Jack Cheng's Reviews > The Invention of Air

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
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Jul 08, 10

Read in July, 2010

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 out of England by a mob, and the crown). Friends with Franklin, Adams and Jefferson, creator of carbonated water -- quite a resume.

Johnson does not write a strict biography, but rather uses Priestly as a case study of how ideas and revolutions in science happen, what are the necessary frameworks and the character of inventors.

The writing feels padded out, though, with lots of "... and that would lead to a greater crisis, as we shall soon see..." as well as some goofy "meditations" on how oxygen (which Priestly is credited with discovering) was produced by plants, which then became coal, and drove the industrial revolution in England, and gave Priestly the leisure time and the rich friends to support his research! Wow! It's like oxygen discovered itself! But guess what? That was a whole chapter, instead of a footnote!

There are 100 great pages in here, but other parts of it feels like it was written as a term paper.
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