The Penultimate Curiosity: How Science Swims in the Slipstream of Ultimate Questions Illustrated Edition
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"The sheer sweep of history that this book overviews is enough to take one's breath away. This beautifully illustrated book is no coffee table collection, but achieves something far more serious." -- Science & Education
"This gripping work of history and reference deserves to be read on both sides of the science-art divide. Without espousing a particular faith or denomination, the authors have provided a much-needed antidote to the New Atheists' promotion of science at the expense of spirituality, a campaign that has done much to coarsen and misinform public understanding of both."--Financial Times
"Here is magnificence. This book will magnify the heart and mind."--Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
"A stunningly original and wonderfully engaging book, which opens up some of the deepest questions about human identity and purpose."--Alister McGrath, University of Oxford, UK
"This book offers a fascinating perspective on the perennial human quest for understanding and meaning. Its two distinguished authors--with contrasting backgrounds--have meshed their expertise together to create a thought-provoking and original synthesis."--Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
"Our species should be called Homo spiritualis rather than sapiens. Asking 'Why?' about the world gave rise to Religion, Philosophy, and Science. The interactions and entanglements are outlined in this book of amazing scope and interest."--Jean Clottes, Senior Scientist of the Chauvet Cave
"The achievements of science are breathtaking. At times so breathtaking that they cause us to lose perspective on the wonderful created world of which we, the most 'curious' of animals, are a part. This book is a remarkable achievement in that whilst reaching from prehistory, through ancient Greece to the present day, it draws upon the distinctive intellectual resources of a distinguished artist and art historian and a researcher at the cutting-edge of contemporary science. The resulting, beautifully illustrated volume, is a feast of interdisciplinary thinking at its best. It raises profound questions, The Penultimate Curiosity, posed for millennia by philosophers, religious people and more recently scientists, and points to constructive answers."--Malcolm Jeeves, St Andrews University, UK
"Evidence-based scientific rationality is very good at finding answers to the how questions. How did the Universe evolve from the Big Bang? How does matter arrange itself into objects ranging from atomic nuclei to human beings, planets and stars? But when it comes to the why questions, science does not necessarily have the answers. Instead of putting science and religion in opposition to each other, we should therefore be asking if dialogue can exist between the two, whether they can respect each other and accept each other's points of view. In the Penultimate Curiosity, Andew Briggs and Roger Wagner demonstrate that it is not only possible, but also enriching to follow such a course."--Rolf Heuer, Director General, CERN
"The sweep of this book is magnificent, with fascinating stories about Paleolithic artistry, Islamic science, medieval theology, quantum mechanics, and an array of topics in between. The writing is spectacular....The history, art, and philosophy within this book give it great value to any thoughtful reader. Recommended."--CHOICE
"Wagner and Briggs should be commended for the key observation that science and religion are entangled ultimately because human beings themselves are entangled."--Issues in Science and Technology
About the Author
Roger Wagner has been described by Charles Moore as the "best religious painter in Britain today". He gained first class honours in English Literature at Oxford, and then studied for three years at the Royal Academy before returning to live in Oxford and paint full time. Both The Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and The Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge have his work in their permanent collections. He has produced several books of illustrated poems and translations of the Psalms. Since 2010 he has taught at the Ruskin School of Art. A book about his work Forms of Transcendence The Art of Roger Wagner by Chris Miller was published in 2009. His 2012 Gresham College lecture was published on the web http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMb8rIQbTGc. His new stained glass window was installed in St Mary's Iffley in 2012. He was commissioned to paint the first portrait of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, which in 2014 was hung in Auckland Castle.
Andrew Briggs was elected in 2002 as the first holder of the newly created Chair in Nanomaterials at the University of Oxford. After studying physics at Oxford he gained a PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where the inscription from the Psalms was placed over the entrance of the new laboratory at his initiative. He then studied for a degree in Theology at Cambridge, winning the Chase Prize for Greek, before returning to Oxford in 1980 to pursue an academic career in science. In what is now the Department of Materials he has been successively Royal Society Research Fellow, University Lecturer, Reader, and Professor. His scientific research focuses on materials and techniques for quantum technologies, in which non-classical superposition and entanglement are harnessed for future applications such as computers and information processors. Simultaneously his experiments also probe foundational questions such as the nature of reality in the context of quantum theory.
- Publisher : Oxford University Press; Illustrated edition (April 25, 2016)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 512 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0198747950
- ISBN-13 : 978-0198747956
- Item Weight : 2.31 pounds
- Dimensions : 9.5 x 6.7 x 1.3 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,996,120 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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In fact the book shows that religious, spiritual and metaphysical aspirations leap constantly ahead of scientific inquiry, feeding it questions, inspiring it and giving it problems to solve.
The short chapters are like salted peanuts: You say to yourself “Just a few more…” and then find yourself consuming the whole bag.
This is a book that surely took 10-15 years to write and a lifetime of reading and scholarship to research. It’s a synthesis of literally hundreds, maybe thousands of books and sources. In fact it’s difficult to name other books whose background material is more extensive.
