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Review: Steven Johnson's 'Invention of Air' tells story of Joseph Priestley, scientist and friend of Jefferson

From our age of micro-specialization, it is a pleasure to look back upon the 18th century, when all was fresh and new and unexamined and the macro view was the proper one to take.

"Armed with a belief in the scientific method," writes Steven Johnson, "and the conviction, inherited from Newtonian physics, that simple laws could be unearthed beneath complex behavior, the networked, caffeinated minds of the eighteenth century found themselves in a universe that was ripe for discovery."

Johnson is a macro kind of guy himself. His last book, The Ghost Map, took on epidemiology and urban planning through the lens of a cholera epidemic. Here, he credits Joseph Priestley not so much with the discovery of oxygen — Priestley's usual capsule credit — but with discovering nothing less than how the carbon-based world works, using a kitchen sink, a candle, a mouse or two and a sprig of mint.

Along the way he also discovered a way of capturing bad or "mephitic" air in liquid; that is, he invented soda water.

Priestley wrote incessantly, from books on grammar to a history of electrical research to politics (he was pro-American) and theology. He held nothing back, happily sharing everything he knew, thought, tried and learned without thought of personal profit. Honored as a scientist, he was excoriated for his Whiggish political views (Samuel Johnson's "Taxation No Tyranny" pamphlet is a response to Priestley).

A History of the Corruptions of Christianity may have endeared Priestley to Thomas Jefferson, who was to become a good friend, but it and other writings and sermons (yes, he was a minister, too) enraged his fellow Britons to such an extent that they burned him out and sent him o'er the seas to America. Rather than sulk, he took temperature readings, confirming his friend Ben Franklin's observations on the "Gulph Stream" as he sailed along.

An admirable fellow, and an ingenious book.

David L. Beck is a writer and editor in St. Petersburg.

The Invention

of Air

By Steven Johnson

Riverhead Books, 254 pages, $25.95

Review: Steven Johnson's 'Invention of Air' tells story of Joseph Priestley, scientist and friend of Jefferson 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:30am]
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