Johnson: The Invention of Air

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Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air : A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York : Rivershead Books, 2008. xvi + 254 pages; illustrated; with notes and index.

Joseph Priestley, in the nutshell biography we often see, is remembered as the discoverer of oxygen and a pioneer of the emerging science of chemistry. He also invented soda water. At a time when scientific discoveries seemed to fall out of the air, a surprising number were due to Priestley's prodigious productivity. Priestley was also a rabble-rouser, revolutionary, or rebel, depending on which government official was talking. He lived at the time of the American Revolution, a period of political and scientific ferment, and he was right in the middle of it all.

And so the legend of Priestley the scientist accumulated around his troubled discovery of oxygen, because the discovery was contemporaneous with the science it helped inaugurate. by the 1780s, the "chemical revolution" was in full swing, ignited in large part by Lavoisier's Methode de nomenclature chimique, published in 1787, the founding text of modern chemistry, which established for the first time a standard nomenclature and classification system for the core elements, such as oxygen, nitrogen, mercury, and hydrogen. A new science needs its origin stories, and Priestley had undeniably been there at the beginning. Despite the Copley Medal and Franklin's enthusiasm, the mint in the glass faded into the background. In time, it would mark the origin of a new science, too, but by that point Joseph Priestley had entered the pantheon as the discoverer of oxygen, albeit one with an asterisk. [p. 97]

This book is less a biography and more a biographical appreciation of Priestly and his place in history—scientific history and social history, making connections between people and events, and across time and places, demonstrating just how intertwined are scientific and social history. As with his friends and colleagues Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, separating the scientific and intellectual from the political is fruitless.

Or, perhaps this book is a political history with good scienticity. Priestly gives an opportunity to consider historical politics and science, and the operating of both. Here is the author's rumination on how great scientific ideas, exemplified by Priestley's life, take time to emerge.

The idea that hunches are crucial to scientific breakthrough is nothing new, of course. 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. We know that epiphanies are a myth of popular science, that ideas don't just fall out 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 flavors 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. 71]

Social "justice" was a different affair in those times, and I was appalled by the mob that attacked Priestley and his livelihood. True, they were attacking Priestley the political agitator and not Priestley the scientist, but I ached to read about the thoughtless destruction of his laboratory, his instruments, and his invaluable notes at the hands of the yobs.

A small farce ensued on Fair Hill[, Priestley's House[, as the [Church & King] mob was apparently incapable of starting a proper fire, their arson skills no doubt impaired by the gin and beer, along with the wine they'd discovered in Priestley's cellar. (According to Priestley's own somewhat derisive account, they had even attempted to extract flame from the electrical machine he had used to entertain the children in the upstairs library.) But eventually the mod stumbled across Priestley's laboratory, which had been built at a distance from the main house and was amply stocked with tools for combustion. Within a matter of hours, Fair Hill was gone: the library where Priestley had performed magic lantern shows for the Lunar children, the drawing room where Mary and Joseph had played their backgammon, thousands of manuscript pages documenting decades of Priestley's investigations, the laboratory he had lovingly built for himself, along with that unique collection of tools that his Birmingham friends had crafted for him over the years. All of it had been lost to the fire. [pp. 166—167]

Not long after he moved to America where he found some respect for his political ideas and substantial respect for his scientific ideas., ideas that author Johnson sees as two aspects of the same intellectual and social forces at work.

In the popular folklore of American history, there is a sense in which the founders' various achievements in natural philosophy—Franklin's electrical experiments, Jefferson's botany—serve as a kind of sanctified extracurricular activity. They were statesmen and political visionaries who just happened to be hobbyists in science, albeit amazingly successful ones. Their great passions were liberty and freedom and democracy, the experiments were a side project. But the Priestly view suggests that the story has it backward. Yes, they were hobbyists and amateurs at natural philosophy, but so were all the great minds of Enlightenment-era science. What they shared was a fundamental belief that the world could change—that it could improve—if the light of reason was allowed to shine upon it. And that belief emanated from the great ascent of science over the past century, the upward trajectory that Priestley had so powerfully conveyed in his History and Present State of Electricity. The political possibilities for change were modeled after the change they had all experienced through the advancements in natural philosophy. With Priestley, they grasped the political power of the air pump and the electrical machine. [p. 212]

Halfway through the book the author takes an interesting digression into deep geological history to consider the processes by which 1) the fraction of free oxygen in the air increased to present-day levels; and 2) carbon-dioxide's prominence diminished, leaving us with a legacy of petroleum reserves. The former is a gloss on Priestley's poorly recognized discovery that oxygen is produced by plants as part of an ecosystem (in modern language); the latter lead into an idea of the author's to use energy as a theme to trace power and influence in intellectual history. I didn't find the energy theme very compelling, but I'd rather see an author take a chance and try the idea rather than take the easy route and stick to the clear-cut paths.

Overall I thought the book was a very satisfactory rendering of social and scientific revolution as aspects of intellectual revolution, played out around the singular Joseph Priestley.

-- Notes by JNS

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