As much as I like what Johnson tries to do, the result feels haphazard. The book begins with Priestley's voyage on the Samson to the United States; then it hops back to the young Joseph Priestley joining the Honest Whigs in London and works its way forward roughly chronologically to where the book begins. This should have worked fine, but Johnson spends far too much time talking about what we are about to learn. Every time the name Benjamin Frankling or Thomas Jefferson came out, Johnson could not help but remind us about Priestley's influence on these men.
I get it, but could we please get on with Priestley's experiments in his lab? I also wish we could have learned more about Priestley's life in general, particularly his relationship with Antoine Lavoisier. Johnson mentions, in passing, how Priestley met Lavoisier and influenced him, how Priestley found an improved formula for gunpowder and accidentally shared it with a French spy, who in turn shared it with the head of France's gunpowder committee—yes, Lavoisier.
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Sometimes life is a lot better than fiction, eh? Johnson mentions a lot , in passing, but it's frustrating because most of what we learn is bereft of details.
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He only occasionally deigns to go deeper into the story, as was the case with Priestley's isolation of oxygen, preferring mostly to skim along the surface. This is a short book, and it feels like a short book. Mostly well-written but sometimes extremely frustrating, The Invention of Air discusses science and religion in the context of the founding of the United States, and it does so in a genuinely interesting way.
Johnson is on the right track with a lot of his arguments and with the perspective he brings to subjects like the Founding Fathers; this book is quite original, just very brief. Joseph Priestley sounds like a fascinating fellow. I just wish I had learned more about him. Jan 16, Meg rated it liked it Shelves: history-club , biography , nonfiction , science. This is definitely a three-and-a-half-er. I feel sort of bad not liking this book that much. It starts off pretty strongly, with SBJ spinning stitches and webs all around Joseph Priestley until you're like, holy crap!
This guy is going to be a rockstar! I can't wait to read all about the amazing things he did! And then it's almost like the hype overwhelms the man? Because it's not to say that Priestley shouldn't have more name recognition; clearly the guy held his own. And actually SBJ paints Priestley as sort of freaking adorable, even late in life when he was grumping around Pennsylvania writing angry pamphlets about Christianity and also going around believing that Revelations was being borne out amidst the French Revolution. It's just that eventually, the events-telling part of this book kind of gets a backseat to all of SBJ's passionate overconvincing.
But it's just a couple of pages, almost nothing compared to the pages spent on defining Priestley's role as a Tommy Kuhn-style paradigm shifter.
And honestly, that's okay! That's basically what SBJ likes to write about! He likes to forge links that you never thought of before, and when he nails one it is totally exciting. Except in this case, I kept wishing I was just reading a good quality biography of Priestley. And I wasn't. So maybe it's an issue with my expectations; maybe I just should have perused a few encyclopedia entries on Priestley before I picked up this book.
Probably then I would have been less annoyed with all of the paragraphs that ended with ominous Next Time On Joseph Priestley I feel like that's another argument, not something to lace into your closing statement. Reading a SBJ book always makes me feel smarter, though. It is the story of Joseph Priestly, eighteenth-century, English clergyman, dabbler in science and, at various times, a close personal friend of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. This story offers very interesting perspective on the timelessness of science and religion and the transitory nature of politics; not to mention of early American history and the impact of Enlightenment science.
Recommendation: A great read for all interested in science, religion and history; especially high school age readers interested in science. View 1 comment. Apr 07, Lora Innes rated it liked it Shelves: history-books. This book isn't about the Revolutionary War, but instead the Revolutionary Era. Johnson does a good job of showing how these areas faith, science, politics are interconnected, despite the modern attempt to isolate them from one another.
He shows us that they were esse This book isn't about the Revolutionary War, but instead the Revolutionary Era. He shows us that they were essentially connected in the minds of 18th Century inhabitants, and that one cannot claim to follow the ideologies of the Founders without accepting this relationship. I went into the book fearing that it was going to read as a rant on modern politics but found it remarkably evenhanded. In any event, it was a fresh take on that generation and those times.
If you're interested in Franklin, Adams or Jefferson, it's a great read on understanding the interesting life of this friend who deeply influenced them all. Jan 06, Aurora rated it really liked it. Not only a biographical work about Joseph Priestley, but a great read about how scientific thought and innovation happens - the unpredictable mix of creativity, conversations with others, just plain accidents and coincidences, patience, and risk-taking.
Mar 26, Tom N rated it really liked it. This book covers the life and career of Joseph Priestly--the radical 18th century scientist, theologian, and politician--who discovered oxygen, and founded the Unitarian Church--as well as being a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. His controversial viewpoints caused him to flee Europe and to eventually settle in central Pennsylvania--at a time when the American colonies were seeking their independence from Great Britain.
