Friday, March 26, 2010

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead, 2008.

Joseph Priestly was a man of contradictions. He was an inventive scientist, one of the fathers of chemistry, who somehow clung to an ancient idea his own research undermined. He had the courage to be a heretic, but held on to religious beliefs when many of his peers embraced atheism. He was a proponent of political liberty and the American cause whose views brought him trouble even in America.
Johnson’s Invention of Air is partly a biography of Priestly. It is also an attempt to see how revolutions in ideas occur. Priestly was connected to the scientific, religious and political revolutions of the Enlightenment. As one man’s involvement in all of them suggests, they were not completely separate, nor did the intellectual leaders of the time see them as discreet.

As a biography, the book works well. The sections shift emphasis from science to religion to politics. Though Priestly was a professional clergyman and ostensibly amateur scientist most of his life, Johnson’s framework works well chronologically because of his subject’s shifting emphasis.

Johnson doesn’t hit on a new theory of idea revolutions. He suggests the outlines of one, or maybe the method of discovering it. He finds in Priestly the beginnings of a systems approach to knowledge, especially science, that crosses disciplines and switches from small-scale to large-scale and back again. The model is modern ecological and systems science, which Johnson finds rooted in the coffeehouse meetings of Enlightenment amateurs who the many areas of human knowledge and endeavor as connected and amenable to improvement through reason.

I’m not a great fan of Enlightenment thinking, but I admire that they were serious and that they saw that truth in one realm (science, religion or politics) had ramifications in others. People seem willing to throw up walls and throw up their hands just to avoid the difficulties of struggling with all these things. Science wants to be unfettered from political and religious restrictions, but only thrives in stable and free (political) environments where people see the material world as worthy of study (an essentially religious view). The political freedom we long for needs support from good and available knowledge (science) and institutions that support individual self-government (religion). Religion in particular is walled off from other areas, but scientists and politicians have too readily shrugged off ethics that were based on human sentiment, when they were accountable to no one because no one was stronger.

Stephen Johnson also wrote The Ghost Map.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time by Peter Galison
The Science of Leonardo by Fritjof Capra
Steam by Andrea Sutcliffe