The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America [NOOK Book]

Overview

From the bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From, The Ghost Map and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new national bestseller: the “exhilarating”( Los Angeles Times) story of Joseph Priestley, “a founding father long forgotten”(Newsweek) and a brilliant man who embodied the relationship between science, religion, and politics for America's Founding Fathers.



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The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From, The Ghost Map and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new national bestseller: the “exhilarating”( Los Angeles Times) story of Joseph Priestley, “a founding father long forgotten”(Newsweek) and a brilliant man who embodied the relationship between science, religion, and politics for America's Founding Fathers.



In The Invention of Air, national bestselling author Steven Johnson tells the fascinating story of Joseph Priestley—scientist and theologian, protégé of Benjamin Franklin, friend of Thomas Jefferson—an eighteenth-century radical thinker who played pivotal roles in the invention of ecosystem science, the discovery of oxygen, the uses of oxygen, scientific experimentation, the founding of the Unitarian Church, and the intellectual development of the United States. As he did so masterfully in The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson uses a dramatic historical story to explore themes that have long engaged him: innovative strategies, intellectual models, and the way new ideas emerge and spread, and the environments that foster these breakthroughs.


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Editorial Reviews

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This exciting saga about a brilliant 18th-century iconoclast matches a talented storyteller with a superb subject.

Internationally famous in his own time, British polymath Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is best remembered today, if at all, as the discoverer of oxygen, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and other "different kinds of airs." Few of us know that this eminent scientist was also a prominent participant in the early shaping of the American Republic. Steven Johnson's riveting The Invention of Air renders that story with all its implicit drama, tracking this protean thinker through an active life punctuated by controversy. In England, Priestley's radical religious views and support of the French Revolution made him the target of violent riots; when he and his family emigrated to the United States in 1794, his ideas and writings became political lightning rods, influencing many thinkers, most significantly Thomas Jefferson. This carefully researched narrative by the author of The Ghost Map provides a revealing view of a history we thought we knew.
Russell Shorto
Johnson's new book, The Invention of Air, shows its genre-mixing in its subtitle; it uses Priestley as the fulcrum for a story that blends "science, faith, revolution and the birth of America." What enlivens the book is that Johnson does not simply describe the system within which Priestley and his contemporaries hashed out the features of classical science; he sets it against other, later systems for comprehending physical reality, showing laymen how far we have come from the classical age of science.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Signature

Reviewed bySimon Winchester

This is an intelligent retelling of a rather well-known story, that of Joseph Priestley, the Yorkshire dissenting theologian and chemist, and then went on to emigrate to America and advised the creators of the new republic-Thomas Jefferson, most notably-on how best to run their country.

Steven Johnson, who has a fine reputation for discerning trends and for his iconoclastic appreciation of popular culture, chooses his topics well. His most recent book, The Ghost Map, looked at the story-also very familiar-of the London cholera epidemic of 1854, and of the heroic epidemiologist, John Snow, who discovered the ailment's origins and path of transmission. It was a good story, but essentially a simple one.

With Priestley, Johnson has now taken on a subject that is every bit as complex and multifaceted as any of the Quentin Tarantino films he so admires. Priestley was a scientist, true, and his meditations on the exhalations of gases from mint leaves and the curiosities of phlogiston and "fixed air," his discoveries of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, ammonia gas-and oxygen, most importantly-and his relationship with his French rival Lavoisier have been the stuff of schoolroom chemistry lessons for more than two centuries.

But it is his politically liberal and spiritually dissenting views that underpin the story that Johnson chooses to tell-views that led in 1794 to Priestley, whose house in Birmingham had been sacked by rioters, emigrating to America, thereby becoming "the first great scientist-exile, seeking safe harbour in America after being persecuted for his religious and politicalbeliefs at home. Albert Einstein, Otto Frisch, Edward Teller, Xiao Qiang-they would all follow in Priestley's footsteps."

Johnson unearths an interesting and illuminating statistic: in the 165 letters that passed between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the name Benjamin Franklin is mentioned five times, George Washington three times, Alexander Hamilton twice-and Joseph Priestley, a foreign immigrant, is cited no fewer than 52 times. The influence of the man-he was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, a tolerant stoic and a rationalist utterly opposed to religious fundamentalism-was quite astonishing, and Steven Johnson makes a brave and generally successful attempt to summarize and parse the degree to which this influence infected the founding principles of the American nation.

