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The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America Hardcover – 26 Dec 2008
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About the Author
Steven Johnson is the author of the national bestsellers Everything Bad Is Good for You and Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, as well as Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate.
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In 1765, Joseph Priestley, an iconoclast teacher from Warrington, comes to London to the Coffee House meetings of the Honest Whigs, and Benjamin Franklin in particular. Benjamin Franklin in 1740 had described the basic model of electricity with positive and negative charges interacting in a predictable way. Priestley's first great scientific achievement was to write the History and Present State of Electricity followed by his role in identifying oxygen and a number of other elements. He was the first to observe plants ability to absorb carbon dioxide "foul air" and synthesise oxygen "good air". He established himself as a leading World scientist.
But this was an era of opportunity for open minded polymaths. Priestly found the circle of the Honest Whigs and then the Lunar Society in Birmingham - groups of eminent men who were pushing back the frontiers not just of science but appreciating its implications on religion and on the social order i.e. politics. In France Lavoisier was leading a French scientific revolution.
The French Revolution was gathering pace and the American War of Independence was about to happen. Franklin went back to America and became influential. Priestley published the History of Corruption of Christianity, he became a key figure in the founding of the Unitarian church that eventually led to him being hounded out of Britain - the Quakers were seen as undermining religious belief. He went at quite a late stage in life to the USA, and with his for his close friendship with Franklin and with John Adams and Jefferson - the second and third US Presidents - he was a major power in the intellectual basis upon which the US is based.
Stephen Johnson has an ability to draw big conclusions about how ideas arise among groups of people , exemplified by the Honest Whigs and the Lunar and the Lunar Society, about how innovation and the ways e a new ideas emerge and spread.
The book fills you with optimism of the triumph of ideas and progress over fatalism.
This book covers Priestley's relationships with several of the founding fathers of the United States, their discussions about religion, the French Revolution and the future. It is well-written and just the right length.
This last comment suggests an element of serendipity in human affairs, one that Johnson also discusses brilliantly in another of his books, The Ghost Map. Priestley played a central and prominent role (albeit an underappreciated one since then) during the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, simultaneously. As Johnson notes on Page 147, "Scientific innovation tends to be imagined as something that exists outside the public sphere of politics, or the sacred space of faith...But for Priestly, these three domains [i.e. science, religion, and politics] were not separate compartments, but rather a kind of continuum, with new developments in each domain reinforcing and intensifying the others." For me, those comments capture the essence of what motivated Priestly. They also help to explain the nature and extent of his appeal and influence during an era in which there was no shortage of human talent and skill.
The title of this book should not be interpreted literally. Rather, it refers to a process of rigorous scientific inquiry over time during which men such as Franklin and Priestley began to formulate ("invent") concepts to increase human understanding of natural forces. Note Johnson's lengthy discussion of waterspouts in the Prologue, "The Vortex." In fact, Johnson observes, "One of Priestley's greatest scientific discoveries involved the cycle of energy flowing through all life on Earth, the origin of the very air he was breathing there on the deck [of the ship transporting him from England to America] as he watched his thermometer line bob in the waters of the Atlantic. Together, all those forces converged on him, as the Samson struggled against the current bearing west to the New World..."
As we proceed into an uncertain future, Steven Johnson asserts, we must rely on old institutions and remain hostage to what James O'Toole characterizes as "the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom" because that would betray "the core and, connected values that Priestly shared with the American founders." Today, "we now see the web of relationships far more clearly than Priestly or Franklin or Jefferson could" and thus can take full advantage of opportunities in a world "still ripe for radical change." There is indeed cause for hope.
Would have enjoyed less background detail, and more technical detail about the methods used (for example) to fractionate the air and isolate the constituents, particularly with respect to the functionality of the rudimentary equipment of the day.
Almost completely missing is any insight into the mind of Priestly, (as could be gleaned from the copious notes of his experiments,) to show HOW he was thinking, and what lead him to the construction of the various pieces of apparatus.
(See... "The Man who Changed Everything..." as a good example of the biographer deducing from diaries and other literature how new concepts (like the esoteric undreamt-of fields of electromagnetism) were teased into reality by another genius, James Clark Maxwell.)
Next time I hope for a little less hot-air and a bit more compressed-air, in what could be a fascinating story set in the early-morning of Modern Science.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Covers Priestly's connection to Benjamin Franklin and the 'Honest Whigs' in London. In his twenties, Priestly came to these scientists to ask permission to write a book on the history of electricity. He did. It became a book of seven hundred pages used as the basic text for a hundred years. Developed close friendship with Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, etc.
Became a leading scientist in Europe. Royal Society, French Royal Society, American Philosophical Society, etc. Nevertheless, his primary work was as a clergyman. Eventually his penchant for analysis impelled him the write a detailed history of Christianity.