Historically enlightening, and at times theologically This book covers the life and career of Joseph Priestly--the radical 18th century scientist, theologian, and politician--who discovered oxygen, and founded the Unitarian Church--as well as being a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
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Historically enlightening, and at times theologically and scientifically complex, this book reveals the thoughts of one of the greatest thinkers of his day. Nov 01, K. Lincoln rated it really liked it. As a non-academic, this book was at times a bit dense on the intersections of the history of natural philosphy, politics, and religion at the dawn of the United States' creation, but presented such an interesting picture of Joseph Priestley that I found myself being swept along with the historic events.
Joseph Priestley is the real focus of the book-- not only the experiments with glass domes and mint where a real concept of the gasses making up "air" started to be divined, but also his mistaken As a non-academic, this book was at times a bit dense on the intersections of the history of natural philosphy, politics, and religion at the dawn of the United States' creation, but presented such an interesting picture of Joseph Priestley that I found myself being swept along with the historic events.
Joseph Priestley is the real focus of the book-- not only the experiments with glass domes and mint where a real concept of the gasses making up "air" started to be divined, but also his mistaken obsession with how air combustion phlogiston , his peculiar openess and willingness to share experiments and results-- even with French rival Lavoisier-- his Unitarian religious leanings that lead to various political issues, and lastly, his relationship with American intellectual luminaries Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin.
The author paints a picture of a man who influences the political and scientific landscape so greatly but is also a product of them because he was so singular: "Here was a man at the very front lines of scientific achievement who was simultaneously a practicing minister and theologian-- and who was by the end of the s, well on his way to becoming one of the most politically charged figures of his time.
He was an empiricist driven by a deep and abiding belief in God, who was simultaneously a revolutionary of the first order. A worthwhile read for American history buffs as well as a look at the life of how an intellectually rigorous and theological scientist can hold contradictory ideas. Feb 07, Dan rated it it was amazing Shelves: history , science. From my readings in the history of science and of religious controversy I was familiar with Priestley's significance before reading this book, but Johnson succeeds marvelously in delineating Priestley's importance to not just his own historical era, but in the grander scheme of intellectual and cultural history leading up to our present.
Johnson's best chapters are the most sweeping, such as the discussion in the Intermezzo of the interrelatedness of the Carboniferous Age, Priestley's residence From my readings in the history of science and of religious controversy I was familiar with Priestley's significance before reading this book, but Johnson succeeds marvelously in delineating Priestley's importance to not just his own historical era, but in the grander scheme of intellectual and cultural history leading up to our present.
Johnson's best chapters are the most sweeping, such as the discussion in the Intermezzo of the interrelatedness of the Carboniferous Age, Priestley's residence in the north of England, and his chemical experiments leading to his famous discoveries and incidental inventions -- soda water! Johnson's prose is very easy-going, which I appreciate as a often-harried reader. It did seem to me that Johnson made a conscious or unconscious identification with Priestley himself -- most clearly in emphasizing his wide-ranging interests much like the variety of topics covered in Johnson's own oeuvre and in praising him for the project they share, the popularization of science.
At times I grew a bit skeptical of Johnson's claims for the centrality of Priestley, and in general I thought the book too short to do full credit to the historical context. The section on Priestley's role in the Jefferson and Adams correspondence is one example where I felt we got only a mere taste rather than a full meal.
Other reviewers have likened the book to a long magazine article. So maybe more of a 4. I hope the book is widely read for that reason. Mar 26, Jrobertus rated it really liked it. I found this a fascinating read. It centers on Joseph Priestly, the late 18th century scientist, philosopher, and religious dissenter. Priestly was an ordained minister who engaged in scientific studies of electricity and the chemistry of gases hence the title. He invented soda water, and is credited with the discovery of oxygen, although that is a complex story, made clear by the book.
Priestly was involved with some wonderful learned sociecities, like the Royal Society and the Honest Whigs. He was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin when he lived in London.
Priestly did have some scientific shortcomings, like his adherence to the phlogiston theory, and had a lively competition with Lavoisier. Priestly became a scientific rationalist that led him to religious dissention. He became a Unitarian, and wrote many sermons consistent with the Age of Reason. He, and many of his friends were sympathetic to the French Revolution, at least in principle, because they were philosophically committed to the notion of reason and human improvement which would necessarily sweet away some older institutions. None the less, his religion and politics led to mob violence against him, burning his home, destroying his laboratory and forcing him to flee to America.
He became friends first with John Adams, and later with Jefferson, and tended to gravitate toward the latter. It is interesting to note that in their famous exchange of letters, Jefferson and Adams mention George Washington five times, and :Priestly 50 times. Priestly really condensed the great arguments of our democracy around him, and is an unsung hero of our foundation.
Jan 15, Eileen Daly-Boas rated it really liked it. This isn't a biography of Joseph Priestley, and it isn't a full historical summary of England and the beginning of America. It's not a scientific monograph, and in some ways, it's not history of science, either. But it is a good, sweeping tale that includes everything from dinosaurs and gigantic dragonflies to the French revolution and the Alien and Sedition Act in the United States. If you read this as something it's not, you won't like it. If you think that Johnson is only promoting the view o This isn't a biography of Joseph Priestley, and it isn't a full historical summary of England and the beginning of America.
