When the eminent chemist, political radical, and theological dissident Joseph Priestley arrived in New York in 1794 -- hounded from his native England by conservatives -- America's founders tussled over where he should settle. Vice President John Adams put in a plug for Boston, while New York and Philadelphia trotted out their scientific luminaries to impress the great man. Priestley finally settled on Northumberland, Pennsylvania, roughly as great an intellectual capital then as now. There he made just one of the many discoveries that marked his career: the idea of American rural isolation can more enjoyable than the experience of it.
Priestley serves as the center of Steven Johnson's new book "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America," and he lives up to Johnson's description of him as a Zelig of the revolutionary period. Priestley helped to identify the existence of oxygen, and proved that plants replenish it -- and he counted Ben Franklin among his scientific soul mates. (It was he, not Franklin, who wrote the account of Franklin's experiments with kites and electricity that made those experiments famous.) In religion, Priestley's book "The Corruptions of Christianity" persuaded Thomas Jefferson to literally cut the miracles out of his personal Bible while retaining his belief in God. (Priestley, too, remained a believer, though his book scandalized most English clerics.) After his forced emigration to the United States, he found himself at the wrong end of the Alien and Sedition Acts (though then-President John Adams chose finally not to arrest him), placing him at the center of a battle for the soul of the new nation.
Johnson, whose previous books include "Emergence" and "Everything Bad is Good for You," has a penchant for Internet-era bigthink and its attendant jargon, which can grate at times. (His repeated use of the phrase "long zoom" -- which has to do with contemplating various time scales, from the short-term to the longue durée -- does little to clarify Priestley's contribution to the world of ideas, for example.) But that weakness aside (and, to be sure, it's not a weakness when it comes to landing speaking gigs), he is a fine storyteller with a superb subject, one that allows him to toggle fascinatingly between the scientific and the political. Johnson argues persuasively that these arenas ought to be far less isolated from one another than they are today.
Johnson will be discussing "The Invention of Air" at the Harvard Book Store Thursday, January 8, at 7 p.m.
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