Bookmarks Issue: 

A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America

A-The Invention of AirSteven Johnson writes about science for several publications and is the author of six books. His last title was The Ghost Map ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007), which concerned John Snow’s efforts to find the source of London’s cholera epidemics.

The Topic: One could call The Invention of Air a story of "the life and times" of Joseph Priestley, but it might be more accurate to call it a book that argues they were one and the same. Priestley, an amateur scientist, is best known for his contributions to the discovery of oxygen. But he was also a radical minister and political philosopher who, after he left his native England for America because of his prorevolutionary leanings, befriended the major minds of the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers. Johnson sees Priestley as a central node in the network from which so many 18th-century geniuses emerged, and his book is just as much about that network’s fabric—its coffeehouses, politics, international ties, and scientific societies—as it is about one man.
Riverhead. 254 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594488525

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Although it centers on the life of Joseph Priestley, the 18th century English chemist and clergyman, [The Invention of Air] is far from a conventional biography. It is the story of Priestley’s ideas—who inspired them, whom they influenced and how they came to be. … Like Priestley, Johnson … is a polymath, and it’s often exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought." M. G. Lord

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Joseph Priestley is one of those impossibly accomplished figures that epitomize the late 18th century: author, physicist, linguist, theologian, chemist, revolutionary and yes, the inventor of soda water. … Like Priestley, Johnson is fascinated by how we create narratives of discovery, pointing out that rather than any one Great Man, progress depends on a layers of related secondary discoveries and fruitful discussions and friendships." Paul Collins

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Author Steven Johnson uses the life of Priestley, a kitchen-sink experimenter, to sketch the connections between science, politics and religion. … Both [The Invention of Air and Ghost Map] are about a moment in science that illuminates how science comes about and what it means for human society." Bruce Ramsey

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]his is not a book about the discovery of oxygen but about the invention of air: how groups of scientists, natural philosophers, religious leaders and politicians served as cultural petri dishes in which ideas were discussed, experimented with, discarded or accepted. … The heart of Johnson’s argument is how ideas flow within an information network, be it the Internet or the salons of 18th-century England." Alexandra Witze

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although occasionally overheated and not always original, his account of a world we have lost is accessible and engaging. … Johnson maintains, passionately and persuasively, that to disconnect the timeless insights of science and faith from the transitory world of politics, to give up the sublime view of progress and to rely on the old institutions without conjuring new ones is to betray the core and connected values that Priestley shared with the American founders." Glenn C. Altschuler

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Johnson, while characterizing Priestley in general terms as a radical and a revolutionary, shows little interest in the particulars and substance of Priestley’s nonscientific ideas. This is unfortunate, given that the questions raised by Priestley’s beliefs bear, at times, quite directly on Johnson’s contention that political figures ought to be open to what he calls ‘the timeless insights of science and faith.’" Troy Jollimore

Critical Summary

Reviewers were, as usual, amazed by Steven Johnson’s ability to recall not only great thinkers and scientific discoveries but also the world of ideas and technologies that sustained them. Many critics cited Priestley’s experiments (such as seeing how long a mouse could live with and without plants in a jar) as fully engrossing. They also appreciated Johnson’s willingness to read lessons for our time from that great conversation over politics, religion, and science that we have come to call the Enlightenment. Not all reviewers were so sure about Johnson’s conclusions—either because they doubted his interpretation or felt that his argumentative reach exceeded his factual grasp. But even skeptics were fascinated by this book’s stories of Priestley and his era.