Bestselling author Steven Johnson recounts—in dazzling, multidisciplinary fashion—the story of the brilliant man who embodied the relationship between science, religion, and politics for America’s Founding Fathers.
The Invention of Air is a book of world-changing ideas wrapped around a compelling narrative, a story of genius and violence and friendship in the midst of sweeping historical change that provokes us to recast our understanding of the Founding Fathers.
It is the story of Joseph Priestley—scientist and theologian, protégé of Benjamin Franklin, friend of Thomas Jefferson—an eighteenth-century radical thinker who played pivotal roles in the invention of ecosystem science, the discovery of oxygen, the founding of the Unitarian Church, and the intellectual development of the United States. And it is a story that only Steven Johnson, acclaimed juggler of disciplines and provocative ideas, can do justice to.
In the 1780s, Priestley had established himself in his native England as a brilliant scientist, a prominent minister, and an outspoken advocate of the American Revolution, who had sustained long correspondences with Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams. Ultimately, his radicalism made his life politically uncomfortable, and he fled to the nascent United States. Here, he was able to build conceptual bridges linking the scientific, political, and religious impulses that governed his life. And through his close relationships with the Founding Fathers—Jefferson credited Priestley as the man who prevented him from abandoning Christianity—he exerted profound if little-known influence on the shape and course of our history.
As in his last bestselling work, The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson here uses a dramatic historical story to explore themes that have long engaged him: innovation and the way new ideas emerge and spread, and the environments that foster these breakthroughs. And as he did in Everything Bad Is Good for You, Johnson upsets some fundamental assumptions about the world we live in—namely, what it means when we invoke the Founding Fathers—and replaces them with a clear-eyed, eloquent assessment of where we stand today.
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Steven Johnson is the author of the national bestsellers Everything Bad Is Good for You and Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, as well as Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE - The Electricians
CHAPTER TWO - Rose and Nightshade
CHAPTER THREE - Intermezzo: An Island of Coal
CHAPTER FOUR - The Wild Gas
CHAPTER FIVE - A Comet in the System
ALSO BY STEVEN JOHNSON
How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate
The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
Mind Wide Open:
Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
Everything Bad Is Good for You:
How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
The Ghost Map:
The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed
Science, Cities, and the Modern World
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Johnson, Steven, date.
The invention of air : a story of science, faith, revolution, and the birth of America / Steven Johnson.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-440-68531-6
1. Priestley, Joseph, 1733-1804. 2. Chemists—Great Britain—Biography.
3. Scientists—Great Britain—Biography. I. Title.
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The English hierarchy (if there be anything unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble at an air pump, or an electrical machine.
A few days before I started writing this book, a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States was asked on national television whether he believed in the theory of evolution. He shrugged off the question with a dismissive jab of humor. “It’s interesting that that question would even be asked of someone running for president,” he said. “I’m not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I’m asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States.”
It was a funny line, but the joke only worked in a specific intellectual context. For the statement to make sense, the speaker had to share one basic assumption with his audience: that “science” was some kind of specialized intellectual field, about which political leaders needn’t know anything to do their business. Imagine a candidate dismissing a question about his foreign policy experience by saying he was running for president and not writing a textbook on international affairs. The joke wouldn’t make sense, because we assume that foreign policy expertise is a central qualification for the chief executive. But science? That’s for the guys in lab coats.
That line has stayed with me since, because the web of events at the center of this book suggests that its basic assumptions are fundamentally flawed. If there is an overarching moral to this story, it is that vital fields of intellectual achievement cannot be cordoned off from one another and relegated to the specialists, that politics can and should be usefully informed by the insights of science. The protagonists of this story lived in a climate where ideas flowed easily between the realms of politics, philosophy, religion, and science. The closest thing to a hero in this book—the chemist, theologian, and political theorist Joseph Priestley—spent his whole career in the space that connects those different fields. But the other figures central to this story—Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson—suggest one additional reading of the “eighth-grade science” remark. It was anti-intellectual, to be sure, but it was something even more incendiary in the context of a presidential race. It was positively un-American.
In their legendary thirteen-year final correspondence, reflecting back on their collaborations and their feuds, 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, Priestley, an Englishman who spent only the last decade of his life in the United States, is mentioned fifty-two times. That statistic alone gives some sense of how important Priestley was to the founders, in part because he would play a defining role in the rift and ultimate reconciliation between Jefferson and Adams, and in part because his distinctive worldview had a profound impact on both men, just as it had on Franklin three decades before. Yet today, Priestley is barely more than a footnote in most popular accounts of the revolutionary generation. This book is an attempt to understand how Priestley became so central to the great minds of this period—in the fledgling United States, but also in England and France. It is not so much a biography as it is the biography of one man’s ideas, the links of association and influence that connect him to epic changes in science, belief, and society—as well as to some of the darkest episodes of mob violence and political repression in the history of Britain and the United States.
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