The invention of air : a story of science, faith, revolution, and the birth of America

by Steven Johnson

Paper Book, 2008

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Riverhead Books, 2008.

Description

Recounts the story of Joseph Priestley--scientist and theologian, protege of Benjamin Franklin--an 18th-century radical thinker who played pivotal roles in the invention of ecosystem science, the founding of the Unitarian Church, and the intellectual development of the U.S.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Capybara_99
An interesting exercise in scale, using the life of Joseph Priestly as an example of how biography, history, sociology and geogrphy, in various frames of reference, long-term and otherwise, offer different explanations for the achievements of Priestly, who was influential in science, politics and religious thought at the time of the American Revolution. The author also takes the occasion to make arguments about the utility and effects of various methods of increasing the efficiency of the flow of information -- Priestly's influence, he argues, has much to do with the effects of both coffeehouses, and coffee. It is a fun book -- a full-length essay, rather than a through detailed biography, and better for it.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
A sort of biography of Joseph Priestley, an 18th-century English scientist/theologian who was also involved in politics, and a frequent correspondent with several key Founding Fathers. Priestley was important to the beginning of modern chemistry, though he kept a belief in phlogiston to the end of his life. I found the story a little disappointing, because Johnson kept wanting to go beyond biography—which is fine—to really global theories, which his story did not sustain. E.g., he argued that the explosion of scientific achievement in England and France was all about the release of stored energy (peat, coal, etc.) which allowed the creation of leisure. Not that I don’t find that a respectable thesis, but stitching it into a biography leaves not enough time for either global theory or biography. Johnson’s lack of interest in Priestley’s religious thinking was particularly noticeable: though Johnson argues that Priestley represents a person no longer possible to moderns—someone at the center of scientific, religious, and political innovation at the same time—he spends essentially no time explaining what was religiously innovative about Priestley’s thinking or how it differed from that of his main opponents in the field.… (more)
LibraryThing member NewsieQ
Science isn’t my strong suit, but every once in awhile, I dive into its murky waters. The invention of Air centers on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the British scientist who isolated oxygen and is known as one of the fathers of chemistry. A contemporary of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Priestley ended his days in rural Pennsylvania after being hounded from Britain for his “radical” views. The author argues Priestley was a major contributor to America political thought at a time when our country was in its infancy.

Science and religion seem to be constantly in conflict today, wedges that drive Americans apart. An individual’s scientific beliefs often are based more on religious or political leanings than on the study of science. Higher education is scorned by highly educated politicians who kvetch that the very foundation of education – critical thinking based on reason – is antithetical to religious belief.

In Priestley’s day, it wasn’t uncommon for clergymen (like Priestley himself) to be engaged in scientific pursuits … and to be engaged politically. After all, they were well educated and had the leisure time to pursue such interests. They weren’t out in the field dawn to dusk working to feed, clothe and house themselves. And politicians had intellectual lives, not being consumed for their entire life with pursuit of political office.

I read the author’s Ghost Map, a multi-faceted tale of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, for my non-fiction readers’ group. It was, like The Invention of Air, an amazing book … taking a slice of history, looking at it from all angles, slicing it and dicing it to examine its constituent parts, then putting it all back together so it makes sense to a non-expert reader. I admire the kind of brain that creates a book like that, and makes it readable.
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LibraryThing member smithwil
Steven Johnson places Joseph Priestley well in his time as well as in the intellectual development science (natural philosophy), faith (a founder of the Unitarian Church), and political theory (interactions with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) coming out of the Age of Enlightenment. His multi-disciplinary approach laid the groundwork for ecosystem theories in today's science even though his experiments were as an "amateur." Finally, the end of the story regarding how the Jeffereson-Priestley letters had such a profound influence on the later Adams-Jefferson infamous correspondence exchanges was fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member readermom
I thought it tried to do too much and was muddled as a result.
LibraryThing member cornerhouse
The life and times and work of Joseph Priestley. Johnson is a bit too obsessed with the notion of information networks -- perhaps he should have taken a sabbatical from outside.in while writing the book. In other respects, it's a useful overview of Priestley's life, work, and importance in the late 18th and early 19th century, especially in his connections with Franklin, Adam, and Jefferson. His previous book, The Ghost Map was better.… (more)
LibraryThing member rodrichards
Coffee as a motivating force in The Enlightenment? How can I not rave about this book? Never mind that Joseph Priestley was this amazing indivdual, amateur chemist making wildly important discoveries, theologian writing groundbreaking works on the "corruptions of Christianity" (hugely influential on one Thomas Jefferson), political theorist caught up in a couple revolutions in other countries while being targeted as a traitor in his own...all while being a Unitarian minister (and instrumental in the beginnings of Unitarianism in both Britain and the U.S.) Not bad...… (more)
LibraryThing member wbc3
The book starts out strong as it details the scientific journey of Joseph Priestley as he hangs out with the scientific elite (like Benjamin Franklin) of the late 18th Century. Priestley discovers oxygen in this period of his life. His life takes some interesting turns through his involvement in politics and religion leading to his emigration from England to America. Unfortunately, the book does not seem as interesting in that latter portion. All-in-all, the book was fun to read and worth reading, but by no means a must-read book.… (more)
LibraryThing member dunyazade
Even if you have no interest in 18th century chemistry, the friendships and conflicts among America's founders, or the integration of reason and religion, a book that looks at the history of ideas through the lens of ecosystem science has important implications for the interdisciplinary work that our world needs today. Gadflies like Joseph Priestly can pull from different areas of thought to shake things up and give more systematic thinkers something to chew on as they flesh out the details. Many great insights into the times and people who gave rise to this idea of "America."… (more)
LibraryThing member rodrichards
Coffee as a motivating force in The Enlightenment? How can I not rave about this book? Never mind that Joseph Priestley was this amazing indivdual, amateur chemist making wildly important discoveries, theologian writing groundbreaking works on the "corruptions of Christianity" (hugely influential on one Thomas Jefferson), political theorist caught up in a couple revolutions in other countries while being targeted as a traitor in his own...all while being a Unitarian minister (and instrumental in the beginnings of Unitarianism in both Britain and the U.S.) Not bad...… (more)
LibraryThing member SimonLarsen
Quick review:
This book is nothing near Steven Johnson's previous works. Ghost Map is a far superior book.

