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The Invention of Air Hardcover – Bargain Price, December 26, 2008

4.2 out of 5 stars 112 customer reviews

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Hardcover, Bargain Price, December 26, 2008
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

SignatureReviewed by Simon Winchester This is an intelligent retelling of a rather well-known story, that of Joseph Priestley, the Yorkshire dissenting theologian and chemist, and then went on to emigrate to America and advised the creators of the new republic—Thomas Jefferson, most notably—on how best to run their country. Steven Johnson, who has a fine reputation for discerning trends and for his iconoclastic appreciation of popular culture, chooses his topics well. His most recent book, The Ghost Map, looked at the story—also very familiar—of the London cholera epidemic of 1854, and of the heroic epidemiologist, John Snow, who discovered the ailment's origins and path of transmission. It was a good story, but essentially a simple one. With Priestley, Johnson has now taken on a subject that is every bit as complex and multifaceted as any of the Quentin Tarantino films he so admires. Priestley was a scientist, true, and his meditations on the exhalations of gases from mint leaves and the curiosities of phlogiston and fixed air, his discoveries of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, ammonia gas—and oxygen, most importantly—and his relationship with his French rival Lavoisier have been the stuff of schoolroom chemistry lessons for more than two centuries. But it is his politically liberal and spiritually dissenting views that underpin the story that Johnson chooses to tell—views that led in 1794 to Priestley, whose house in Birmingham had been sacked by rioters, emigrating to America, thereby becoming the first great scientist-exile, seeking safe harbour in America after being persecuted for his religious and political beliefs at home. Albert Einstein, Otto Frisch, Edward Teller, Xiao Qiang—they would all follow in Priestley's footsteps. Johnson unearths an interesting and illuminating statistic: in the 165 letters that passed between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the name Benjamin Franklin is mentioned five times, George Washington three times, Alexander Hamilton twice—and Joseph Priestley, a foreign immigrant, is cited no fewer than 52 times. The influence of the man—he was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, a tolerant stoic and a rationalist utterly opposed to religious fundamentalism—was quite astonishing, and Steven Johnson makes a brave and generally successful attempt to summarize and parse the degree to which this influence infected the founding principles of the American nation. As a reminder of the underlying sanity and common sense of this country—a reminder perhaps much needed after the excesses of a displeasing presidential election campaign—The Invention of Air succeeds like a shot of the purest oxygen. Illus. (Jan. 2)Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman, is working on a biography of the Atlantic Ocean.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

The author of Everything Bad Is Good for You provides an entertaining account of the eighteenth-century scientist and radical Joseph Priestley's monumental discovery that plants restore "something fundamental"—what we now know as oxygen—to the air. Johnson also offers a clear-sighted and intelligent exploration of the conditions that are propitious to scientific innovation, such as the availability of coffee and the unfettered circulation of information through social networks. The members of the networks that Priestley belonged to, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, provide Johnson with some of his strongest material. But he sometimes overstates the relationship between politics and science, particularly when he strains to make the case that Priestley, after fleeing England in 1794, became a pivotal figure in the formation of the American republic.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; 1 edition (December 26, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594488525
  • ASIN: B0045EPCPA
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (112 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,171,869 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Steven Johnson has written an engaging book about Joseph Priestley, a true Renaissance Man who contributed mightily to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th Century. Priestley was a remarkable individual who distinguished himself in several different fields: theology, chemistry, science, politics, philosophy, history and technology. He was also a prolific writer who had the good fortune of hobnobbing with the best and the brightest of his day: Franklin, Lavoisier, Jefferson, Canton and Adams, to name just a few.

Johnson does an exceptional job of telling Priestley's story, explaining his scientific discoveries, political philosophies, and theological insights, and putting them all in their proper context. But he goes one step further: he endeavors to explain why Priestley accomplished what he did. He doesn't just focus on Priestley's character traits and native intelligence (both of which were extraordinary); rather, he attributes much of the man's success to his environment, to his friends, to the evolution of technology, and, quite simply, to good fortune. At a time when we are inundated with trendy books that pander to the public's appetite for facile explanations of complex processes (e.g., "Blink," "Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious," etc.), it is refreshing to see someone acknowledge that scientific discoveries, sociological insights and great ideas more often than not take years to evolve and are the product of numerous variables, many of which remain a mystery.

Priestley's enthusiasm, openness and child-like fascination with the world around him are infectious.
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Format: Hardcover Vine 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.
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I plowed through this light quasi-biography and couldn't understand why Johnson's effort never truly resonated until the very end. He makes some compelling connections across time and discipline but I found myself consistently wanting more: more detail, more evidence, more synthesis. I kept chalking my disappointments up to the notion that Johnson was purposely dumbing down the read to give it a broader audience - a mechanism employed at great peril but not without its merits. But I couldn't escape the sense that Johnson himself isn't quite sharp enough. He has big ideas, makes some fine observations, utilizes incisive methods (zooming out), and promotes the benefits of a broader, more integrated, less specialized approach to science but there is simply not enough substance to go around. Indeed, his writing is marginal and loaded with redundancies but the occasional historical tidbit (the Birmingham mob scene), and cross-disciplinary connection (revolution and the gulf stream) are sufficiently strong to keep one moving on through the book looking for more. Despite my misgivings, I really wanted to like this book but I found the tipping point on page 205. Johnson reveals he is not up to the task when he lumps intelligent design in with, "...so many of today's discoveries..." including stem cell research, neuroscience and the genomic revolution. It explains his unnecessary labeling of Jefferson as a Christian and exposing a religious bias at odds with his subject revealing an explanation for his inability to commit to it. Read it for what its worth not more.
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