6 August 2018

The Invention of Air, by Steven Johnson

Posted by Callan Bentley

This is an interesting book – simultaneously about Enlightenment science, energy flows driving human history, and the boundary-less conception of politics, religion, and science that was embraced by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the book’s principal protagonist, Joseph Priestley (and to a lesser, or at least less-well-documented, degree by John Adams).  The discussion begins in the coffeehouses of 1760’s London, where conversation roamed freely and exuberantly  between intellectuals and amateur “natural philosophers.” Benjamin Franklin was very happy in this scene, among fellow fanciers of electricity (called “electricians”) and he soon formed a fast friendship with Priestley. Priestley documented the experiments and insights of the electricians through time and wrote a book about them, doing his own experiments along the way. He then transferred the key idea of flow (as in electrons) to studies of air, deducing the presence of free oxygen (O2) in a series of simple experiments with huge implications: That plants didn’t die in air in which a candle had sputtered out, and indeed would replenish the mysterious quality/substance that allowed candles to burn (and mice to avoid suffocation) in an enclosed space, given enough time. There was something happening in these little enclosed systems where plants and animals were trading invisible gaseous components! This insight – the flow of molecules in living organisms, was a foundational insight for so much of how we perceive the modern world: ecology, the carbon cycle, the ability of an organism to influence its surroundings in a way that changes them from what they were before. Priestley’s work was huge in laying the foundations for much of our modern worldview. Priestley’s explanation for the reaction was wrong (he called oxygen “dephlogistonicated air,” and stuck to that flaccid hypothesis until his death), but the fundamental documentation was solid. He was a vocal supporter of the American experiment (of decolonization by Britain), and a free-thinker’s approach to religion, both of which got him into trouble with the British citizenry. This necessitated a quick retreat from his home to America, where he helped Jefferson get to his own idiosyncratic view of religion. A fascinating story which is confidently written by Johnson, who has a very “big picture” view of things. Recommended.