The Invention of Air is very repetitive (sometimes Johnson repeats the same argument twice within the same paragraph) and consists of way too many quotes from letters and other books.
Almost 20-25% of the book is direct quotes and it becomes very tiresome to read all of them after a while.

But all in all the story of Priestley is a very interesting one and that kept me going to the end, but a long magazine article could also have done the trick.
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LibraryThing member chellerystick
This was a wonderful listen that wove together political, scientific, and philosophical history. We learn about Enlightenment culture, ecology, the gulf stream, and many other topics in the course of examining Priestley's life from multiple directions. Johnson is also careful to give all of the players their due, from Priestley's particular suitability for discovery to the socioeconomic readiness of the British empire to the coincidence of natural events that primed this era of progress. A poetic, enriching book.

Mark Deakins is a good enough reader. He soars through foreign phrases; however, he stumbles strangely on some ordinary English words and at times makes everything amusingly portentious. But he was very clear and audible, requiring very little effort to understand while on a 1900 mile drive.
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LibraryThing member rodrichards
Coffee as a motivating force in The Enlightenment? How can I not rave about this book? Never mind that Joseph Priestley was this amazing indivdual, amateur chemist making wildly important discoveries, theologian writing groundbreaking works on the "corruptions of Christianity" (hugely influential on one Thomas Jefferson), political theorist caught up in a couple revolutions in other countries while being targeted as a traitor in his own...all while being a Unitarian minister (and instrumental in the beginnings of Unitarianism in both Britain and the U.S.) Not bad...… (more)
LibraryThing member nosajeel
A very enjoyable book. It was hard not to be drawn in by the introduction:
LibraryThing member hailelib
This is, in part, a biography of Joseph Priestley but it is also the story of how science was beginning to change and how science, religion, and politics were intertwined in the intellectual life of the late 1700's. Priestley was a minister and a radical political activist as well as a scientist. He formed an early friendship with Benjamin Franklin while Franklin was resident in London and also corresponded with many eminent men both in England and on the Continent. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1794, Priestley formed a friendship with John Adams which eventually came to an end possibly over political differences and one with Thomas Jefferson which lasted until his death in 1804. (Much of the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson during the final years of their life revolved around their debate over the ideas expounded upon by Priestley in his religious and political writings.) While I choose this book because of Priestley's scientific discoveries the other ideas explored by Johnson were even more interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member Chris177
This is the biography of the scientist Joseph Priestly and the events that happened around him. I found the story to be an interesting mix of science and history, as well as biography. Priestly had an imaginative mind and was always thinking outside of the box. He lived in an equally imaginative time with many changes in both science and politics. The mix of old and new ideas battle throughout this tale and affect its outcome, an outcome that follows through to this day.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sundevyl
Well-written and concise biography of Jacob Priestly. I also learned a lot about his good friend Benjamin Franklin while reading of Jacob's life. I had not realized that Priestly's work was the primary impetus for the paradigm shift in techniques of scientific investigation and the popularization of science. Steven Johnson presents revealing insights into the nature of scientific research and its influence upon and by politics and religion.… (more)
LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Joseph Priestley was a scientist and Unitarian minister who moved in political circles. His varied accomplishments make him an interesting subject for a biography, but they also give his story a tendency to go off in tangents. I found some parts fascinating, particularly the discussion of the significance of Priestley's scientific discoveries, the people who influenced Priestley and the people who were influenced by him. I was less interested in the religious and political aspects of Priestley's life and I would have been happier with fewer details about those topics, other than his friendship with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Recommended for readers interested in the history of chemistry, the Enlightenment in England, and the American Revolution and the Early Republic.… (more)
LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
Wow. A very thoughtful look at a little-known British scientist/thinker at the end of the eighteenth century. I liked Johnson's approach to history, his thoughts about progress, and his linkage between Priestley's ideas and contemporary American politics. And I had no idea Priestley figured so prominently in the letters between Jefferson and Adams!… (more)
LibraryThing member themulhern
After "The Invention of Science" this book seems pretty light-weight. Fun and interesting, though, with some nice quotations.
LibraryThing member jasonlf
A very enjoyable book. It was hard not to be drawn in by the introduction: “Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote 165 letters to each other. In that corpus, Benjamin Franklin is mentioned by name five times, while George Washington is mentioned three times. Their mutual nemesis Alexander Hamilton warrants only two references. By contrast, [Joseph] Priestley, an Englishman who spent only the last decade of his life in the United States, is mentioned fifty-two times.” The book then follows the trail of Priestly from his early interest in the electricians, to his discovery of oxygen and carbon cycle, to his heretical writings and flight to America. A cultural history rather than science, Steven Johnson is interested not just in these events but also in how ideas develop and spread – for example contrasting the coffee-house culture emerging in England with the consequences of Priestley’s relative isolation with the slow mail he received in rural Pennsylvania. Not to mention a short detour into 300 million BC – which is cleverly linked to the story with the discussion of the consequences of a highly oxygenated atmosphere for animal and plant life, how that period ended, and the role that the legacy it bequeathed – coal – had on England and Priestley in the 18th century.