As a reminder of the underlying sanity and common sense of this country-a reminder perhaps much needed after the excesses of a displeasing presidential election campaign-The Invention of Air succeeds like a shot of the purest oxygen. Illus. (Jan. 2)

Simon Winchester, author ofThe Professor and the Madman, is working on a biography of the Atlantic Ocean.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was a veritable Renaissance man, whose interests and skills ranged from science to religion to politics. Science writer Johnson (The Ghost Map) weaves together all of these themes and how they played out in his life, in early America, and among the Founding Fathers. He tells the story in a reader-friendly manner that also encourages readers to think about how these themes apply in today's world. This work covers different ground from Jerome D. Bowers's 2007 Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America and discusses more of the culture of the times than the more costly but thorough 2008 collection of essays edited by Isabel Rivers, Joseph Priestley, Scientist, Philosopher, and Theologian. Recommended for all large public and all academic libraries.
—Eric D. Albright

The Barnes & Noble Review
Thomas Carlyle's dictum that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men" would be more serviceable, though less aphoristic, if adjusted to: "history is sometimes best recounted through the biographies of great people." The lives of Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestley are perfect cases in point; to describe them is to describe the tumultuous and world-changing second half of the 18th century. This is not just because of the role these men played -- Franklin more directly than Priestley -- in the American and French revolutions and their aftermath, but because of their involvement in the scientific and intellectual advances of the time, Priestley more directly than Franklin. Because both the politics and the science to which they contributed were elements in the larger story of the Enlightenment, the lives of these men are especially interesting and iconic.

Though Franklin has a significant role in this book, Steven Johnson focuses chiefly on Priestley to draw together the threads of science, politics, religion, and the history and leading personalities of that revolutionary age. He does not offer a biography of Priestley but a sketch of his adult working life and achievements. The book's somewhat hyperbolic title alludes to Priestley's discoveries in the chemistry of gases; its even more hyperbolic subtitle alludes to Priestley's theological innovations, his career as a political pamphleteer, and his friendships with Franklin and -- later, when he had been driven into exile in America -- Thomas Jefferson.

Without doubt, Priestley's story is an excellent hook from which to hang the tale of discovery and upheaval that marks the birth of the modern world. Priestley made important discoveries in chemistry, arguably laying the foundations of that science, and in addition made major contributions to contemporary debate in ethics, theology, and politics. His attack on the "corruptions" of Christianity, prompted by his Unitarian outlook and his view of Jesus as a mortal teacher of ethics, together with his support for the revolutionary causes in America and France, put him beyond the pale of conventional "Establishment" opinion in England but earned him extraordinary admiration from other quarters, Jefferson not least among them; indeed Jefferson described Priestley as "one of the few precious lives to mankind."

Priestley was, in short, a polymath of genius. By the time he left school he knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Italian, German, and the rudiments of geometry and algebra, all but the first two self-taught. At the Dissenting academy in Daventry (none but members of the Church of England could attend Oxford and Cambridge) he learned the basics of science as it then existed, and a lifelong passion for experimental work was born. At first he made a living as a teacher and Dissenting preacher, though his increasingly Unitarian views limited his career in the latter respect. His reputation was soon secured by the success of his researches on electricity and then on air, the first earning him a fellowship of the Royal Society and the second its prestigious Copley Medal.

A remarkable feature of Priestley's work was its fertility in practical applications. For example: he had to teach himself to draw in order to illustrate his book on electricity, and in the painstaking process of doing so found that India rubber was an excellent remover of lead pencil marks. He commented on the discovery in the book's preface, and the eraser was born. His work on "fixed air" (carbon dioxide) led to the invention of carbonated water, and soda became a commercial success in his own day. His discovery that plants "dephlogisticate" air was the source of much important chemistry in the work of Priestley's contemporary Lavoisier (who coined the name "oxygen") and eventually, two centuries later, led to the concept of the "ecosystem," recognizing the interdependence of all levels of animal and vegetable life.

Johnson gives an account of Priestley's scientific work and to a much lesser extent his political and theological writings, adding a commentary on the nature of the growth of ideas and scientific progress as he does so. This part of the book is, alas, repetitive and much padded, and it sometimes reads like a fifth grade textbook. Priestley's work on electricity and gas is explained in terms too simple to convey either the ingenuity of the experiments performed or their full significance as revealed by later science. Johnson is intrigued by the debates Thomas Kuhn and others have conducted into the way scientific paradigms change, a pertinent matter given that Priestley and his contemporaries were very much engaged in changing scientific paradigms; but this is overdone at the expense of the more interesting story, which is how Priestley's scientific discoveries were made and what they meant.

The book gets much better in the later chapters, where Johnson describes the hostility Priestley attracted because of his views on the French Revolution. Priestley's house in Birmingham was burned down by a mob, and he soon afterward went into exile in America, there to become friends with Jefferson and to fall out with John Adams; in the famous correspondence between these two presidents -- the correspondence that began long after their respective presidencies were over -- Priestly figured centrally, because of a letter Jefferson had sent him immediately on becoming president.

