Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review: 'The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America' by Steven Johnson

Review by Mark Sumner
Steven Johnson's latest, The Invention of Air opens with a lone passenger examining waterspouts from the deck of a ship sailing to America. To set the stage, I can do no better than lift a couple of paragraphs from Johnson's introduction.


This was Joseph Priestley, formerly of Hackney, England, en route to his new home in America. At sixty-one years old, he was among the most accomplished men of his generation, rivaled only by Franklin in he the diversity of his interests and influence. He had won the Copley Medal (the Nobel Prize of its day) for his experiments on various gases in his late thirties, and published close to five hundred books and pamphlets on science, politics, and religion since 1761. An ordained minister, he helped found the dissenting Christian sect of Unitarianism. He counted among his close friends the great minds of the Enlightenment and the early Industrial Revolution: Franklin, Richard Price, Josiah Wedgewood, Mathew Boulton, James Watt, Erasmus Darwin.
But while Priestley's luminous career had established an extensive base of admirers in the newly formed United States, he had booked passage on the Samson thanks to another, more dubious, honor. He had become the most hated man in all of Britian.
Come on. After that, are you really going to stop reading?
For most people, the name Joseph Priestley is associated with a few dry facts that appear in their high school or college science texts. Discoverer of oxygen; that's the one that usually sticks. But a few disconnected data points do a poor job of presenting a man whose accomplishments included the first attempt to systematically describe English grammar and redefining the curriculum for public school students.
Yes, Priestley made numerous discoveries. He was, to put it nicely, an enthusiastic experimenter. To put it more bluntly he threw a lot of mud against the wall to see what would stick. But despite what appears to be a lack of any overall systematic approach, he had a knack for finding interesting results that had been overlooked in previous experiments, and for creating apparatus that allowed him to test even his most outlandish ideas (not that he was always right in interpreting the results).
However, the picture you get from reading Johnson's book is not one of Joseph Priestley, super scientist.  Instead, the Priestley that Johnson describes in this book is a compulsive, unstoppable communicator.
He was the author of what was probably the first popular book on science. Not the first science book, there had been many of those, but the first popular science book. What's the difference? As an example, Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica had been out for several decades before Priestley began writing, but as the title suggests, Newton chose to write his book in Latin, not English, and crafted a text both intentionally dense and painfully difficult. Despite the revolutionary wealth of information in Newton's book, only the most advanced scholars could pry lose its secrets. Priestley broke with this scholarly tradition and wrote his works in English, being careful to explain enough background to address a general audience. Rather than go through the elaborate mental gymnastics that Newton presented, Priestley laid his work bare on the page.
Priestley advocated the same choice as a school instructor, setting aside the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew that had constituted the bulk of most curricula in favor of English, math, science, and more recent history.
These choices didn't seem to be made with any intent on increasing his personal fame. In fact, Priestley made little from his discoveries and was quick to share with others who turned his ideas into commercial ventures. He was as content to talk about the discoveries that others had made as he was to put forward ideas of his own. He was a man who reveled in the openness of the science community of the Enlightenment, and the way in which ideas were readily passed from hand to hand. If he were alive today, I have little doubt he'd be writing at one of the science blogs, eager to relay the latest news.
Joseph Priestley simply loved ideas, loved learning, and loved passing ideas on to others. He communicated in every way he could, writing letters, books and pamphlets, teaching, presenting traveling lecture series, and preaching in his church. That last may seem more than a little unusual these days. Unlike many modern scholars, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that science and religion were two separate and non-overlapping "magisteria," Priestley refused to place a gap between his experiments and his religious beliefs.
Coming off of eight years in which science has been made the slave of ideology, that may seem a little frightening. However, while Priestley insisted that science and religion were all of one piece, he didn't allow that belief to affect the results that he found in his experiments or to stifle the ideas that he shared in his writing. Priestley's position was that through science he could illuminate the plan of God, making science itself a cousin to reading the scriptures.
Of course, not everyone agreed with Priestley's position, and this was hardly the most controversial of his religious or political statements. When Johnson said that Priestley had become the most hated man in Britain, he wasn't kidding. How many other Elightenment-era scientists have not one, but a whole series of riots named after them? Why was Priestley's home burned and he and his family forced to flee for their lives? Well... read the book.
In The Invention of Air Steven Johnson gives a biography not just of a man, but a time in which the spigot of ideas was gradually being cranked wide open. It's a fun (and quite short) read for anyone interested in the intersection of science, politics, and religion. It's also an interesting look at how societies react -- for good and ill -- to periods of rapid change.
Finally, though the book is most decidedly focused on Priestley, it's also a good reminder of something that often gets forgotten: Benjamin Franklin was an astoundingly important figure not just in the United States, but around the world. If all that remains of Priestley for most of us is his name next to Oxygen, Franklin is too often reduced down to bifocals, almanacs, a reputation for romantic dalliance, and some funny one liners. Seeing Franklin from Priestley's perspective, gives you some sense of what a towering figure Franklin actually was, and how vital he was to the enterprise of both science and democracy.
The Invention of Air 
Steven Johnson 
254 pages 
Riverhead Books 
2008


Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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