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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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Joseph Priestly apparently had attention deficit disorder – and it served him well.  Well, it may not have been ADD; he was an enlightened man with leisure time, interested in the free flow of information across many disciplines.  And in his era (he lived from 1733 to 1804) it was not apparently not without precedent.  He and his peers participated in chemistry, physics, education, religion.  As Priestly involved himself in all this, he discovered oxygen and established the foundation for environmental science.

Steven Johnson's book, The Invention of Air, is not necessarily a biography of Priestly, whom he points out is a "footnote in most popular accounts of the revolutionary generation"; rather it is a dissertation on the man's ideas and how they affected the founders of the United States and how his activities are important today. Like Priestly, who didn't restrain himself to just one scientific pursuit, the book touches on many subjects.

Admittedly knowing very little about Priestly at all, and having just a vague outline of the American revolutionary period and its players, I was keen to find out more. Johnson's book did provide some insights that I appreciated.  It reveals his friendships with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and Ben Franklin.  By including excerpts of his correspondence with these men, we're able to see how they were affected by him and we gain insight into Priestly's mild attitude.

He went to London in 1765 and met the Honest Whigs (a coffeehouse society of freethinkers) to discuss with them theories of electricity.  It was after this that he moved on to his experiments with air and writings about Christianity and political scandal.

I will have to admit that I either didn't know or did not recall (how Reagan-esque) that Joseph Priestly is credited with the discovery of oxygen, though there are footnotes to that discovery.  He found out about it, but adhered to an old theory about an airy ingredient called phlogiston, which allowed things to burn and which was very wrong.

Priestly experimented with mice and mint and in doing so discovered that plants generate breathable air.  He was, it would seem, the first to make this discovery.  He shared his findings with his friend, Benjamin Franklin.  He and Franklin seemed to grasp the world encircling system of photosynthesis.

It took two centuries, according to Johnson, for everyone else to catch up.   Johnson then discusses "long zoom" science, a field that "jumps … from discipline to discipline …; from the microbiology of bacteria, to the cross species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global patterns of weather systems, all the way out to physics that explains how solar energy collides with the Earth's atmosphere."  It helps us understand the entire world, the ecosystem of the planet.  Priestly is the progenitor of this ecosystem science.

By no means did he stay in physical science, either.  The man was also a Unitarian minister.  He eventually published a book called History of the Corruptions of Christianity, "a kind of historical deconstruction of the modern Church."  This publication apparently helped Thomas Jefferson out of his faith funk.

And while he was at it, Priestly dabbled in politics.  He supported the American cause, which did not make him popular in Britain.  He eventually left Britain due to the political backlash against his Corruptions of Christianity and his sympathy to the Americans.  Of course, after emigrating to the U.S., he got caught up in a turmoil over sedition.

It seems certain that Priestly would enjoy some aspects of today's world.  Not the compartmentalizing of so many disciplines, not the specialized professions, but the emerging "open source" culture.  Steven Johnson takes all the subjects that Priestly delved into and presents them in an exciting fashion, intelligently weaving in and out of time (even back to the Carboniferous era of 300 million years ago), presenting a portrait of a man for whom the ages had waited.

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