Jrobertus's Reviews > The Invention of Air

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
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's review
Mar 26, 2011

really liked it

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. He was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin when he lived in London. Priestly did have some scientific shortcomings, like his adherence to the phlogiston theory, and had a lively competition with Lavoisier. Priestly became a scientific rationalist that led him to religious dissention. He became a Unitarian, and wrote many sermons consistent with the Age of Reason. He, and many of his friends were sympathetic to the French Revolution, at least in principle, because they were philosophically committed to the notion of reason and human improvement which would necessarily sweet away some older institutions. None the less, his religion and politics led to mob violence against him, burning his home, destroying his laboratory and forcing him to flee to America. He became friends first with John Adams, and later with Jefferson, and tended to gravitate toward the latter. It is interesting to note that in their famous exchange of letters, Jefferson and Adams mention George Washington five times, and :Priestly 50 times. Priestly really condensed the great arguments of our democracy around him, and is an unsung hero of our foundation.
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