Priestly wrote on 1774, "this rapid process of knowledge will, I doubt not, being the means, under God, of extirpating error and prejudice, and a putting an end to all undue and usurped Authority in the business of religion, as well as of science."
In 1782 he published "A History of the Corruptions of Christianity":
"The Corruptions was a kind of historical deconstruction of the modern church. Starting, of coarse, with divinity of Jesus Christ. . . and tracing each back to the distortions of Greek and Latin theologians starting the fourth and fifth century A.D. about the time of the Council of Nicaea. The corruptions opens with a meticulous assault on the Trinity, which takes up the first quarter of the book, and then widens into a long litany of smaller abuses, the false mysticism of the Eucharist, predestination, the immateriality of the soul, the last supper."
Priestly explained his method in the preface, "this historical method will be found to be one of the most satisfactory modes of argumentation, in order to prove that what I object to is really of the corruption of genuine Christianity and no part of the original scheme."
Servetus, Newton and Whiston used the same method and reached the same conclusions.
(Page 172) "A religious man forced to alter and reinvent his beliefs - and challenge the orthodoxies of the day - in the light of science and history, who was nevertheless determined to keep the core alive. Priestly was a heretic the first order who nonetheless possessed an unshakable faith. . . Ironically, it was "The Corruptions" itself - a work devoted to dismantling so many central values of modern Christianity - that finally gave Jefferson enough philosophical support to call himself a Christian again."
(Page 174) Jefferson wrote to Adams, "I have read Priestley's corruptions of Christianity, and early opinions of Jesus, over and over again; and I rest on them as the basis of my own faith. These writings have never been answered."
Most today have never considered Preistly's conclusions.
(Page 175) To Jefferson "christianity was not the problem; it was the warped, counterfeit version that had evolved over the centuries that he could not subscribe to. Thanks to Priestly, he could be a Christian again in good faith - indeed, his Christianity would be pure, more elemental then that of believers who clung to the supernatural trappings of modern sects."
Interesting that Servetus wrote in the 1500's "On the Errors of the Trinity" to help Moslems convert to Christianity.
Priestly also spoke out in favor of the French Revolution. These two radical ideas led to the Birmingham riots. His home and laboratory were burned to the ground. Dozen others houses and some churches also. Priestly went in to hiding. Emigrated to Pennsylvania. First became friends with Adams and then very close to Jefferson. Converted Jefferson from deism to Unitarianism.
Johnson uses Priestly's faith in future progress to contrast today's faith in self-destruction. However, Preistly's faith was a result of decades of keen Bible study and analysis. Today's faith, or loss of faith, is the result of the keen misery from human reason.
Necessity, may be the mother of invention, but most of the great inventors were blessed with something else: leisure time. p. 53
By why would you study nothingness when there was such a vast supply of stuff to explain? There wasn't a problem in the nothingness that needed explaining. A cycle of negative reinforcement arose: the lack of a clear problem kept the questions at bay, and the lack of questions left the problems as invisible as the air itself. P. 73
Lunaticks - a group of intellectual allies with different fields of expertise, sharing insight and inspiration supporting one another emotionally and, at times, financially - and they were uniquely suited for a maverick, cross-disciplinary thinker like Priestley. P. 160.
What's interesting about Priestley is not that he had a hunch, but rather that he had the intelligence and the leisure time to let that hunch lurk in the background for thirty years, growing and evolving and connecting with each new milestone in Priestley's career - know that epiphanies are a myth of popular science, ideas don't just fallout of the sky, or leap out of our subconscious. But we don't yet recognize how slow in developing most good ideas are, how they often need to remain dormant as intuitive hunches for decades before they flower. Chance favors the prepared mind, and Priestley had been preparing for thirty years. We talk about great ideas using the language of flashes and instant revelation, but most great ideas happen on the scale of generations, not seconds. (Think of the almost glacial pace that characterized Darwin's "discovery" of natural selection.) Most great ideas grow the way Priestley's did, starting with some childhood obsession, struggling through an extended adolescence of random collisions and false starts, and finally blooming decades after they first took root. P. 79
Hope that whets your literary whistle...trust me - there's much more in this book that simply the excerpts represented above. I loved it! You will too.
The reason I bought this book was due to a visit to Priestly's retirement home in America at Northumberland, Pa. I had not realized, or was not in class the day it was taught, that he had a home and home lab in America, being English citizen to his death. Neither had I realized that he was one of the founders of the Universal Unitarian Church. Oh! was he ever hated by King George and the Aristocrats. Neither did I realize how much influence I had on our American Founding Fathers. They were not as Conservative as many Christians of today think.