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In the 1780s, Priestley had established himself in his native England as a brilliant scientist, a prominent minister, and an outspoken advocate of the American Revolution, who had sustained long correspondences with Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams. Ultimately, his radicalism made his life politically uncomfortable, and he fled to the nascent United States. Here, he was able to build conceptual bridges linking the scientific, political, and religious impulses that governed his life. And through his close relationships with the Founding Fathers - Jefferson credited Priestley as the man who prevented him from abandoning Christianity - he exerted profound if little-known influence on the shape and course of our history.
As in his last best-selling work, The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson here uses a dramatic historical story to explore themes that have long engaged him.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Roger on 05-03-10
Good scientific history
This book looks comprehensively at the life and works of Priestley, examining the multiple influences on his work, and describing his influence on leaders of the American Revolution, including Franklin, Adams and Jefferson.
The book's main strength is its explanation of how multiple influences, including Priestley's aptitudes and education, the conventions of English coffee house society, England's easily accessible coal deposits, and luck, came together to make Priestley's work possible. Johnson argues persuasively that scientific breakthroughs depend not just on scientific tradition, experimentation and individual brilliance, but also on the political and economic environments within which scientists operate.
Johnson also contrasts the all-encompassing intellectual grasp of America's founders with the anti-intellectual stance of many of today's politicians. He claims such anti-intellectualism is therefore un-American. In doing so, however, he overlooks the anti-intellectual strains in our history dating back at least as far as the Jacksonians.
14 of 14 people found this review helpful
By Joshua Kim on 06-10-12
Johnson at Top of His Game
Johnson is the author of one of my favorite books of 2007 - The Ghost Map - as well as a bunch of other great science books. This is another one of those books that make me question my formal education, as despite being a U.S. history major and life-long Ben Franklin read I had not known (or remembered) anything much about Joseph Priestley. The role that Priestly played in the 18th century scientific enlightenment is a crucial one. He was a (younger) contemporary of Ben Franklin, a popularizer (like Johnson) of the work of Franklin and the other "electricians", and the discoverer of oxygen.
Priestley seems to pop up at all the key scientific and political events of the 18th century, making friends (and creating enemies) with our founding fathers. Johnson makes the point that today we are missing scientists who both take the lead in politics and religion. A religious political progressive in the form of a scientist appears to be a contradiction in our world. The Invention of Air helped me understand both the early origins of the scientific revolution and some about our early history as a country. An accessible and enjoyable read. Johnson at the top of his game.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful