, the result of this scientific revolution, all technical aspects of which were fully and immediately available to the rest of the world, was—nothing at all. It is this huge difference among world cultures that Huff seeks to describe and explain. Huff’s book therefore fits into the general category of books about the “Great Divergence”—i.e., books attempting to explain why the West is now massively materially superior to the rest of the world, whereas until 1500 or so it was behind the rest of the world. (Huff acknowledges, in the text and in his copious footnotes, that other scholars dispute that a “scientific revolution” occurred, or that its impact was as important as Huff says.)

Huff does not sugarcoat the failures of the rest of the world to participate in European innovation and scientific advancement. “Whatever glories ancient China, India, or the Islamic Middle East may have enjoyed in the past, their contributions to the making of modern science were minor. This conclusion will seem shocking to many readers, largely because of the romantic view of China that can be found in histories of it. Likewise, the Arab-Islamic achievements in mathematics and astronomy have often been discussed, but their direct influence on Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, among others, have yet to be shown.” And from this, Huff draws the conclusion, in almost so many words, that given this record of non-Western scientific failure, it remains to be seen whether these cultures will succeed in the modern world, especially to the extent their cultures remain mired in non-Western ways of scientific thought.

Huff begins with a detailed exploration of when, how, and why the telescope, what he calls “the discovery machine,” and around which the entire book revolves, was invented. I don’t mean to give the impression that this is a book about telescopes, with some thoughts about cultures and their effect on science as an adjunct. Rather, it’s a book about how “not all [] cultural universes are equally encouraging of scientific inquiry, neither are they equally supportive of original ideas.” The telescope is ideal for this study, since very quickly after its invention it, and the easy methods used to make it, were globally disseminated by Europeans. This was before the age of imperialism, so it was offered, not forced. The reactions of different cultures, and what they did with the new knowledge, are used by Huff to draw larger conclusions about those cultures and their systems of education, innovation, and development.

The telescope was invented in Holland and quickly spread; it became a truly famous instrument in the hands of Galileo, whose simultaneous skills in lens grinding and cosmology made him ideally suited to take up the new instrument and use it for new purposes. Although eyeglasses had been used for some time, the telescope was not a wholly obvious consequence, in part because focal lengths were poorly understood and differed for each lens. Galileo was interested in scientific knowledge, but he most of all aspired to be not a mere “mathematician,” one who only analyzed the sky, but a “philosopher,” one who was recognized as qualified to inquire into and talk about the causes of things. Huff discusses this at length, along with the efforts of other early astronomers, first to confirm Galileo’s results, then to expand them.

This section of the book contains many fascinating accounts, including attempts to understand the rings of Saturn and how viewing the phases of Venus proved that Venus circled the Sun. Another fascinating account is of the “geoheliocentric system,” an intermediate system proposed by Tycho Brahe, in which the Sun revolved around the Earth—but all the other planets revolved around the Sun, thus solving a variety of observational puzzles while retaining the core of the heliocentric system. In fact, this was the system presented by the Jesuits to the Chinese, due to religious trepidation about endorsing the “full” heliocentric system (which, of course, was NOT the primary reason Galileo was put under house arrest).

At this point, one theme that springs out from Huff’s discussion, although he does not much remark on it as an independent theme, is the eagerness with which the Roman Catholic Church participated in, funded, and spread new scientific thought. This, of course, is the opposite of the ignorant stereotype, namely, that in which modern lumpen-intellectuals chant a call and response: “Galileo!” “Evil, ignorant, repressive Catholics!” Moreover, most international spread of European science, that is to say, all modern science, was done by missionaries. This was not done incidentally, but, as in China, as a deliberate part of their program to benefit the cultures they were converting (and, not incidentally, to impress them with European and Christian superiority in knowledge).

In the next two chapters, Huff discusses how the telescope came to China and the Muslim world, and what the results were. In China, the Jesuits, beginning with Matteo Ricci, worked closely with Chinese allies, notably Xu Guangqi, to translate large amounts of the latest technical scientific literature (along with older works, such as Aristotle). Very quickly, the Jesuits “set about providing all the basic tools that were needed to put Chinese astronomy on the same observational footing as European astronomy of the early seventeenth century.” The official Chinese Bureau of Mathematics and Astronomy was focused on reading celestial signs and what they implied for China and the Emperor, so they were interested in new abilities to perform their roles. But unsurprisingly, at the same time, there was much resistance from Chinese “scientists” who were repeatedly humiliated by their lack of knowledge and inability to make celestial predications as accurately as the Jesuits, as well as from tradition-minded members of the Chinese education and administrative establishment.