Overall, The Invention of Air is relatively light on the science – lighter than Lavosier in the Year One, to take a book that trods similar ground as an example, which itself was relatively light. And occasionally it is slightly annoying with either overreaching or being overly excited about simplicity. But overall it was quite a unique book.
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LibraryThing member keebrook
the best kind of history. entertaining, well-written, and eye-opening. Priestley is a fascinating historical figure used by the author to also discuss deeper issues like explaining paradigm shifts and why certain people experience “streaks” of productivity/success/discovery as did Priestley and Benjamin Franklin. Priestley represents one of the last, true Renaissance Men with his wide influence not only in several areas of science but also in politics and religion.

a key element of this knocked me off my feet: Johnson talks about the complex nature of society and how certain people at certain times in certain places are influenced by deeper cultural forces culminating in breakthroughs and revolutions and revelations in thought and design. this complex system he brilliantly models as an ecosystem - he uses ecological theory to help understand what is going on. something i have been groping towards for decades in my own research on complex, psychosocial systems.

if can find fault in this book, it’s the latter half. once Johnson moves on from Priestley’s halcyon days with the mint plant experiments and his scientific blooming to his later years and his religious and political work, the book stumbles. applying the ecological model and connecting Priestley’s and Franklin’s ideas about plants being vital to our planet to our modern green movements and life sciences gave a fresh and interesting perspective to their work. the latter part of the book about religion and politics did not have this innovative conceptual nuance. it became a simple -if still readable and well-written- historical biography.
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LibraryThing member bibleblaster
Coffee as a motivating force in The Enlightenment? How can I not rave about this book? Never mind that Joseph Priestley was this amazing indivdual, amateur chemist making wildly important discoveries, theologian writing groundbreaking works on the "corruptions of Christianity" (hugely influential on one Thomas Jefferson), political theorist caught up in a couple revolutions in other countries while being targeted as a traitor in his own...all while being a Unitarian minister (and instrumental in the beginnings of Unitarianism in both Britain and the U.S.) Not bad...… (more)
LibraryThing member cmbohn
I was looking through the other reviews on here, trying to gather my thoughts, and I found one I really agreed with - this could have been a great book, if only it were about 100 pages shorter.

A good editor would have really helped. Johnson was trying to do too much with this book. He wanted to write a biography of Joseph Priestley, he wanted to persuade us about how important Priestley was, he wanted to talk about science and scientific thought and how discoveries are made, he wanted to talk about politics, about religion, about American history.

And then there was the stuff in there that I didn't understand at all, something about paradigms and some diagrams that had nothing AT ALL to do with the actual subject of the book. What was going on here? Didn't this get edited, ever? Yes, I understand that he thinks Priestley was some kind of genius who wrote about all kinds of things, science and religion and politics, but I didn't feel that I really understood him. He just jumped onto the scene in London and threw himself into intellectual life. What about some deeper analysis of who he was?

I didn't hate this book. It was a quick read. But it wasn't what I expected at all. 2.5 stars.
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