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46-May-June-2010
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Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

A-The Science of LibertyPopular-science writer and documentary filmmaker Timothy Ferris is the author of a dozen books, including The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report (1997), Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril (2002), and the critically acclaimed Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988).

The Topic: Sometimes science gets a bad rap, no matter how hard its advocates fight to make it sexy (or even acceptable). But in The Science of Liberty, Timothy Ferris makes the case for the necessity of good science in a democracy--and, conversely, the necessity of democracy for good science. John Locke, for example, not only argued for natural rights; he was also immersed in a scientific culture, as were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Drawing on their intertwined histories, from the Renaissance to the American and French Revolutions to our modern focus on global warming, Ferris argues that "the democratic revolution was sparked--caused is perhaps not too strong a word--by the scientific revolution, and that science continues to empower political freedom today."
Harper. 368 pages. $26.99. ISBN13: 9780060781507

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Ferris is an engaging narrator with clear insights into the workings of science and democratic societies. This is an important and extremely readable book; he has a powerful message, too: Science can support a free society only if science itself is free, and no society can remain free and viable without science to continually nourish it." David Perlman

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The Science of Liberty is a profound delight whether one puts it down convinced or not. ... Even when he is covering familiar ground, Ferris's perspective is a joy, and his vivid account of the vast conceptual divide between the American Revolution's appeal to reason and the French Revolution's tyranny, hysteria and terror (which Ferris attributes largely to the anti-scientific, delusional, ‘fact-free thought' of Rousseau) is itself worth the price of admission." Curt Suplee

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The most engaging chapters in The Science of Liberty concern the dynamic interplay of technology and commerce. ... [Ferris] would have done his readers a favor ... by approaching the ideas of liberalism's most penetrating philosophical critics with more generosity; his tendency is to jeer and dismiss." Gary Rosen

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"One weakness of this thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining book is that Mr. Ferris might have offered a more satisfactory explanation of how, in the last years of the 18th century, the Enlightenment itself led to such different results in Paris and in Philadelphia, producing a Robespierre there and a Jefferson here. ... Mr. Ferris has contributed significantly to our understanding of why [the Founders'] work has endured as well as it has, and why the projects of others, with more grandiose aims, have known such dismal failure." Alan Pell Crawford

Critical Summary

Despite dealing with some weighty issues, The Science of Liberty isn't a wonky book written by an egghead, but a passionately crafted and articulate exploration of the relationship between science and democracy. Ferris, a first-rate popular-science writer, combines lucid prose with some serious science chops to show how science and democracy working in symbiosis can thrive and--the author suggests, using the antiexamples of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union--can just as easily die. In any book of this scope, critics tend to cherry-pick their favorite anecdotes and to focus on certain historical periods (and to kvetch a bit when those periods aren't well represented). Ferris, though, treats his subject with equanimity and the advantage of the long view.