One candidate might be “COSMOSAPIENS” by John Hands, which is an equally ambitious work. It wasn’t until midway through the book that I noticed that the rather small font endorsements on the back are from some of the top European thinkers in the world today - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, George Ellis and others. This is no lightweight piece of scholarship.
This book begins with ancient cave paintings in France and voyages through ancient religious and cultural history. The first 100 pages of the book is a mini-encyclopedia of religious anthropology. Then the authors turn their attention to the ancient Greeks and Romans; then medieval history and the middle ages and the renaissance. In chapter after chapter, you get backstory that few people have ever heard.
Latter parts of the story appropriately center around Oxford. I for one had not realized the great role which specifically Oxford scholars have played in the history of science.
The quotes are amazing in quality and quantity. I underlined many sections of this book and bent the corners of many pages. Science has become so large and all encompassing that it’s become easy to dismiss the fact that science always follows religious and metaphysical intuitions. But then it also reshapes them, because once something is known, you can’t un-learn a truth.
The sections around page 300 detailing the overlaps between Babylonian and Biblical history are especially fascinating. And the authors always give attention to the anxiety that religious clerics feel about having their ideas and traditions vetted by scientific inquiry.
The authors take great pains to make clear the both scientific truths and religious interpretations are provisional, must be held loosely and with an open hand. They show that both sides often fall prey to dogma, but the authors illustrate this without ever getting preachy or self righteous.
This, I think, is the key to the book’s transparency and readability. All too often, people writing on this subject get on some soap box and start railing. But Wagner and Briggs never succumb to this. There’s not a trace of polemic. One can sense their humility in attempting to grasp these big questions.
But because they do this, what you get is an amazing history of science. In fact if this were the only history of science book you ever had, you could do a lot worse. They string together a chain of events from ancient history to the present in a way that’s most impressive.
The “conflict thesis,” the assertion that science and faith have always been at war, has only been around for 150 years and was largely a fabrication by John Draper and friends. If you read this book, which spans 100,000 years of history, you’ll easily see that this is not true. What you’ll see instead is that the two approaches have wrestled with mostly the same questions the whole time.
Given the scope and breadth, it’s remarkably easy to read. The page format is relaxing, there are ample illustrations and footnotes, and this book has absolutely none of the triumphant or self-congratulatory tone that is often so off-putting in science / religion books.
Excellent job, gentlemen. This is a labor of years of love and research. The exquisite care shows - and puts to rest one of the greatest urban legends of our time, the idea that science and religion are at war with each other. The truth is, man is at war with his prejudices and ignorance, and we must balance curiosity and empiricism with humility. Quoting from the book:
“Blaise Pascal had written that ‘we burn with desire to find a firm foundation, an unchanging solid base on which to build a tower rising to infinity’, but science could not provide that foundation.”
In the same vein, James Clerk Maxwell wrote:
“I think that the results that each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonize his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance, except to the man himself and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of a society. For it is the nature of science especially those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions to be continually…”
Biologist Gary Fugle, author of "Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide" says there is no single place in nature or science where you can draw a dotted line and say "see, on this side here is nature, and this here on the other side is God." It doesn't work that way. In their own fashion, Andrew Briggs and Roger Wagner have expressed this idea well. This book is a big bridge in the science-faith divide.
While the value of this book may rest in this provision of such a comprehensive and yet readable atlas of human curiosity, I would suggest that on the level of simple enjoyment the value of this book lies elsewhere - in the wonderful human stories it paints of some of the key players in this game of understanding. Highlights for me are the accounts of the lives of James Clerk Maxwell, H. W. Acland and John Herschel - all of whom come to life in this book, and for all of whom one can hardly help but develop a strong affection..
Additionally this book offers all but the most comprehensively informed reader introductions to new characters whose important contributions to the story of the two curiosities may be new to them. Here the work of the Alexandrian philosopher, theologian and proto-scientist John Philoponus stands out. His pre-figuring and influence on the work of giants such as Galileo was a new revelation to me.
Readers can expect to be surprised, informed and possibly inspired by this rather special book.
Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution
Top reviews from other countries
In a tremendously learned overview of the history of religion and scientific interaction the authors cover in a rich and imaginative way a whole series of historical characters, some of which are completely new for me. We start with cave paintings, the oldest form we know of art, which were seized on by atheist philosophers as expressing "art for art sake" but on closer analysis turned out to be deeply religious. Anthropologists confirm that even the most obscure and remote societies have complex and refined belief system. Moving on, Greek thinkers are sometimes portrayed as atheists and certainly they were sceptical of the local Greek mythology. But teachers like Xenophanes taught of a greater divine reality -" God is one, greatest amongst the gods and men, in no way like mortals". The famous Socrates said at his trial "Gentlemen I owe a greater obedience to God than to you". These thinkers pulled with them questions of how everything worked and especially mathematics, the language of science, together with astronomy and other scientific disciplines.
