Bold man, bold ideas
Although it centers on the life of Joseph Priestley, the 18th century English chemist and clergyman, Steven Johnson’s “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America” is far from a conventional biography. It is the story of Priestley’s ideas -- who inspired them, whom they influenced and how they came to be.
“The Invention of Air” deals with revolution: Priestley’s discovery that different gases make up Earth’s atmosphere was as radical in its time as Copernicus’ sun-centered solar system was in his.
Nor did Priestley confine his iconoclasm to science. His support of the French and American revolutions earned him the name “Gunpowder Joe.” In a 1785 sermon, he compared these uprisings to “gunpowder” placed beneath “the old building of error and superstition,” which would obliterate both its structure and foundation.
Priestley did not keep his thoughts to himself. He told anybody who would listen -- publishing books and pamphlets to widen his audience. This free flow of information between Priestley and other Enlightenment intellectuals created a petri dish for the incubation of yet more original thought.
“The idea of proprietary secrets, of withholding information for personal gain, was unimaginable in that group,” Johnson writes.
Had Priestley been greedy, many things today might be different -- including the soft-drink business. In the 1770s, he discovered carbon dioxide (“mephitic” air, he called it) and invented soda water. But in 1783, Johann Schweppe patented the process, establishing the fizzy-water empire that still bears his name.
Beverages are surprisingly central to Priestley’s story -- and to the Enlightenment itself.
In 1765, the 32-year-old Priestley first set foot in the London Coffee House, the informal hangout of the “Honest Whigs,” who would initiate the callow clergyman into the cutting-edge mysteries of science. Members of the group included mathematician Richard Price as well as Benjamin Franklin, “the world’s most celebrated electrician,” who would become a lifelong friend.
The Honest Whigs were wired before wired was fashionable. Not only were their laboratories rigged for electrical experiments, but their brains were also juiced on java, which had replaced alcohol as England’s daytime drug of choice. “Create enough caffeine abusers in your society and you’ll be statistically more likely to launch an Age of Reason,” Johnson dryly notes.
Like Priestley, Johnson -- who wrote the bestselling “Everything Bad Is Good for You” -- is a polymath, and it’s often exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought. To explain why some ideas upend the world, he draws upon many disciplines: chemistry, social history, geography, even ecosystem science.
The Industrial Revolution sprang up first in northern England because of a spike in oxygen levels there during the Carboniferous age, 300 million years ago. That led to the growth of giant plants, which lived, died and were transformed into coal -- located in convenient, shallow, easy-to-mine beds.
And coal stoked the factories that enriched the owners, stultified the workers and forever altered the relationship between capital and labor.
“Major advances in civilization are almost invariably triggered by the flow of energy through society,” Johnson explains. “The birth of agriculture enabled humans to stockpile energy in the form of domesticated plants and livestock, thus enabling the larger population centers that developed into the first cities. Empires became possible thanks to innovations that captured the energy required to move armies and government officials across large distances, via the muscular energy of horses or the harnessed wind power of ships.”
Eventually, Priestley moved to northern England from London, leaving behind his cherished Honest Whigs. He soon found companionship, however, among the “Lunar Men,” a group of Birmingham industrialists and thinkers who met each month when the moon was full.
Individual “Lunaticks,” as they called themselves, underwrote much of Priestley’s science. Between his religious heresies and support for foreign revolutions, he tended to alienate all but the most free-thinking patrons.
Of course, even Priestley occasionally got things wrong. He adhered to a wacky theory of combustion that hinged on “phlogiston” -- a substance contained in all ignitable material that was released into the air through burning.
Likewise, Johnson points out, for all his railing against the divinity of Christ, “the concept of the nonexistence of the Christian God seems to have been a thought that Priestley was incapable of fully confronting.”
Johnson casts Priestley as a “heretic” with “an unshakable faith” -- and notes that this seeming contradiction inspired Thomas Jefferson, an avowed deist, to continue to call himself a Christian.
Near the end of his life, Priestley took sanctuary in Pennsylvania, after his pro-revolutionary remarks incited a window-smashing, fire-setting royalist mob to force him out of England.
Although his health precluded travel, Priestley corresponded with Jefferson -- a statesman, like Franklin, whose hobby was science.
Through Priestley’s eyes, Johnson paints a portrait of the then-vice president, emphasizing his differences with President Adams over the Alien and Sedition Acts. He also shows Jefferson’s discomfort with public pressure on politicians to be ostentatiously religious.
Johnson opens “The Invention of Air” with a scene from the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign. Asked whether he believes in evolution, an unnamed candidate sneers: “I’m not planning on writing an eighth-grade science book. I’m asking for the opportunity to be President of the United States.”
One wishes Priestley -- or Jefferson -- had been around for a snappy rebuttal.