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210 of 254 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I enjoyed this book even while I quickly came to distrust it. Although it wasn't one of my areas of specialization, I did some work on the history of science while in grad school and I even had a job transcribing the lectures of a prominent philosopher of the history of science. To supplement this I read a number of key books focusing on the history of the discipline.

The problem I have with this book is that it is misleading. To steal a phrase of Somerset Maugham (writing about himself), Joseph Priestley is a good scientist of the second rank. In virtually every account of the history of science or intellectual history he is regarded as a talented dilettante, a gifted amateur. He certainly played a role in the history of science, performing experiments that more important thinkers were able to utilize to further science, but Priestley himself frequently failed -- and Johnson does hint at this without emphasizing its significance -- to understand the full implications of the results of his experiments. He was extremely weak as a theoretician, which is why he is not accounted among the great scientists.

Why is this misleading? Well, historians of science do not regard Priestley as a key or even especially important figure. At no point does Johnson hint that this is the widespread assessment of Priestley's place. It is a tad misleading to state that his contemporaries had one opinion without proceeding to remark that their successors do not share that opinion. Johnson talks of Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley as the two leading chemists, but it is intensely deceptive to talk as if they were competitors for pride of place. Lavoisier is one of the great geniuses in the history of science. In fact, modern chemistry is usually credited with beginning with him.

Another example. Any credible account of the history of the theory of ecosystems is not going to begin or even include Joseph Priestley, but Johnson implies that the science began with him. This is a preposterous stretch.

In other words, the book is simply not reliable. It doesn't attempt to disclose the general opinion of Priestley's place in history by philosophers and historians of science. By leaving this all unsaid, he implies that Priestley was a much more important than in fact he was.

All of this is a tremendous disservice to Priestley, who while not a genius and not a scientist or thinker of the first rank, was unquestionably an immensely interesting and fascinating figure. The problem with the book is that it wants to go beyond this to portray Priestley as something that he was not. He definitely played a role in the growth of science. But he was not an Antoine Lavoisier.

Still, if one grasps this fundamental weakness in the book, it can be a fun and interesting lead. Much like another Englishman whose interests ran in all imaginable directions, the Rev. George Berkeley (who had a town adjacent to San Francisco named after him), he is an immensely likable individual. One is impressed by his passionate quest for knowledge, his generosity of spirit, his progressive attitudes, and his great goodheartedness. I'm not quite sure why Joseph Priestley as he actually was seemed inadequate to Johnson; I'm not sure why such a fundamentally sympathetic figure needed to be elevated to a pivotal figure in the history of science.

So I'm in a dilemma about this book. It is a fun and interesting read. And it does a good job of explaining why we should care about Joseph Priestley. Yet he outrageously exaggerates his place in thought. I had other problems with the book (some of his metaphors are stretched to the extreme), but this was the major one. It reminds me of various rock historians who try to make us believe that the Doors and Jim Morrison were the equal of the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, whereas in fact they didn't even come up to the level of the Kinks.

I do completely agree with Johnson about one thing. The incredible narrowness of most supposedly educated people today is appalling. Johnson begins the book by quoting a former undergraduate classmate of mine, Mike Huckabee (who even in the couple of theology classes we had together at Ouachita Baptist University did not especially distinguished himself), who when running for president disdained the knowledge of science (actually, he was trying to avoid stating that he denied the validity of science). Modern science actually began among Christians who believed that the universe, as the creation of a rational God, had a logical, rational structure that his creatures, created in his image, could understand. Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes, for instance, were deeply religious and practicing Christians (Newton wrote far more on Christian prophecy, for instance, than he did on physics, while Descartes' entire project was to create a view of the world compatible with the Christian Platonism of Augustine rather than the Aristotelianism of Thomas) Aquinas. Both would have found Huckabee's irrationalism un-Christian. No doubt one of Huckabee's motives was to avoid alienating minimally educated individuals who would have found his no-nothingism grounds for disqualification in a presidential candidate. But it is also quite true that far too many people today do not strive to comprehend the world around them. I find Joseph Priestley's passion for knowledge to be both admirable and inspirational. But it doesn't elevate him to the level of the top rungs of science. He was not a Lavoisier. He was several rungs below a James Clerk Maxwell. And frankly I believe one of the disservices of the book was to make Priestley take on a role that does not befit him. As I said earlier, he was a good scientist of the second rank. He was, however, an absolutely outstanding human being.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As an old chemist, I was well aware of Joseph Priestly's role in the discovery of oxygen. In spite of this, I was basically clueless about Priestly's theological and political activities, and I found Johnson's accounts of these activities very enlightening and entertaining. To this extent, this book earns my praise.

