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Book Club 2010 & Prior > The Invention of Air

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message 1: by William (new)

William (acknud) This tread is for discussion of the February read. Mine should arrive in the mail any day.


message 2: by Dan (new)

Dan (djunger) | 25 comments On the group home page it shows this book as starting Feb 1 and finishing Feb 28 ... is that supposed to be March 1-31 or are we going to try to discuss it later this month?


message 3: by William (new)

William (acknud) Dan wrote: "On the group home page it shows this book as starting Feb 1 and finishing Feb 28 ... is that supposed to be March 1-31 or are we going to try to discuss it later this month?"

I had hoped to be done with it by the third week of February. I am about to post a poll for the March read. I think after these two it will settle down into a monthly pattern. Sorry about the rush.




message 4: by JuliAnna (new)

JuliAnna | 37 comments Dan wrote: "On the group home page it shows this book as starting Feb 1 and finishing Feb 28"

William did a great job getting a poll up in record time. I think it is just taking a while for most of us to get the book. It is a recent book, and neither of the two libraries I requested it from had gotten its copy into circulation yet.

Anyone, who has begun reading should feel free to start the discussion. In fact, I'd love hear what you think so far.


message 5: by Chantel (new)

Chantel | 8 comments I'm only through the prologue, but I'm enjoying the book already. The writing style is great for non-science background people (me). I was happy to find out that Steven Johnson is also the author of The Ghost Map, which I'm hoping we can read next month or sometime in the future.


message 6: by Dan (last edited Feb 08, 2009 08:56AM) (new)

Dan (djunger) | 25 comments JuliAnna wrote: Anyone who has begun reading should feel free to start the discussion.

Like Chantel I'm enjoying what I've read so far (still in Chapter 1). Before it slips my mind I wanted to quote a sentence from that chapter and see what other people think about it (page 34): "He had invented a whole new way of imagining science; instead of a unified, Newtonian pronouncement, Priestley recast natural philosophy as a story of progress, a rising staircase of enlightenment, with each new innovation building on the last."

I'm wondering if the "invented" part of this statement is too strong a claim. Were there no other thinkers between Newton and Priestley (or prior to Newton for that matter) who had framed scientific inquiry in these progress-based terms?


message 7: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Black | 39 comments Dan wrote: Like Chantel I'm enjoying what I've read so far (still in Chapter 1). Before it slips my mind I wanted to qu..."

I think Priestley was the first, or at least I don't know of anyone else who put it in those terms. I have always been under the impression that this shift in veiws had happened sometime in the 19th century.

I always have trouble believing that it took that long to veiw science as progress, and as progress that would continue. Maybe this was scholasticism from the middle ages hanging in there for just a few more centuries. So Newton would have been viewed as a new Aristotle, and would be studied for centuries to come, with no new insights added, just analysis of the old.

I just finished ch. 2, and am thoroughly enjoying the book. It's heavily influenced by Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but Johnson is expanding it further, showing how science works with all the influences of society as a whole, and not in a void as Kuhn did.





message 8: by Dan (new)

Dan (djunger) | 25 comments Tracy wrote: think Priestley was the first, or at least I don't know of anyone else who put it in those terms.

Thanks for the reply ... interesting point about Newton being taken as the new Aristotle as it were. From the little I know about the topic I know Newton was widely venerated in the 18th century natural philosophy community, though I'm not sure how uncritically.

Like you I'm enjoying the book a lot too -- I'm up through the Intermezzo, which I found to be a captivating section. At times Johnson's prose can be rather sweeping, which is why I react skeptically to his broader claims (like whenever "invented" comes up!). As I read I'm finding myself wondering to what extent Johnson has made a conscious or unconscious identification with Priestley himself -- most clearly in praising him for the project they share, the popularization of science.


message 9: by Jay (new)

Jay Garcia (jayg) Haven't gotten the book yet, and may not be quick enough to get it, read it, and discuss it in time, but I cut on the TV Sunday morning while getting ready for work and Steven Johnson was discussing the book on C-Span's BookTV. Definitely got me interested.

I did read Emergence The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and thought it was fascinating. Everything Bad is Good for You sounds interesting as well.


message 10: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Black | 39 comments I'm in the last chapter. I hope no one is worried about spoilers.

