The Invention of Air has a catchy title, but its subtitle better describes the book itself: A story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Steven Johnson uses Joseph Priestley as a touchstone for a much larger argument about the relationship among science, religion, and politics and the effects this had on the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. Priestley's role in isolating oxygen and his interactions with Antoine Lavoisier make an appearance in the early half of the book. For the most part, however, this book is not so much a biography of Joseph Priestley as it is an attempt to combat the anti-intellectualism, anti-science atmosphere now insinuating itself into American society, and particularly American politics. As he confesses in his Author's Note, which precedes the book itself, Johnson is concerned by the way we view science as something relegated to a domain of professionals rather than intrinsic to humanity, saying:
If there is an overarching moral to this story, it is that vital fields of intellectual achievement cannot be cordoned off from one another and relegated to the specialists, that politics can and should be usefully informed by the insights of science.
I can get behind this theme. Canada, like the United States, is struggling with the role of science in informing politics and political decisions, albeit in not quite the same rhetorical, polarized fashion happening south of our border. I am quite aware that, despite their hyperbole, the Tea Party does not speak for the majority of Americans, and that most Americans are sensible people with a varying degree of respect for the sciences. I am lucky enough to have met American friends on Goodreads and elsewhere online who fall into this category. I cringe, though, when I read newspaper articles and blog posts written by people who view science as a threat to their religion or, more basically, their way of life. I feel sorry for those people, and I kind of worry about America's future. So if Johnson wants to fight this by writing a book (which strikes me as an oddly intellectual way to fight anti-intellectualism, but whatever), more power to him.
Johnson's thesis also agrees with sentiments I've developed over the past few years, sentiments particularly influenced by a Philosophy of Science course. He draws upon Thomas Kuhn, of course, and discusses Priestley's discoveries in hindsight as a type of paradigm shift. In particular, as a writer he has to praise Priestley's choice to tell the story of the discovery of electricity, to be the first person to tell science through the lens of narrative rather than as a logical discourse. I have to agree; both forms have their uses, but I particularly like reading books like The Invention of Air because they are exciting and entertaining as well as educational. I'm fascinated by the history of science, as well as its philosophy. I like learning about the circumstances and coincidences that surround discoveries—for example, Priestley began investigating air because he temporarily lived behind a brewery and noticed that their vats emitted "fixed air" (carbon dioxide). From here, Johnson launches into a description of how, through trial and error more than any real hypothesis, Priestley manages to deduce that there is a component of air essential to respiration, that plants somehow produce or replenish it, and that it is combustible. (Unfortunately, Priestley would continue to subscribe to the theory of phlogiston until his death, even though it was discredited long before he died.)
I don't want to let my enthusiasm for Johnson's aims colour my evaluation of the book too much. 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. (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. 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.