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Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective

4.7 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521170529
ISBN-10: 0521170524
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Editorial Reviews


"A magisterial comparative sociology of the relationship between specific social contexts and scientific creativity in seventeenth-century Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and China. With a remarkable eye for detail, Huff elegantly poses the big questions about the past, present, and possible future of modern science in a globalized world." - Zaheer Baber, University of Toronto

"Using the invention and dispersal of the telescope as a probe, Toby Huff examines the initial impact of this discovery machine in Europe compared with the Ottoman and Mughal empires and Ming China. He then turns to other scientific discoveries of the West and their surprisingly absent influence elsewhere. Huff's carefully documented research brings this material together in an altogether new way. His fascinating and lucid historico-sociological investigation casts brilliant light on the preeminence of the West today." - Owen Gingerich, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

"Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution disseminates genuine information about the crucial role played by the West in the history of science, showing that after many centuries of near scientific inactivity, the West, beginning in the twelfth century, saw the virtue of absorbing science and natural philosophy from Greco-Islamic sources. For the numerous reasons Huff presents, the culture of the West, with its corporations, universities, and other features, made it feasible for science to emerge as a powerful force. Huff presents this entire process in a lucid and engaging manner, using the telescope as the instrument that most vividly reveals the striking differences between Europe and the civilizations of China, the Mughals, and the Ottomans. I believe his book will have a significant impact on the history of science, and on history generally." - Edward Grant, Indiana University

"This is a well-researched, objectively written, eminently readable book. Anyone interested in any dimension of modern science and technology will find it useful." - Rajesh Kochhar, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali

"Recommended." -Choice

"...essential reading for all historians of science..." -James Hannam, Quodlibeta

"Toby E. Huff's project in Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective is to explore what happened after 1500 to trigger this singular convergence and climax." -J. B. Shank, Journal of World History

Book Description

This study begins with the Dutch-invented telescope of 1608 and then casts Galileo's discoveries with it into a global framework. Although the telescope was soon transmitted to China, Mughal India, and the Ottoman Empire, those civilizations did not respond as Europeans did to the new instrument. These and subsequent unique developments in modern science, technology, and educational practice suggest why the West experienced a singular scientific and economic ascendancy of at least four centuries.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (October 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521170524
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521170529
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #467,876 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a very well-researched book. The central question Dr. Huff seeks to answer - Why the West? - is an intellectual riddle that demands not only extraordinary historical and sociological knowledge, but also a high level of academic intelligence. In particular, Dr. Huff cleverly uses the arrival of telescope as a "Rorschach test of scientific curiosity" (p. 20), and shows how natural philosophers in Europe reacted enthusiastically to this "discovery machine" in the seventeen century, in stark comparison with unresponsive attitudes among the Chinese and Mughal Indians. The intense engagement of natural philosophers in Europe with the newly invented telescope demonstrated a high level of scientific curiosity and creativity in European society, not only in the fields of astronomy but also pneumatics, medicine, microscopy, and human anatomy.

This heightened level of intellectual curiosity, coupled with an elevated literacy rate and the unique creation of "legally autonomous" social entities such as universities, ignited an unprecedented intellectual vitality in Europe, which decisively left ancient non-Western civilizations in the dust in terms of modern scientific achievements. It also gave rise to global Western dominance in social, political, and economic realms for the next few centuries and to this day.

Readers will find in this book Dr Huff's meticulous poring over detail historical evidences and his constant probing of the central question "Why the West?" in keeping with an intellectual tradition initiated by Max Weber that remains central to our understanding of global society today.

Some readers may think this is yet another Eurocentric undertaking - Dr. Huff is acutely aware of this - but after reading the book, one cannot but to admit the evidence provided, and the arguments put forward, are compelling.
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This must have been a very uncomfortable book to write in these days of multi-culti. It argues convincingly that the worldviews espoused by different cultures - Western Christian, Muslim and Chinese (Taoism, etc.) - had vastly different effects with regards to scientific progress. This is not a new observation (e.g. Joseph Needham), but here it is traced through the reception of the telescope and other scientific instruments and discoveries in these societies.

Other scholars and authors have shown that science and reason in the West was perpetuated through the Church, and that because of that the idea of the "Dark Ages" is a fiction (The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science), The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, etc.). Here, we see that whereas the telescope opened up a cornucopia of scientific excitement in the West, it was met with indifference in these other cultures.

They were not short of geniuses - they were short of worldviews where such things mattered. The sad history of the Jesuits' tireless efforts to bring modern scientific knowledge to China is a stark example of how a culture that did not acknowledge a reliable, loving Creator-Lawgiver also ended up rejecting the implications of that view - a natural world that operated according to discoverable laws.
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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 the same: "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.
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