On the other hand, if, as implied by the title, this book is supposed to report on the "invention of air" or the discovery of oxygen, then there are some problems. Although Priestly made significant contributions to this accomplishment, these contributions must be considered alongside those of Scheele and Lavoisier. So what if Scheele's findings were not formally published until 1777. Word gets around. Priestly himself often reported his progress to others before he published his observations. Priestly, Scheele, and Lavoisier apparently knew about each other and influenced each other.

The discovery of oxygen is considered to be such an important accomplishment that it becomes a matter of national pride. Instead of trying to apportion this accomplishment in some questionable manner, the peaceful international solution has been to give all three scientists equal credit. For an Anglo-American like Johnson to suggest that the Englishman deserves the bulk of the credit risks offending the countrymen of the others.

If the book is intended to recount the political turmoil associated with the American Revolution and the French Revolution, then even an old chemist must ask why Thomas Paine is never mentioned. His work, the Rights of Men, a leading factor driving the mob that burned Priestly's home, is mentioned in passing, but the author of this work is never acknowledged. Nor does Johnson acknowledge the role of Mary Wollstonecraft. In fact Johnson never acknowledges any women at all. The only women identified in the index are Priestly's wife and daughter, and they had very passive roles.

If the book intends to report on the connections between science and politics in the 18th century, then why does it have nothing to say about Benjamin Thompson, a.k.a. Count Rumford? Thompson was an American Loyalist who was born in Massachusetts and lived for a while in New Hampshire. Like Priestly, Thompson was compelled to move across the Atlantic after his home was attacked by a mob.

Thompson's scientific accomplishments exceed those of Franklin and Priestly put together by a wide margin. If Johnson wants to speculate about the movement of energy, then Thompson, one of the founders of the science of thermodynamics is the man to make the points. On top of that, Thompson married Lavoisier's widow. On top of that, he endowed a chair at Harvard, an institution in the land from which he was compelled to flee. On top of that, the list goes on. It looks like Loyalists get short shrift here, along with women and Europeans not from the United Kingdom.

Some further minor nitpicking:

Johnson briefly mentions Benjamin Franklin's son in the context of the kite experiment, but does not disclose how Benjamin's relationship with his son was an epic disaster, nor how their last meeting in 1785 ended a futile attempt at reconciliation.

Johnson tried to make some sort of point out of a shift from pubs to coffeehouses, but fails to reflect on how coffee made it to England, from Vienna, which got it from the Ottoman Turks, who got it from the Arabs. Imagine Turks and Arabs improving the intellectual capacity of English scientists. Not in this book.

Finally, there is the matter of the biological factors that have produced the current terrestrial atmosphere, including the abundance of oxygen and the near absence of carbon dioxide. The oddly digressive chapter on the Carboniferous Era was fascinating, but weak. Most of the carbon dioxide in the earth's early atmosphere was not converted into oxygen by plants, but was sequestered in carbonate rocks such as limestone by animals.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I will be brief in my review on this book as many of the others who have reviewed it have shared my thoughts as well. I agree with Johnson that Priestley certain deserves attention as a basement scientist who helped uncover truths about ecology and chemistry. Further, I can appreciate the role played in the founding of the United States, especially concerning the recorded writings of Jefferson and Adams. Had Johnson stayed on the history, the known portions of his life and work, I would have rated this book higher.

However, this is not what occurred. It appeared and/or felt that Johnson was trying to push an agenda with this book. Indeed, he does open with a tidbit about a recent presidential candidate panning a question about evolution. To be frankly honest, can anyone say "yes" to this question without a much more detailed answer? The fact is, evolution is not something that can be easily debated unless you have studied the multiple theories that exist currently in the world - Darwinism, Punctuated Equilibrium, Intelligent Design, Panspermia, etc etc. While I would certainly appreciate a discussion on this topic in an OPEN and JUDGMENT FREE environment, that was NOT the purpose of that question when it was asked to Huckabee. It was a gotcha question, aimed at making someone look stupid. There was no air of freedom or academic discourse to it. So to start your book with a situation that was dishonest from the moment the question was asked casts a revealing light on Johnson. And indeed, he did not let me down. It was easy to see what his thoughts were politically, scientifically and religiously. Unfortunately, this ideological taint plagued what would have been an otherwise great read.

