Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution

by Toby E. Huff

The telescope was invented in 1608 by a Dutch optician. Word of this invention raced through Europe, causing quite a sensation. Galileo recognized the significance of this instrument and quickly figured out how to make his own telescopes, steadily improving their performance. And he pointed his telescopes at the night sky. He quickly made three discoveries that shattered the geocentric model of the solar system.

First, he noted that the moon was full of mountains and craters. Its surface was not smooth or orderly, it was a chaotic jumble. This contradicted Aristotelian notions of the perfection of the celestial spheres – but anybody could look through a telescope to verify the accuracy of Galileo's reports.

Second, Galileo observed the motions of the four moons of Jupiter now named after him. They were clearly orbiting around Jupiter, not the earth. This too undermined classical notions of the celestial sphere.

But it was his third discovery, of the phases of Venus, that blew the geocentric model out of the water. Venus went through phases just like the moon — except these phases were clearly linked to the sun, not the earth. Venus was undeniably circling the Sun, not the earth.

Other Europeans replicated Galileo's findings. They improved on telescope design, looked at everything in the sky, designed microscopes for seeing the very small, and chattered away with endless excitement at these discoveries.

Proud of their fascinating new instrument, Europeans took telescopes to other civilizations, showing off their great discovery. The response everywhere was: "So what?" The Islamic societies saw nothing of interest in the telescope. Mughal India was bored by the very idea of looking at the stars. And Chinese civilization reacted with a combination of snobbery and dullardry. Anything not Chinese in origin was necessarily insignificant; and besides, looking at the stars was a waste of time. A few Chinese intellectuals grasped the significance of all this, but failed to convinced anybody else to pursue the new worlds opened up by the telescope.

The contrast between European excitement over the telescope and non-European disdain forms the core message of this book. Mr. Huff provides a detailed explanation of exactly how different cultures reacted to the telescope, and he compellingly demonstrates that only the Europeans had the intellectual curiosity to recognize the significance of the telescope.

Mr. Huff extends his analysis to other scientific fields; he even considers the growth of literacy in the different societies, and the message comes through loud and clear: Europeans were curious about the physical universe; others weren't.

The volume of information Mr. Huff brings to bear on the topic is overwhelming; I cannot imagine anybody possessed of a modicum of intellectual integrity doubting the overall conclusion that Europeans had much greater scientific curiosity than the other civilizations. 

I can offer some minor criticisms of this book. The author is not a particularly good writer. He repeats himself like an absent-minded professor who can't remember what he said two minutes earlier. Some of his sentences are grammatical absurdities. Some of his explanations of the scientific issues are garbled, and in several cases I seriously doubted that he fully grasped the underlying science.

But this is not primarily a book about science; it is about history, and Mr. Huff's historical research is excellent. He taps sources from a huge range of material, showing that his conclusions are based on a very broad base of historical records. 

Mr. Huff seems determined to demonstrate that China, India, and Islam were far behind Europe in terms of intellectual curiosity, at least over the last 400 years. I suspect that his overkill arises from the strong current of modern scholarly thought that seeks to give China credit for greater intellectual achievement than Westerners are wont to assume. 

While I understand the importance of seeing Chinese intellectualism in its own terms rather than in terms of Western values, I don't think that we should go so far as to dismiss the obvious fact that, for several hundred years up to the present, the West was far ahead of China in scientific achievement. China is now rapidly catching up to the West, and has in fact fully caught up with the West in many areas. We can be certain that Chinese science will quickly begin to compete quite effectively with American science. But there truly was a serious deficiency for several hundred years that deserves serious consideration. 

I now believe that it is silly to ask "Where did China, Islam, India, and everybody else go wrong?" The abnormality was Western civilization; those other societies represent normal patterns of growth and progress. So what is it about the West that was so odd, so abnormal, that it produced an anomalous spurt of intellectual progress? I believe that the answer to that question can be found in the Greeks around 3000 years ago. I discuss this answer at great length in my hyperdocument A History of Thinking.