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