Tuesday, October 03, 2006

I cannot live without books: Thomas Jefferson

I was reminded this morning of a remark President John F. Kennedy made in 1962 when he welcomed forty-nine Nobel Prize winners to the White House: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Jefferson was not a perfect man by a long shot, but he was certainly a man of intellect and science. In addition to his extraordinary political contributions, he was also an architect, horticulturist, paleontologist, archeologist, inventor -- and not least, an author and musician. Among his correspondents and friends were such eminent scientists of the time as Joseph Priestly, Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Edward Jenner, and, well, almost anyone else you'd care to name. He understood well the connection between science and democracy, as articulated more recently by Jacob Bronowski: "The society of scientists must be a democracy. It can keep alive and grow only by a constant tension between dissent and respect, between independence from the views of others and tolerance for them."

Jefferson demanded empirical evidence for his beliefs. When two Yale professors described a meteorite that fell in Connecticut, he is said to have remarked, "It is easier to believe that Yankee professors would lie, than that stones would fall from heaven." He was wrong about the celestial stones, but right to be skeptical. For Jefferson, the Divine Will was not evidenced in kings, prelates or holy books, but in the natural order, to be made evident by patient observation and experiment. His greatest experiment was the Nation -- prosperous, free and democratic.

What a contrast to our present leader, who by all accounts is oblivious to the scientific spirit, and for whom the reading of a book is an event worthy of the nightly news.

(I have been away from my computer for five days. Thanks to Tom for postings, and to those of you who have offered in Comments kind words about books.)