Moving on to the Christian Era, the writers show that while there were some like Tertullian who famously (and wrongly in my view) said " We have no need of curiosity since Jesus Christ" the large majority of the early church fathers took the opposite view. A completely new Christian thinker who is drawn fascinatingly and had a huge impact on science was Philoponus. Trained in the great cultural centre of Alexandria his thinking on annotation and research had a huge long term positive impact on scientific thinking. This continued in the Islamic world after the conquest of North Africa and in fact the West is indebted to Muslim thinkers and scientists for preserving much of the Greek thinking and scientific research which was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire in the Christian West
It would be overkill to try and cover every example given, suffice it to say that for me, the evidence is very clear that many of the leading scientists over the years were strongly motivated by Christian belief and that the two quests - to know God and understand how God made the universe and how it works - helped each other. The authors don't try and white wash some attempts to apply whatever the reverse of a slipstream effect would be. Possibly the best known example of all was the attempt by some elements of the Catholic hierarchy (though not all) to silence Galileo's attempts to demonstrate that the earth revolves round the sun not vice versa. And its fair to say that in other cases the church apparatus did squash or at least not encourage scientific exploration. But what is much more important is how the devout scientist in multiple cases was filled and encouraged by his faith to push science forward.
One final example will suffice. Michael Faraday, perhaps the preeminent physicist of the C19 is well known for his famous if eccentric religious devotion. Less well known is his contemporary and first ever Cambridge Cavendish Professor of Physics, James Clark Maxwell, who discovered electromagnetism and then brought light electricity and magnetism into a single unified theory. In line with Kepler and Galileo he argued that "It is our ability to discern the shining in the mind of God which proves that the human mind is the work of God." There is a splendid story about the inscription over the doors of both the old (not surprising - Maxwell) and new (very surprising) Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory - ‘The works of the Lord are great; sought out of all them that have pleasure therein’ (Psalm 111 v2)
This excellent and well written book also reminds us that the very concept of "religion" and "scientists" are C17th and C19th innovations so for most of history the rigid barriers between faith and science and at times the hostility we see today, were completely absent. there was a unified quest for knowledge and the two sides of the coin helped not hindered each other
Let me leave the final summary of the thesis to Wagner and Briggs. They argue that religion especially Christianity contributed the following:-
1. The idea of a single beneficent rational agency whose rationality could be both expressed in mathematics and read in creation
2. This agency is not identified with anything within the universe but gives to the whole a law like character
3. Truth is not the exclusive property of any single civilisation
4. Truth cannot be imposed by force but involves the duty of individual investigation and experiment.
The first two are concerned with what God is and the second with who God is. Francis Bacon put it neatly - the two leading motives driving scientific enquiry are "the glory of God and the relief of mans estate".
Finally, I recommend the book as it's very accessible to the non scientist. As a humble (?) historian I never found the science in the book was over my O Level Maths Physics and Chemistry. It's also far from hagiographic. Even the devout if somewhat unorthodox believer but truly great Isaac Newton had his faults, ruthlessly suppressing and excluding other researchers in "his" fields and engaging in a PR campaign to discredit his rivals. These scientists were like all of us far from perfect but their search for the penultimate question was greatly aided as they were flying in the slipstream created by the ultimate question - who made the laws that they discovered in the first place?
* Despite their amazing and indeed prodigious research Mr Wagner and Professor Briggs for some strange reason seem to have missed the last 30 years of rankings of the top UK universities. Curiously, they seem to be labouring under some understandable if misguided "dark blue" bias. No doubt the true facts will be corrected in subsequent editions!
Journeying through history to the earliest records, the book takes us to the time of the first humans, the early philosophers, and the tension that has always existed between those that believe in an invisible God and those who do not. Taking as its starting point, the inscriptions above the entrances to the Oxford University Museum and the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, it shows that religious belief underpinned scientific discoveries, and that both worked together for most of history.
Often religion and science are pitted against one another, as if faith and certainty are a fork in the road. This binary choice of either or is prevalent in our modern world. It is a power struggle which neither side can win without destroying itself in the process.
This book is beautifully written and strikes a tone that allows those of us who believe in the power of both God and science to work together. It does not force us to take sides so it heals the divide… ‘What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder’.
During this book we are taken from the days of early man up until the present. Packed full of illustrations, we are constantly reminded that one of the authors is an artist. I am pleased that I read this book as a hardback edition, rather than on kindle, as it is a beautiful book – with quality paper - and the illustrations would undoubtedly be harder to view properly on a screen. However, obviously, it is the content that enthrals and this book looks at the ultimate questions about God and man and how they are tackled by science and religion and the influence of each on the other. Many of the people mentioned in this book I will admit to never having heard of before, but this work does not rely on the obvious for examples and the scope simply makes the book more interesting.
Ultimately this book will appeal to those who believe that the scientific and religious accounts of the world can be complimentary rather than conflicting - who perhaps see the scientific endeavour as 'thinking God's thoughts after him.' Others who 'find no room for God in their hypotheses' may stil beg to differ.