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

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Of course, no one invented air, but the subtitle more or less tells it all:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Steven Johnson is the best-selling author of six books on the intersection of science, technology, and personal experience. One effect of this new book might be the realization that "everything new is really old events recycled." If you think current controversies involving global warming, Al Gore, the greening of America, stem cell research, Christian conservatives, abortion, and battles over evolution vs. creationism represent only a contemporary phenomenon, The Invention of Air will open your mind to the possibility that the same intertwining of politics, religion, and scientific innovation underlies all human advancements.

The book narrates the life of Joseph Priestley, an 18th-century British preacher and revolutionary who most people think of as the discoverer of oxygen, although the circumstances of that "discovery" are complicated. More importantly, Johnson points out, was a "failed" experiment conducted by the amateur scientist that could be understood only in the latter half of the 20th century, when advances in other sciences wove together the studies we now think of as "ecology."

Priestley's life was a roller coaster of revolution that uprooted his family and propelled them to the New World, where the rabble-rousing theologian cum scientist could pursue his friendships with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, his mentor. To Johnson's mind, "Priestley was a kind of lost Founding Father: a hugely important figure to Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson who is barely mentioned today in most accounts of the revolutionary generation."

This book holds up well against other popularizations of scientific subjects and complex ideas. Although the term "paradigm" may have filtered into everyday parlance, enough other intellectual references may turn away less educated readers. I suspect that a familiarity with Thomas Kuhn's 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (mentioned several times) is restricted to those with at least a Master of Science degree. Not that I object to sending people to dictionaries and encyclopedias! This is a good result — if that is what they do, rather than gently closing the book and laying it down, never to open it again. In fact, it would serve them well to review Johnson's extensive bibliography and delve into some primary sources, providing those are not all more wild praise for a sloppy, second-rate scientist whose willy-nilly experiments more stumbled into new knowledge than proved any theories.

The lack of endnote signifiers in the text annoyed the academic in me, but I was not surprised to detect some tactics richly practiced by soap opera scriptwriters, who truly know how to hold their audiences: repeated foretelling and rehashing the same event from differing viewpoints. The crisis that propelled the Priestleys out of Europe to what was then an English colony comes as rather a letdown after all the buildup.

Certainly, the story of Priestley's life is interesting and well told and probably not unknown to experts in the fields touched by his work, but ordinary readers may be put off by the excursions into theories like energy flow and dialectics. I am not sure that the one does not do disservice to the other. Time will tell.

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About Georganna Hancock

Retired San Diego publisher, journalist, freelance editor and writer, blogged almost daily for eight years at A WRITERS EDGE. She helped writers on the path to writing success with critiques, edits and publishing advice. Find her author page on Amazon and her tweets on Twitter, where she's aka @GLHancock. Georganna's first writing appeared in print in the 1960s. She worked as a journalist for many years. She reviewed books for the FORT PIERCE NEWS TRIBUNE and THE LOUISVILLE COURIER-JOURNAL and wrote for THE MIAMI HERALD, regional publications, and many national magazines. She was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the San Diego Professional Editors Network and the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, for which she served as Web Manager. Books reviewed may have been received as gifts. All her writings are protected by U.S. copyright law.