Priestley had nearly been deported under the terms of the highly illiberal Alien and Sedition Acts, which Adams's administration passed and which Jefferson, though Adams's vice president at the time, later called "a libel on legislation." In a way that prefigured General De Gaulle's refusal to imprison Jean-Paul Sartre ("one does not imprison Voltaire"), Adams refused to have Priestley deported, and when he learned of Jefferson's critical description of the Acts he wrote to remonstrate, initiating the most stirring phase of the Jefferson-Adams correspondence. All this is well told by Johnson and brings to a fit conclusion the story of Priestley's remarkable life close to the center of the great affairs of his time.

One thing this short and mainly insubstantial book shows is that a really good biography of Joseph Priestley is long overdue; the last dates to 1931, and given the wealth of incident, importance, science, politics, theology, and great events and individuals involved, the hand of a master is urgently needed to remedy the lack. --A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781440685316
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 12/26/2008
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 273,737
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is the author of seven bestsellers, including Future Perfect, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You, and is the editor of the anthology The Innovator’s Cookbook. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites—most recently, outside.in—and writes for Time, Wired, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Marin County, California, with his wife and three sons.
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Table of Contents

A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and The Birth of America Author's Note

Prologue. The Vortex
Chapter One. The Electricians
Chapter Two. Rose and Nightshade
Chapter Three. Intermezzo: An Island of Coal
Chapter Four. The Wild Gas
Chapter Five. A Comet in the System

Acknowledgments Notes Bibliography Index

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 42 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2011

    Fantastic read!

    From start to finsh wonderful. Story of one the most influential men among our founding fathers. Science, politics,and religeon. Recommend to any scientist or history buff.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 14, 2013

    It is virtually inconceivable to imagine these days that a succe

    It is virtually inconceivable to imagine these days that a successful politician could simultaneously be an established scientist and a significant religious figure. Yet, in the latter part of the 18th century within western Europe and North America more than one notable would fill such a bill. So much for human progress.
    Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) was an Englishman who rose from obscurity to be an important player in both English and American science, politics and religion. In the Invention of Air Steven Johnson explores the "why" behind Priestly's accomplishments more so than the "what" - although the book is perfectly adequate as a biography as well. Johnson's exploration of Priestly's life convincingly concludes that it was Priestly's fanatical dedication to the free and open exchange of ideas that accounted for all he accomplished - and that was monumental, indeed.
    Priestly is best known as the discoverer of oxygen, which turns out, in fact, to be not quite true. His scientific "style" would not be seen today as very promising. Priestly's approach to science was to let discovery take him where it would, to explore with seemingly limitless energy any topic he fancied and to broadcast as widely as possible every step (and misstep) along the way to everyone who would pay attention. Priestly began his career as a cleric (he was a co-founder of the Unitarian Church and author of the influential History of the Corruption of Christianity) with the leisure time to explore science as an amateur. His first major contribution was not new discovery but a history of the science of electricity which he had the audacity to propose to the famous London Club of Honest Whigs (that included Benjamin Franklin among its loosely-defined membership). The notables in the Club (and those of its later morph The Lunar Society which included Boulton, Watt, Wedgewood and E. Darwin) were so impressed with Priestly that they enthusiastically supported his scientific endeavors. Over time, Priestly's "shotgun approach" paid off handsomely with discovery after discovery. He acquired an array of both sophisticated and simple instrumentation with which to carry out his studies - which, besides oxygen, included soda water, photosynthesis and respiration. Unable to contain his political and religious opinions anymore than his science, however, got Priestly ("Gunpowder Joe") into serious trouble that resulted in having his Birmingham house and laboratory burnt down by an angry mob and his exile to Pennsylvania. There Priestly started anew and picked up where he left off with a new house, new lab, firm friendships with Franklin and Jefferson, and not-so-firm relationship with Sam Adams that almost cost him a second exile.

    Although Priestly stubbornly stuck to the errant concept of "dephlogisticated air" rather than Lavoisier's now-accepted concept of oxygen as a unique gas, it was Priestly's prescient espousal of the concept of global ecology that is viewed today (and by some of his contemporaries like Jefferson and Franklin) to be an even more important contribution to science than the output of his laboratory experiments.
    A few historical woodcut illustrations, brief notes, short bibliography and index round out this worthy text.

    Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2012

    Good in parts

    Parts of this book - Priestly's biography - are well-written and interesting. But there is far too much philosophising about Priestly's place inthe "long zoom" of history. It's especially odd to encounter such extensive musings in the beginning of the book; after all, the reader doesn't know the story at that point. Educate and entertain us first, then place the story into a broader context.

    Finally, the author's linking of the story to political trends of our day is a real stretch, based on circular reasoning.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2010

    the book to read

    quite a page turner! it is absolutely amazing

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