I was a little stunned reading Priestley's conversation with Adams p183. When asked how Priestley could be so sure of France's democatic prospects, he replied, "I take it that the ten horns of the great beast in revelations, mean the ten crowned heads of Europe: and that the execution of the king of France is the falling off of the first of those horns;; and that the nine monarchies of Europe will fall one after another in the same way."

Not what I would have expected of one of the great scientists of the Enlightenment. I didn't get the impression from the next few pages that this was from advancing age, so is it safe to assume that he was never a rational person? Maybe this explains why, despite his great success as an experimenter, he was never able to see the "big picture" that his results pointed at. At least, not on his own.

So if this was his true character, how is it that John Adams, and not Franklin or Jefferson, was the one to raise an eyebrow. Franklin was an atheist, and Jefferson, in my view anyway, was one of the best examples of Enlightenment thinkers.






message 11: by Dan (last edited Feb 13, 2009 01:25PM) (new)

Dan (djunger) | 25 comments Tracy wrote: Not what I would have expected of one of the great scientists of the Enlightenment.

Yeah, I wish he had gone into Priestley's fascination with Revelations a bit more. As with some other aspects of the book, Johnson offers more of a taste than a full meal. (Just finished it this morning and really liked the book overall.) How Priestley reconciled his Unitarianism with "the horns of the great beast" is not clear, but then again he also clung to the phlogiston theory well after many other chemists abandoned it.

This episode is reminiscent of Isaac Newton's ventures into alchemy and astrology (see more at this Wikipedia page), though at least one could argue with Newton that he considered those fields to be within the realm of the natural world. Another analogous example that comes to mind is Linus Pauling's advocacy of extreme doses of Vitamin C. In all these cases what most scientifically minded people would consider the irrational side of their work doesn't really discredit their overall legacy, just serves as a reminder of their fallibility.


message 12: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Black | 39 comments Dan wrote: Yeah, I wish he had gone into that Priestley's fascination with Revelations a bit more. As with so..."

I've read some cases where the science and spirituality meshed well, often with one driving the other. Examples: William Harvey had stated that the circulatory system became clear to him when he started looking for design, and Kepler, who based many of his theories on how he thought god would design things.

Then there's countless other examples of religious beliefs clouding scientific thinking. The book never really touched on which of these categories Preistly fell into. Or maybe he never had the lab coat and the clerics collar on at the same time. I find that unlikely though.

This book could have used another hundred pages.




message 13: by William (new)

William (acknud) Not what I expected. I was dissapointed that this work turned into more of a political/theological discorse rather than a summation of his scientific work.


message 14: by Dan (new)

Dan (djunger) | 25 comments William wrote: Not what I expected....

My guess is that Johnson thought that other books (on which he relies a good deal) had covered the details of the scientific history thoroughly and that his contribution therefore would be to place Priestley into the larger cultural context of his time, as well as to make some deeper, Kuhn-ian points.

As to whether he succeeds in this project, well ... ultimately not in this book as written. It's just too short and attenuated to really support its more profound claims. I did enjoy reading it a lot and would hope that Johnson would eventually revisit the topic and produce a meatier second edition. Though given his rate of output of new books, I doubt that will occur.




message 15: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Ivy (carolynivystein) William wrote: "Not what I expected. I was dissapointed that this work turned into more of a political/theological discorse rather than a summation of his scientific work."

I felt much the same. I stopped reading it about two-thirds in, realizing that when I tell myself that I like history of science what I really mean is that I like the history to place the scientific thought in a context for me. However, I still prefer to have the science front and center.




message 16: by JuliAnna (new)

JuliAnna | 37 comments I like intellectual history a great deal, but I still struggled with the Invention of Air. I felt like Johnson was all over the place, and while he made some interesting connections, they were never adequately developed or explored. My view is pretty close to Dan's. Looking at the intersection of politics, science and religion at that time could make for a fascinating book. Unfortunately, I don't think political theory or theology fared any better than science. I definitely did, however, pick up a few interesting tidbits.


message 17: by Carolyn (last edited Mar 03, 2009 06:49AM) (new)

