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Steven Johnson’s “The Invention of Air”

Over the weekend, I read “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America” by Steven Johnson.

Basically, it’s a book about Joseph Priestley, the 18th century scientist/pastor/political writer who is credited with discovering oxygen. Priestley was born and lived most of his life in England, moving to the United States in 1794 after a mob angry about his writings burned down his home.

I liked it partly because it reads quickly–I’ve been working on a suitable descriptor for a book that moves along at a fast pace–and is relatively short, at 215 pages. As a reader, I prefer a fast pace. I know plenty of readers who love a slow-moving long book. They might have felt cheated by this one. I mention that pace because one might expect that a book about a historical figure who was a scientist/pastor/political writer might move along slowly.

That said, Johnson diverges fairly often from Priestley’s story to take a broader look at his times, and often also the filter of certain themes from which to consider the 21st century. For instance, Priestley was part of a group of London men who often had coffee together, a group called “The Club of Honest Whigs.” They talked into the evening on all sorts of subjects, and with them, Priestley was able to articulate and develop his own points of view. This ability to share ideas, to stay in close communication, to build on each others’ work, was new to the times. The broadmindedness of the group certainly played into its role in developing ideas, but that ability to communicate was key. Johnson compares that to what the Internet offers to scientists and thinkers to day–unparalleled access to each others’ thoughts.

There’s something about this era of “amateur” scientists such as Priestley that so clearly is a thing of the past. Johnson reflects on the impact that leisure time had. Priestley was well-educated, curious, and had time. Others, for example, Thomas Jefferson in the United States, showed similar lifelong avocations of science combined with political pursuits. Johnson laments the way that politicians now leave science to others…and perhaps are proud of their lack of scientific understanding.

Johnson places much more emphasis on Priestley’s scientific work than on his religious thinking (he’s prominent in the history of the Unitarian church) and political writing, but Johnson certainly sees the breadth of his interests as key to Priestley’s success.

From time to time, I wondered if Johnson might be standing on some fairly thin ice when pulling the big ideas from this one life and applying them to our time. And yet there is a compelling sense in which it would be easy to imagine Johnson himself around the coffee table with the Club of Honest Whigs, building one idea on top of another, sometimes getting a little beyond himself.

For that reason, I may not recommend this to serious and well-read students of the science of history. But I will recommend it to my reading friends who enjoy history, who want to ponder the big ideas that connect one time with another, and who may not know enough about this intriguing man.

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