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Have you ever had an intuition or hunch about something? It felt like an epiphany or lightning bulb shedding clarity and significance on all around it, didn't it? Well, Joseph Priestly, the venerable scientist celebrated in this amazing book, would say it really wasn't literally such a momentous event!
Joseph Priestly insisted, after his early years of learning and experiment, that natural philosophy or learning is "...a story of progress, a rising staircase of enlightenment, with each new innovation building on the last." So consciously or unconsciously, you've previously been tinkering or leaning about someone else's tinkering with the ideas behind your "aha" moment. Why is this so important? Why is it that certain centuries produce a wealth of discovery, inventions and new ideas so far beyond the wildest imaginations of the time? How is that cultural change parallels scientific growth periods?
In Steven Johnson's latest book, the reader gets to explore the world of Joseph Priestly, his American founder peers, and the Royal Society to which he belonged that led to world-changing inventions involving electricity and oxygen. Opening with a mind-boggling chapter on the vortex of waterspouts, Benjamin Franklin, Priestly and others came to realize the presence of the "Gulf Stream," which changed shipping and our understanding of weather forever. Priestly then wrote his first book, The Rudiments of English Grammar, and began exploring the phenomena of what really conducts electricity. It is to Priestly's credit that he was willing to admit that only part of his experiments were important and that often more was learned through admitted mistakes. On and on this adventurous account moves, with the reader enjoying Priestly's invention of soda water, his experimentation with "circulation" being more important than a vacuum, his true discovery of oxygen and its connection to the entire ecosystem, and so much more.
But Priestly's life was not all glory and honor. Funding was initially a huge problem eventually solved by subscriptions to his work. His writing of History of the Corruptions of Christianity and his defense of same is absolutely fascinating reading, a stirring attack on churches that altered the message of Jesus Christ to form churches and ideas radically different from those of the man whose life irrevocably changed history and religion. The founder of Unitarians, Priestly faced English ostracism and eventually left England for America, a land where he found more acceptance but also criticism for his unorthodox sermons and beliefs.
America was founded upon great ideas that often come across as dusty, boring statements or papers. Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air is a very readable and honest account of the men, ideas, revolutionary moments, inventions and debates that are an integral part of the freedom, inventiveness and greatness exemplified in this simple but profound man, Joseph Priestly, and his American patriot peers! A superb, exciting and memorable addition to the understanding of science, politics and history in the late 1700s and early 1800s!
Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on February 12, 2009