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The Invention of Air

3.74 of 5 stars 3.74  ·  rating details  ·  1,780 ratings  ·  295 reviews
Bestselling author Steven Johnson recounts-in dazzling, multidisciplinary fashion-the story of the brilliant man who embodied the relationship between science, religion, and politics for America's Founding Fathers. The Invention of Air is a book of world-changing ideas wrapped around a compelling narrative, a story of genius and violence and friendship in the midst of swee...more
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Published December 26th 2008 by Riverhead Books
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Trevor
I would have liked this to have been a much better book. There were parts of it where it showed promise – but those parts were swamped in what was mostly ‘junk polymathism’. That is a new phrase I’ve made up – I think it might even prove handy. I am going to use it as a way to describe someone who has decided to refer to multiple disciplines, but not really use them in a way that shines new light on either the topic at hand or on the discipline referred to. Worst of all was the fact that when he...more
David
Steven Johnson, author of the excellent "The Ghost Map", here takes on the life of Joseph Priestley. The best parts of this book are where he confines himself to the task at hand, and gives us details of that life. Priestley was a fascinating character, a brilliant chemist and one of the most influential scientists of his age. He was also a practicing clergyman, whose nonconformist views ultimately provoked such a storm in England that he had to flee to America with his family. He was friends wi...more
Jack Cheng
Johnson has good ideas but I don't find him the most fluid author. He's got a great subject in Joseph Priestly, who helped determine the existence of oxygen and the fact that plants create an atmosphere that can sustain a flame (or the life of a mouse). Priestly was also a radical Unitarian minister who wrote treatises outlining all the magical accretions that he thought undermined a purer Christian faith, and was a bit too enthusiastic about the French Revolution (this last part got him driven...more
Moira Russell
Shit, is this a book ABOUT PHLOGISTON? I became OBSESSED with that stuff at SJC, I must have this soonest immediately.
Dauphne
"The classic case study for the concept of a paradigm shift is the Compernican revolution in astronomy, but in actual fact, the first extended story that Kuhn tells in 'The Structure of Scientific Revoutions' is the paradigm shift in chemistry that took place in the 1770s, led by the revolutionary science of Joseph Priestly."

Are you freaking kidding me? Who read that sentence and remembered what the first half of it was by the time they got to the end?
Randy
Joseph Priestly did not 'invent' air. Rather, he was instrumental in discovering it. Let alone Joseph's influence on America as a newly born country's political, scientific and faith culture. Regardless, I find this book very well written, and a personal epiphony discovering my family is related to him.

Steve Johnson's writing style is easy to read, entertaining and informing.
Elaine Nelson
A lovely review of the life of a (relatively) obscure scientist/philosopher, and the times when science, politics, and religion were much more intercommunicative spheres than they are now. IOW, this guy invented soda water, founded Unitarianism, and corresponded with Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. Plus interesting digressions into the geohistory of coal!

Johnson makes a fascinating argument for an ecosystem metaphor of human history & civilization throughout, as well, and I think it serves i...more
Ben Babcock
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 bo...more
George
INTERESTING AND ENLIGHTENING.

"…the ideal of Enlightenment science had instilled in them a set of shared political values, a belief that reason would ultimately triumph over fanaticism and frenzy.”
–page 24

(I wonder how that worked out for them.)

‘The Invention of Air: An Experiment, a Journey, a New Country and the Amazing force of Scientific Discovery,’ by Steven Johnson is an entertaining, very interesting and enlightening tale of science, religion and politics. It is the story of Joseph Pries...more
Meg
This is definitely a three-and-a-half-er.

I feel sort of bad not liking this book that much. It starts off pretty strongly, with SBJ spinning stitches and webs all around Joseph Priestley until you're like, holy crap! This guy is going to be a rockstar! I can't wait to read all about the amazing things he did! And then it's almost like the hype overwhelms the man? Because it's not to say that Priestley shouldn't have more name recognition; clearly the guy held his own. And actually SBJ paints Pr...more
Aurora
Not only a biographical work about Joseph Priestley, but a great read about how scientific thought and innovation happens - the unpredictable mix of creativity, conversations with others, just plain accidents and coincidences, patience, and risk-taking.
Mark
Joseph Priestly will forever be remembered as the man who discovered and isolated oxygen. It turns out that he was not the first to do so, but the first to recognize the importance of his discovery and to publish his results. He was not the one who named the substance either, but still, he gets the credit. However, his greatest achievement, scientifically, took another two hundred years for anyone to fully appreciate. His discovery that plants refreshed the air and kept an animal alive long beyo...more
Tony
Johnson, Steven. THE INVENTION OF AIR: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. (2008). ***. This is a book about Joseph Priestley, but it is not a biography, per se. I’d have to stick it on one of my history shelves. What I think happened here was that the author’s agenda changed after he had gathered all of the information he needed for a biography. I suspect that he found it lacking in enough excitement to sustain a standard biography. Instead, he choose to place Pries...more
Todd Martin
I could write my own review, but there is really no reason to when the New York Times has so effectively captured my thoughts about The Invention of Air .
The review can be seen here.

