Fame fades. Two centuries ago, readers in America, Great Britain, and on the European continent knew Joseph Priestley well. Now his name sounds familiar, but many find him hard to place. Was Priestley a scientist, theologian, or political philosopher? Actually, he was all three. He conducted import experiments in electricity and chemistry, wrote extensively on religious topics, and upset many of his fellow Englishmen with his political support of the American and French revolutions. His fleeing England for America in 1791 made him our country's first celebrity scientist-exile, long before Albert Einstein.
Many historians have called Priestly a renaissance man, according to Steven Johnson, author of The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Some, however, claim that Priestley made his greatest discoveries by accident amid many ill-conceived experiments. Johnson defends the scientist's reputation, praising Priestley for his ability to befriend thinkers from many disciplines and facilitating scholarly debates about many import issues. He was a key member of both the Honest Whigs and the Lunar Society (scholarly societies) and was a frequent corespondent with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. That he was later proved wrong on many counts is now thought inconsequential by the author. He was a great and brave man.
The Invention of Air is not a traditional biography, as Johnson's story line sometimes shifts to Priestley's friends or even his rivals, but every story thread eventually links back to Priestley. In the process scientific and philosophical principles are introduced without becoming so technical as to lose lay readers. It serves well as a popular history of the Age of Reason and is a good choice for either a history or science book club. I enjoyed it as an audiobook read by Mark Deakins.
Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Riverhead Books, 2009. 254p. ISBN 9781594488528.
Books on Tape, 2008. 5 compact discs. ISBN 9781415959329.