From the bestselling author of How We Got To Now, The Ghost Map and Farsighted, 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.
SignatureReviewed by Simon WinchesterThis 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 political beliefs 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. Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, is working on a biography of the Atlantic Ocean.
A worthwhile read
I greatly enjoyed reading this account of the life and many pursuits of an Enlightenment thinker who played an important role in laying the foundation of early American science and philosophy.
If only modern politicians would make as concerted an effort to incorporate science and rationalism into their policy-making as our patriarchs did!
The invention of air
Awesome read! Johnson does an eloquent job of connecting how advances in science, religious thought, and political thought are intertwined. Great story of Priestly and how he helped shape our country via his relationship with Ben Franklin and later Thomas Jefferson. His analysis of how history unfolds (both here as well as his books Emergence and his book on innovation) both make for fascinating reading.