Johnson uses the life story of Joseph Priestly (18th century scientist and one of the discoverers of oxygen) as a means to illustrate connections between the disparate fields of energy, religion, the French and American revolutions, the scientific method and the ways in which paradigms shift occur (among a host of...more
Lora Innes
This book isn't about the Revolutionary War, but instead the Revolutionary Era. It follows the story of minister/scientist/politician Joseph Priestly, who was a British Citizen and only came to American after the Revolution was over, to escape mobs who had destroyed his home and were coming after his family. Johnson does a good job of showing how these areas (faith, science, politics) are interconnected, despite the modern attempt to isolate them from one another. He shows us that they were esse...more
Nick
Johnson did an excellent job of putting a life and a time period into interwoven context. By modern standards, Priestley would be considered a "talented amateur" in the field of science, basically flinging experiments at a subject until it yielded results. His willingness to experiment with politics and religion as well got him into remarkable amounts of trouble, including a literal mob with torches coming to destroy his home.
My only minor quibbles were that several of his actual discoveries wer...more
Eileen Daly-Boas
This isn't a biography of Joseph Priestley, and it isn't a full historical summary of England and the beginning of America. It's not a scientific monograph, and in some ways, it's not history of science, either. But it is a good, sweeping tale that includes everything from dinosaurs and gigantic dragonflies to the French revolution and the Alien and Sedition Act in the United States. If you read this as something it's not, you won't like it. If you think that Johnson is only promoting the view o...more
Jrobertus
I found this a fascinating read. It centers on Joseph Priestly, the late 18th century scientist, philosopher, and religious dissenter. Priestly was an ordained minister who engaged in scientific studies of electricity and the chemistry of gases (hence the title). He invented soda water, and is credited with the discovery of oxygen, although that is a complex story, made clear by the book. Priestly was involved with some wonderful learned sociecities, like the Royal Society and the Honest Whigs....more
Meri
Joseph Priestly is not widely recognized, but may as well have been a (British) founding father. A product of a remarkable age, Priestly produced a string of innovations in science, religion, and politics. He was eventually exiled from England for his agnostic views, but he died a respected man in a young United States.

In this book, Johnson has taken an interesting figure and turned him into a metaphor for explosions of progress (like the Age of Enlightenment) and how seemingly separate discipl...more
Ryan
This was fascinating, and more technical/scientific/philosophical than books I've grown used to reading. Provides a decent mental workout of following the arguments he makes, but not difficult at all. It's interesting to hear Priestley's experiments explained, but I was expecting him to have a little more influence on American Founding Fathers. Definitely interesting he had influence at all, but the contact was essentially a bunch of letters between him and Franklin, and a few between him and Je...more
Kirsti
Once upon a time there was a guy named Joseph Priestley who was the first person (or one of the first people) to isolate oxygen. He was pals with Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, John Adams (who compared him to Socrates), and Thomas Jefferson. He was a founder of the Unitarian movement. He wrote many works of philosophy and helped found utilitarianism. And he invented soda water.

This guy, an Englishman, was pro-American Revolution, pro-French Revolution, and antimonarchist. He believed in...more
Dennis
This was a very good book to read as a follow up to the John Adams book. This book deals with the science, politics, and religion of Joseph Priestly. He was a founder of the Unitarian church as well as an experimenter in chemistry of the day. The book offers much in a short number of pages. Interesting insights. It offers insight about how this person and others end up discovering and doing so much in the lives. This offers a peek into the history of science. Priestly was friends with Thomas Jef...more
Josh K
I don't believe I'd ever heard of Joseph Priestly previous to reading this. Which kind of shocks me. Johnson portrays him as an integral part of both the founding of the United States and the founding of modern chemistry and environmental science. The first 2/3rds of the book, describing his "hot hand" decade as an "electrician" in the company of Ben Franklin and then during his research into plant respiration and isolating oxygen are exciting and placed very nicely into historical context. John...more
Pierre Lauzon
The book is a biography of Joseph Priestly, scientist, theologian, rationalist, and his influence of both European and American history.

It is a quick moving book that I listened to as a recorded book.

Among the more interesting parts of the book were Priestly's isolation of oxygen and his religious works. His religious writings were ill-received by the English Throne and people, culminating in riots that burned his home and destroyed his laboratory. He went into hiding in London, and emigrated to...more
Chris
What an excellent book! It goes beyond the usual biography and puts the life of Joseph Priestley into a much broader context. Priestley was an amazing person -- a scientist, historian, and political and religious theorist who collaborated with Ben Frankilin, Thomas Jefferson, and Erasmus Darwin. Great book.
Alex
this book is not about the discovery of oxygen - it's about joseph priestley and how he fit into the intellectual milieu of his times, including his links with the founding fathers of america. don't look for new scientific or historic insights here, but it's an interesting overview of a very interesting guy.
Kathy
Johnson makes a credible hypothesis about how scientific discoveries are made using the example of Joseph Priestly who had influence in science, politics and religion and was friends with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.
Rona
This book fits on too many of my shelves! It is a biography of Joseph Priestley. It tracks the history of science during the time leading up to the American Revolution. It also describes the peaceful co-existence of science and religion in the gentlemen scientists/naturalists of the time. It also talks about the science being studied and the development of what became "the scientific method." Then, it also talks about earth science, the development of fossil fuel, and the roots of the industrial...more
Janet
Mar 26, 2009 Janet is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
What I've learned so far is that I simply must read more of Steven Johnson's work as soon as I'm done with this one. Joseph Priestly is a fascinating historical character about whom I wish I'd known more much earlier.
Kevin Lawson
Great book with a interesting and effective perspective. The way the author decided to articulate some of his points made to take account of pieces of history you thought you already knew.
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1563
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name.

Steven Johnson is the author of the bestsellers Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good For You, and Mind Wide Open, as well as Emergence and Interface Culture. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites—most recently, outside.in—and writes for Time, Wi...more
More about Steven Johnson...
The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation Everything Bad is Good for You Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

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