Carolyn Ivy (carolynivystein) You may be right, Juliana. I usually do like intellectual history and science history, but I didn't like this book. Perhaps it was that he tried to do too much and left too much hanging. Or perhaps I wasn't in the mood for it. Or perhaps something else. In the past I've tried to read about the 18th century (which by all rights should be a fascinating period since it effervesces with revolutions in thought, politics, science, and business) but have found myself more irritated with the books than enlightened, so I may just have a problem with that century (or with the writers attracted to it). I find it frustrating to dislike a book and not be able to speak to why I don't like it. Since I am thoroughly enjoying The HIstory of Everything (which is chock full of history) I don't know what my problem is with The Invention of Air.


message 18: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Black | 39 comments I would say over all, I still enjoyed the book. Well the first third of it anyway. He did leave many of his ideas half-baked. Also, he did such a nice job showing Priestley's religious, political, and scientific sides, but he never tied them together. This could have been three separate books the way it was written.

I did like his idea about the role of coffee and coffee shops in stimulating the intellectual community. If he's right, just think what Red Bull and the internet are going to do.


message 19: by JuliAnna (new)

JuliAnna | 37 comments Carolyn, I've never been a fan of the 18th Century, either. It doesn't seem to matter whether it is literature (except Blake), politics or science. I do a little better with the philosophers (e.g., Kant & Hume). I agree, with all those revolutions, it should be a lot more interesting!




message 20: by Bel (new)

Bel (bel_book_candle) | 3 comments While it didn't quite live up to everything promised, I rather enjoyed this book. It was well written and told me plenty I didn't know, as well as touching on some interesting themes. It's a shame it didn't have more science in, but then with my Chemistry background the science was all I knew about Priestley, so it was good to find out more about his political and religious views. I agree with those above though: it needed to be longer and meatier to properly achieve its goals.


message 21: by Jenny (new)

Jenny (jennyil) | 19 comments I don't think that Priestley's fascination with revelations was that out of place with the times. Unitarian's were deinfed as liberal protestants because they were anti-trinitarians in addition to being disenchanted with a lot of the high church ritual of the Anglican church. Believing in the Unity of God rather than in the trinity was pretty radical for that time. In Priestley's time, they would still have been pretty fundamentalist by our current standards and very Christian.


message 22: by Jenny (new)

Jenny (jennyil) | 19 comments I am finally reading this book. I think it is interesting, but then I am both a chemical engineer and a unitarian universalist so the science and religious discussions both appeal to me.

It has the same flaws as Steven Johnson's book The Ghost Map in that it covers a lot of ideas but does not cover them in enough depth and it tries to cover a lot of ground and might be better as more than one book.

Tracy wrote: "I would say over all, I still enjoyed the book. Well the first third of it anyway. He did leave many of his ideas half-baked. Also, he did such a nice job showing Priestley's religious, political, ..."




message 23: by JuliAnna (new)

JuliAnna | 37 comments Jenny, I definitely like the fact that Johnson brings in a number of different elements including religion, and I agree with you about the lack of depth. I think I will keep reading Johnson's historical books, regardless of their (significant) limitations, since they are still generally both interesting and entertaining.



message 24: by Jenny (last edited Mar 21, 2009 05:41PM) (new)

Jenny (jennyil) | 19 comments JuliAnna --

The Invention of Air sticks to a single narrative theme better than The Ghost Map which covers a cholera plague in London, the history of The Ghost Map itself, and the risks and benefits of consolidating the world's population in cities. I think that it is easier to read Steven Johnson than to listen to him -- I listened to The Ghost Map on CD and had a hard time adjusting to his jumps from one narrative to another.

JuliAnna wrote: "Jenny, I definitely like the fact that Johnson brings in a number of different elements including religion, and I agree with you about the lack of depth. I think I will keep reading Johnson's histo..."

The Invention of AirThe Ghost Map The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World


message 25: by JuliAnna (last edited Mar 21, 2009 09:57AM) (new)

JuliAnna | 37 comments For some reason, The Ghost Map felt less disjointed to me. But, I read it a while ago, so it may just be that I enjoyed the subject so much that I didn't notice. In The Invention of Air, I was less interested in both the subjects of Priestley's research (as presented) and his methods and more interested in the social historical context in which that research was pursued.


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