If you think that Johnson is only promoting the view of science with a long lens, you're wrong there too.
He's given a good overview of how one man can be a good starting place for looking backwards and forwards at science, politics and religion. If you ever liked the tv show, "Connections with James Burke," then you'll like this book. If you're an expert in science, religion or politics, you probably will think he's skimmed over things too quickly.
I liked this book, knowing almost nothing of Priestley, and only a little more about Franklin, Lavoisier, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. There's a nice section on the importance of coffee and coffee shops in Europe, and that makes me want to go back and read David Liss' The Coffee Trader. That's a great novel, by the way. Sep 30, Mark rated it really liked it Shelves: politics , own-it , non-fiction , science , biography.
Joseph Priestly will forever be remembered as the man who discovered and isolated oxygen. It turns out that he was not the first to do so, but the first to recognize the importance of his discovery and to publish his results. He was not the one who named the substance either, but still, he gets the credit. However, his greatest achievement, scientifically, took another two hundred years for anyone to fully appreciate.
His discovery that plants refreshed the air and kept an animal alive long beyo Joseph Priestly will forever be remembered as the man who discovered and isolated oxygen.
His discovery that plants refreshed the air and kept an animal alive long beyond when it would have expired in a closed system without plants has led to the science of ecosystems, the study of the inter-relatedness of all living creatures on the earth. Yet, he is largely unrecognized for this. He was a true amateur scientist, a theologian of some repute, and great liberal thinker who had a hand in the formation of the ideas upon which the United States was founded.
As a friend and confidant of Benjamin Franklin, and later of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Priestly had great influence upon those gentlemen and their radical ideas. This book gives one a brief overview of how that all came about and proved to be a fascinating read, as well. And this from one who does not normally read a lot of history, but the science is what attracted me. Feb 26, Todd Martin rated it it was ok Shelves: history , environment-science. I could write my own review, but there is really no reason to when the New York Times has so effectively captured my thoughts about The Invention of Air.
The review can be seen here. Priestley is mentioned more than ten times as frequently as Washington or Hamilton in the famous Adams-Jefferson letters, after their reconciliation in , which gives you some sense of his centrality. One key value that they shared was an abiding belief in science and the enlightened progress that science had brought to the world.
The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America
The other was the recognition that this enlightenment would force us to reinvent all our old conventions and beliefs about religion, society, and politics. The idea of political figure adopting a know-nothing attitude towards the innovations of science would have been appalling to the Founders. What were his major scientific discoveries? Was he really the first person to discover oxygen? Part of the argument of the book is that Priestley should be remembered more for another discovery of his, which in its own way was every bit as important: He was the first person to recognize that plants were creating oxygen.
And Priestley was the first person to grasp that essential life-support system. Interestingly, Franklin helped him understand the full implications of his discovery, so in a way, it was a collaboration between the two men. The discovery of plant respiration is now seen as one of the founding insights that ecosystem science is based on, but Priestley also played a key role in teasing out the energy flows of photosynthesis, and published an influential paper on the way animals use oxygen as an energy source via the bloodstream. Priestley helped sketch out the first draft of the cycle of life on Earth: plants convert the energy of light into chemical energy, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere and absorbing carbon dioxide; animals power themselves through the energy stored in plant tissue and oxygen itself, releasing carbon dioxide as a waste product.
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How was he supported in his endeavors? And how was that support linked in a hidden way to the scientific discoveries he was making? At various points in his life, Priestley drew a salary as a minister and a teacher, but he was also supported by a series of patrons, most notably Lord Shelburne, on whose estate he worked for most of the s, and then the extended group of the Lunar Society in Birmingham, a band of pioneering industrialists who endowed Priestley with enough money in the s to support his research and writing. The Birmingham magnates had themselves built their wealth by exploiting the stored energy of the coal deposits in the British Midlands; that coal was originally laid down during the massive spike in oxygen levels that occurred in the Carboniferous Era, thanks to the very process of plant respiration that Priestley had discovered.
Why was it so natural for him to move freely among science, religion, and politics and to make connections among them? One of the things that I find so moving and intriguing about Priestley is that he was, in a sense, part of a dying breed: the amateur, the dabbler, the polymath who had his fingers in a dozen different fields. What enabled Priestley to take part in so many intellectual revolutions simultaneously? His personal qualities? The nature of his times? This is a theme that runs through all of my books, and was central to the approach of Ghost Map as well.
One key theme of Invention of Air is the changing flows of energy through natural and human systems, but I also talk about the impact of coffeehouses on Enlightenment science. What role did Priestley play in the bitter personal and political feud between Adams and Jefferson, and in their ultimate reconciliation? By signing up, I confirm that I'm over View all newsletter.
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