Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air" — how an eclectic minister/scientist/politician shows that history is a web

Steven Johnson's latest book,
The Invention of Air, is a wide-ranging, learned, engrossing biography of the polymath pioneering scientist, Joseph Priestley. Priestley, a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, was a kind of radical scientist/politician/theologian, an all-but-unimaginable combination in today's world of politicised science and deep fractures between faith and empiricism.

Johnson uses the life of Priestley to illuminate a theory of history that holds that great people are neither an inevitable product of their times, nor luminous, supernatural geniuses — rather, they are the product of an ecosystem of influences, technologies, climate, and energy (literally — the story of stored energy in coal, saltpetre, and plant-bound carbon are vital to the story). He pulls this off deftly, with a series of insightful, beautifully realized anaecdotes from the life of Priestley and his contemporaries — his allies and his many enemies — that make the idea of history being shaped by webs and networks seem absolutely true.

Who was Priestley? He was a slapdash, overexcited scientist with an absolute knack for apparatus design, fantastic intuition, and boundless energy — his novel instruments and flighty nature led him to discover oxygen and the role plants played in its production (an insight that Benjamin Franklin helped build into the foundations of the modern notions of homeostasis). Likewise, he invented club soda, wrote the standard textbook on electricity (used for a century thereafter) — but he also stubbornly held onto a belief in phlogiston, the mystical substance that allowed matter to burn, refusing to let go of this idea long after everyone else in the field came to believe in oxidization. But he was also a firm believer in open sharing of knowledge, a voluminous publisher of results and cross-pollinator of ideas who refused to be confined to one discipline.

Priestley was also a minister, an eccentric and dissenting one, who, by the end of his career, had denied the divinity of Christ and helped to found Unitarianism — writing a book that condemned the exaltation of saints and Jesus as pagan beliefs, a book that brought Thomas Jefferson back to Christianity, promising a faith divorced from mysticism and spookery. But Priestley was also a firm believed in Revelations, convinced that they foretold the falling of the ten crowns of Europe, and that the realization of their surreal predictions was at hand. This — along with his support for the French Revolution — got him exiled from England, literally chased out of his home by a torch-wielding mob who burned his lab and house to the ground.

An exile in America, Priestley took up the cause of civil liberties and, along with other early Republicans, inspired Adams to pass the Alien-Sedition Act (one of the darkest chapters in the history of American civil liberties), though Adams never got around to using it on Priestley himself. Closely allied to Jefferson, Priestley took up the cause of politics and led the charge against Adams' regime and his campaign against the revolutionary French Republic, all the while preaching Unitarianism, Revelations, Phlogiston, and a series of remarkable, cross-disciplinary scientific discoveries that he made on his homemade apparatus.

Johnson's life of Priestley conjures up a man who was, in many ways, absolutely 21st Century: a miscellarian who relied on conversational networks to feed his fascination with technology, a fascination that was simultaneously all-consuming, ill-informed, and brilliant. But Priestley also epitomizes the late 18th century in his boundary-crossing revolutions in science and religion and politics, helping to change the course of history. As Johnson says, "The roving, untutored, connective intelligence was not particularly suited to defining the bylaws of a new scientific paradigm. But it was exceptionally well suited for exploding the old conventions, for pushing the field into its revolutionary mode. Some great minds become great by turning the rubble of an exploded paradigm into something consistent and meaningful. Others become great by laying the gunpowder, grain by grain."

Johnson's a wonderful science writer, but it's his scientific histories — Emergence, The Ghost Map and now The Invention of Air that I like best. Like Levy's Hackers, Johnson's science histories bring these people and their passions to life in a way that is at once familiarly geeky and inspiring.

The Invention of Air