Definitely read the book, but make sure you do not let your mind be decided on topics that Johnson is clearly advocating for without first learning all sides. You must be willing to educate yourself on the issues and then decide what Johnson is saying as helpful insight or hurtful propaganda.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The topic is fascinating. The time in history is interesting. Joseph Priestley is remarkable. This book, unfortunately, is none of these. Well, to be fair, it was "interesting" enough to teach me about Priestley and the unique roles he played in the scientific experimentation of his time. But I felt like the story, facts and added information were all over the place. There were plenty of interesting tid-bits to be told, but they were wrapped up in dry lead-ins and swirled around with boring stories of how they interlaced with other prominent men of the time. The result? A overall final feeling that this book was too much work with very little payoff.
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on April 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is the biography of the scientist Joseph Priestly and the events that happened around him. I found the story to be an interesting mix of science and history, as well as biography. Priestly had an imaginative mind and was always thinking outside of the box. He lived in an equally imaginative time with many changes in both science and politics. The mix of old and new ideas battle throughout this tale and affect its outcome, an outcome that follows through to this day.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2009
Format: Paperback
For me, reading history is most pleasurable when I can pause and think and imagine. Likewise, an author's voice is most enjoyable to hear when it exists in dialogue with the attentive reader's intelligence, when information is given with an awareness that you are an equal in intelligence if not expertise.

By contrast, I am finding this book rather tiresome. The acclaimed author feels the need to draw your attention to every connection or observation he has made, rather than allowing us, dear readers, to make them ourselves. The result is somewhat like being stuck at a dinner party next to the guest who won't stop talking. I had hoped to spend some time with Priestley and his contemporaries, but the only person I can hear is the author.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
I didn't know much about the life of Joseph Priestley prior to reading Steven Johnsons's new book, The Invention of Air. Science, religion and politics combine and clash in the 18th century, and Priestley is both instigator and victim of much conflict. Priestley's scientific experiments led him to understand that plants produce gases and helped frame a better understanding of chemistry. Johnson does a great job in presenting Priestley as a radical, and places his science and theology in the context of that era. After his house in England is burned by rioters who disagree with Priestley's views, he leaves for America with his family, and becomes a close advisor to Thomas Jefferson. The sharing of information among practitioners of science receives a lot of attention in The Invention of Air, and increases a reader's understanding of the collaboration and sharing of ideas that was prevalent, especially in the many coffee houses and scientific organizations.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I am a history teacher and thought this book might be an interesting new perspective on the Enlightenment and the American Revolution from the perspective of English theologian, philosopher and scientist Joseph Priestley.

We get a hefty dose of scientific history which is appropriate but not my area of interest. We don't get a lot of detail on his theological writings that caused him to flee England for America and later made him unpopular with some politicians in America as well.

We also get a lot of off-topic meanderings such as his pages full of information on the Carboniferous era (milions of year ago) that form a rhetorical touchstone for the rest of the book but mostly seemed to fill the book with extra pages.

In fact, the large-type print, off-topic musings and small number of pages (204 in the uncorrected manuscript I read) left me more informed than I already was on Priestley but also feeling more like I'd been on a general tour of late 18th century Enlightenment science rather than having read a biography.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This book was not bad, but not up to par with Johnson's two best books -- The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad is Good for You. The narrative is not as taut as with the other two as Johnson tries to tackle two major issues with the book; the science of air and then socio-political issues. It's tough for me to rate this low, but his other two books are so spectacular, that I guess I had higher expectations for this one. Still a decent book and I'd recommend for Steven Johnson fans, but if you're new to his work, try the other two first.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2009
Format: Paperback
This is such a rich topic, historically, philosophically and scientifically that the superficial treatment by Steven Johnson was blaringly incomplete and uneven.

It was a surprise to find out the important roles Priestly managed to play in the spheres of sicence, theology and politics simultanously. His friendship and influence on the founding fathers of USA would be a surprise to many Americans I am sure, as it was to me.

What an intellectual adventure it was for Priestly to count Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Watt, Darwin Sr., Geroge Washington, and Lavosier among his friends and acquaintences.

While the book does a good job in this regard, and one wonders why this topic and Priestly's life was not subject to many more scholarly works, author leaves a lot of the rich historical and technical context out. There was maybe too much reliance on published letters and direct accounts and way too many quotes and way too much use of "Carboniferous"!
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