"The Enlightenment without science would have been a steamship without steam."
A barometer of a nation's political health could be found in its commitment to scientific inquiry, which can generate new innovation as well as challenge long-held, but erroneous "truth."
That thesis is explored in fascinating detail and lively prose in Science and Liberty by Timothy Ferris, a former professor and Rolling Stone editor. His observation isn't new or novel, but is freighted with meaning amid contemporary debates over stem-cell research and smashing atoms in a supercollider.
Ferris quotes mathematician and polymath Jacob Bronowski, "Like the other creative activities which grew from the Renaissance, science has humanized our values. Men have asked for freedom, justice and respect precisely as the scientific spirit has spread among them. The dilemma of today is not that the human values cannot control a mechanical science. It is the other way around. The scientific spirit is more human than the machinery of governments."
Isaac Newton is profiled by Ferris as a world-shifting scientist and a liberal British parliamentarian who pressed for more personal freedoms. Newton serves as a role model for liberal thinkers — including the American founding fathers — who saw a link between liberty and enterprise, valuing freedom of thought over faithfulness to dogma.
The closing chapter of Ferris's book says the crowning achievement of science is to establish that we all live in one world, governed by the same natural laws. He suggests this may cause discomfiture for dictators and the doctrinaire of all stripes.
Applied to the everyday level, Ferris's message translates as: It is better to engage people with an open mind, if not an open heart.
"Science and liberalism have an unequaled capacity for doing good – for reducing cruel ignorance and villainous certitude, encouraging freedom and effective government, putting food in the mouths of the hungry, promoting human rights and attainable prospect in their future."
Not a bad political platform or guiding light for public affairs campaigns.