The Enlightenment-era Renaissance man Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) has been overshadowed by his American friends Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But in his new book, The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson sets out to give this minister, historian, and scientist the credit he deserves.
Johnson — who is also the author of The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — subscribes to the long-zoom view of history: He doesn’t merely gloss Priestley’s biography and achievements; he situates them in the coffee-and-cigarette world of London café society. Priestley fled England, arriving in the New World in 1794 (angered by his progressive politics, a mob had burned down his house); by then, he’d discovered oxygen (and the fact that plants produce it), written the first pop-science book (on electricity), founded the Unitarian Church, and invented soda water. So, aside from the questions that Johnson’s book raises about science, intellectual history, and the nature of genius, the main one is this: What have you done with your life?
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