“The Invention of Air” by Steven Johnson

InventionOfAirWikipedia tells us that the author has written a number of books “on the intersection of science, technology and personal experience,” including the best-seller, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, which argues that popular culture such as television dramas and video games have become increasingly complex and have helped to foster higher-order thinking skills.

Amazon summarises The Invention of Air as being “a book of world-changing ideas wrapped around a compelling narrative, a story of genius and violence and friendship in the midst of sweeping historical change… It is the story of Joseph Priestley—scientist and theologian, protégé of Benjamin Franklin, friend of Thomas Jefferson—an eighteenth-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.”

We read the book in October 2013, when eight people attended the meeting.

On the whole the book was not much enjoyed. Most people felt it to be too ‘sciency’, with several readers not finishing the book. The one person who had enjoyed the science was completely put off the book by the author’s mention of Intelligent Design in a list of modern scientific discoveries.

Votes ranged from 2 to 7 with an average of 4.5.

John also gave a short presentation on Dr Thomas Beddoes – a contemporary of Joseph Priestley and a supporter of advanced ideas in medicine.

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2 Comments

  1. malcolmbbc

     /  November 2, 2013

    From Hilary:

    I would only give this book 4 out of 10 – I would have preferred more about Priestley (I suppose a proper biography) rather than Steven Johnson’s speculations. All that stuff about the long lens looking back over ideas in history and paradigm shifts would be good pub talk maybe but not good reading – it sounds as if he has based the book on lots of lectures and discussions as much as ‘research’. Too much based on America – he obviously visited the UK for some of his research but I agree there was too much US politics for me. I will be very interested to hear what John thinks of it – assuming you have read it John – because of all the Lunar Society references. Not sure what audience was intended really – at times it was too specialised in science for me but at other times I found it was rather dumbed-down – perhaps he was just showing off – some really annoying bits (such as mentioning that Google didn’t exist in the 19th Century, – and the word ‘Unbeknownst’ on page 211 at the top….)

    But on the positive side it has reinforced in my mind that I must read Jenny Uglow’s book about the Lunar men, as I am interested in their impact in this country. (Was Priestley a contender for the title of a man who hated Britain before any Milibands were around?).

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  2. malcolmbbc

     /  November 2, 2013

    I quite enjoyed this, though I was less taken by the latter sections dealing with the time after Priestley moved to the US and discussion focused more on the political rather than the scientific. I was much more interested in the “home made” science and the author’s thoughts about the importance of networking and free sharing of ideas for Priestley’s way of working, also his speculations about how Priestley’s background and location would have helped him to investigate in the way that he did. Likewise, it was interesting to read about the discredited theory of phlogiston and to think a bit more about the air that we all take for granted!

    I don’t generally choose to read non fiction – I think that when it comes down to it, I’m more gripped by a story. So I can’t really mark this in comparison against most of the other books that we’ve read. However, for what it is,ie, a piece of non fiction about someone that I’d never heard of, I’d give it a 7.

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