With this new knowledge, the Chinese did nothing at all. They made no advancements in the technology, they made no new significant discoveries, and they did not change their “scientific” approach at all. Nor did they make any advancements from the telescope to a unified Newtonian theory of motion. There was no scientific revolution in China, even though all the necessary physical instruments and rational methods were fully available. And the second generation of Jesuits in China was persecuted and ultimately expelled from China, whereupon the Chinese returned to their view that rediscovering lost wisdom through traditional means, rather than innovation, was the proper study of science. According to Huff, they showed a “curiosity deficit”—the exact opposite of what the Europeans showed. And so nothing changed in China, from a scientific perspective, until the 20th Century (when the Chinese, to a certain extent, adopted Western approaches, and only to the extent they did so did they, and do they, advance scientifically).

Huff next turns to the Muslim world, with much the same result. By this time, of course, the action in the Muslim world was not in Arabia, but in India and the Ottoman Empire. Money, power and education were concentrated in those areas (and stayed that way until oil was commercialized in the Twentieth Century). In his earlier book, Huff covers the traditional, madrassa-based educational system in more detail, but the bottom line is that Muslim education after the first few hundred years was violently opposed to any innovation, in theology and in science. Nonetheless, astronomy was tolerated, most of the time, in part because it was necessary for determining proper religious ritual. And the Arab world (both Muslims and non-Muslims) made significant contributions to optics and mathematics several hundred years before the invention of the telescope, though such advances had long since stopped. Those advances, especially in mathematics, were “facilitating” advances, including the wholly new invention of plane and spherical trigonometry, but did not themselves create or advance a theory or practice of science.

Both the Mughals and the Ottomans received telescopes within a few years after their invention; neither did anything more with them than the Chinese, and in many ways they did less. And, of course, they made no progress toward a unified theory of Newtonian motion, in large part because of the dominant Muslim doctrine of atomism or occasionalism, expressed by the violently anti-rationalist and anti-philosophical Al-Ghazali, that there is no cause-and-effect independent of God’s immediate and present will at every single junction of reality.

This ends Part I of the book. Part II, which is somewhat loosely related, is “Patterns of Education.” Here Huff searches for why the cultural results he describes in Part I obtained. He examines the ideals of higher education in each culture from the Twelfth Century forward, noting, in essence, that the European system changed utterly, a “revolutionary reconstruction,” but the others did not. Again, he uses the reactions to the telescope as evidence of this. The Muslim world continued its educational stultification and hostility to the “rational sciences”; the Chinese continued their rote mandarin education based on memorization of texts encapsulating the supposedly perfect knowledge of the past.

In Part III, Huff expands on his theme of the European scientific revolution, by going into detail about individuals and achievements. He discusses how various Royal Societies encouraged and spurred inquiry across Europe (in part by being legally autonomous in a way inconceivable, even today, in the Muslim and Chinese worlds). He notes how vastly more advanced European medicine was, in part because (contrary to myth) it was Muslims, not Christians, who forbade dissection of human corpses. He discusses microscopy, magnetism, vacuums, and water pumps, as other pillars in the range of inquiry leading to Newton. All of these things were based on what Huff calls “thought experiments,” again noting that thought experiments did not exist in the rest of the world—there was some tinkering, particularly in China, but no effort to fit engineering advances into a theory of scientific progress or generally applicable theories. As earlier, this section contains many fascinating details, such as early electrical work and Kepler’s derivation of his planetary laws. Huff brings his narrative to a conclusion with a detailed account of Newton’s “grand synthesis” in the “Principia,” the work of several years unrelenting labor and the capstone of the scientific revolution and the indispensable basis for the modern world.

I don’t think this book is as satisfying as The Rise of Early Modern Science. Reading this instead of that would be a mistake. But I do think that reading both greatly enhances the reader’s overall understanding and appreciation of how we got to where we are, at least in terms of material science. Whether our culture retains the key elements that allowed us to get here, or instead has stultified as did Muslim and Chinese culture, is a different question.

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