Steven Johnson – The Invention of Air

Best-selling author Steven Johnson recounts – in dazzling, multidisciplinary fashion – the story of the brilliant man who embodied the relationship between science, religion, and politics for America’s Founding Fathers. The Invention of Air is a title of world-changing ideas wrapped around a compelling narrative, a story of genius and violence and friendship in the midst of sweeping historical change that provokes us to recast our understanding of the Founding Fathers.

It is the story of Joseph Priestley – scientist and theologian, protege of Benjamin Franklin, friend of Thomas Jefferson – an 18th-century radical thinker who played pivotal roles in the invention of ecosystem science, the discovery of oxygen, the founding of the Unitarian Church, and the intellectual development of the United States. And it is a story that only Steven Johnson, acclaimed juggler of disciplines and provocative ideas, can do justice to.

In the 1780s, Priestley had established himself in his native England as a brilliant scientist, a prominent minister, and an outspoken advocate of the American Revolution, who had sustained long correspondences with Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams. Ultimately, his radicalism made his life politically uncomfortable, and he fled to the nascent United States. Here, he was able to build conceptual bridges linking the scientific, political, and religious impulses that governed his life. And through his close relationships with the Founding Fathers – Jefferson credited Priestley as the man who prevented him from abandoning Christianity – he exerted profound if little-known influence on the shape and course of our history.

As in his last best-selling work, The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson here uses a dramatic historical story to explore themes that have long engaged him.

Author: Steven Johnson
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Duration: 6 hours 6 minutes
Released: 9 Jul 2001
Publisher: Penguin Audio
Language: English

User Review:

proficiency far-reaching

There were some nice moments in this book but, ultimately, I think the author reads more into his case studies than is warranted. Johnson asserts that our political leaders often ignore or even denigrate science (certainly true) and, in the process, betray the fundamental, American values of our founding fathers (may be true of Franklin and Jefferson, but I’m not so sure on Washington, Adams, and the rest of the gang). The book is one part biography and one part contemporary political commentary.

There are some very interesting ideas here and some good thinking/research behind them but, in the end, I would have rather heard more about Priestley’s methods and discoveries (many get barely a mention) and less in the way of musings from the author. Priestley’s accomplishments and influence are intriguing and amazing enough without the need to tie them to today’s political discord.

Overall, enjoyable but a bit like a dinner conversation with a person who’s learned a whole lot about a subject and wants to interpret too much through its lens.