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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.
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
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.
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
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
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
ALSO BY STEVEN JOHNSON
How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate
The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
Mind Wide Open:
Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
Everything Bad Is Good for You:
How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
The Ghost Map:
The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed
Science, Cities, and the Modern World
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Copyright © 2008 by Steven Johnson
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Johnson, Steven, date.
The invention of air : a story of science, faith, revolution, and the birth of America / Steven Johnson.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-440-68531-6
1. Priestley, Joseph, 1733-1804. 2. Chemists—Great Britain—Biography.
3. Scientists—Great Britain—Biography. I. Title.
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The English hierarchy (if there be anything unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble at an air pump, or an electrical machine.
That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.
A few days before I started writing this book, a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States was asked on national television whether he believed in the theory of evolution. He shrugged off the question with a dismissive jab of humor. “It’s interesting that that question would even be asked of someone running for president,” he said. “I’m not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I’m asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States.”
It was a funny line, but the joke only worked in a specific intellectual context. For the statement to make sense, the speaker had to share one basic assumption with his audience: that “science” was some kind of specialized intellectual field, about which political leaders needn’t know anything to do their business. Imagine a candidate dismissing a question about his foreign policy experience by saying he was running for president and not writing a textbook on international affairs. The joke wouldn’t make sense, because we assume that foreign policy expertise is a central qualification for the chief executive. But science? That’s for the guys in lab coats.
That line has stayed with me since, because the web of events at the center of this book suggests that its basic assumptions are fundamentally flawed. If there is an overarching moral to this story, it is that vital fields of intellectual achievement cannot be cordoned off from one another and relegated to the specialists, that politics can and should be usefully informed by the insights of science. The protagonists of this story lived in a climate where ideas flowed easily between the realms of politics, philosophy, religion, and science. The closest thing to a hero in this book—the chemist, theologian, and political theorist Joseph Priestley—spent his whole career in the space that connects those different fields. But the other figures central to this story—Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson—suggest one additional reading of the “eighth-grade science” remark. It was anti-intellectual, to be sure, but it was something even more incendiary in the context of a presidential race. It was positively un-American.
In their legendary thirteen-year final correspondence, reflecting back on their collaborations and their feuds, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote 165 letters to each other. In that corpus, Benjamin Franklin is mentioned by name five times, while George Washington is mentioned three times. Their mutual nemesis Alexander Hamilton warrants only two references. By contrast, Priestley, an Englishman who spent only the last decade of his life in the United States, is mentioned fifty-two times. That statistic alone gives some sense of how important Priestley was to the founders, in part because he would play a defining role in the rift and ultimate reconciliation between Jefferson and Adams, and in part because his distinctive worldview had a profound impact on both men, just as it had on Franklin three decades before. Yet today, Priestley is barely more than a footnote in most popular accounts of the revolutionary generation. This book is an attempt to understand how Priestley became so central to the great minds of this period—in the fledgling United States, but also in England and France. It is not so much a biography as it is the biography of one man’s ideas, the links of association and influence that connect him to epic changes in science, belief, and society—as well as to some of the darkest episodes of mob violence and political repression in the history of Britain and the United States.