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“[Johnson is] an infectiously exciting writer [and] The Invention of Air is delightful to read. But it aims high. It isn't a work of conventional history or biography, though it contains snippets of both, but more like a case study in the history of ideas that hints at a grander analytical theory. Johnson is a wide-ranging enthusiast with a catholic appetite for intriguing facts and a Marxian appetite for searching for structures that underlie social phenomena.”

“Like Priestley, Johnson—who wrote the bestselling Everything Bad Is Good For You—is a polymath, and … [it’s] exhilarating to follow his unpredictable trains of thought. To explain why some ideas upend the world, he draws upon many disciplines: chemistry, social history, geography, even ecosystem science.”
Los Angeles Times

“Steven Johnson’s mind works in wondrous ways and readers have been the beneficiaries of his eclectic interests. Johnson’s new book, The Invention of Air, marks a return to cultural history …His free-ranging mind and irreverent wit entertain and prompt thought.”
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Steven Johnson argues that [this] key player has been all but forgotten … An expat, a champion of reason, an original progressive—Priestley’s ideals were central to the American experiment. He rarely gets the credit, but he was arguably the United States’ original advocate for hope and change.”

“This is not a book about the discovery of oxygen but about the invention of air: how groups of scientists, natural philosophers, religious leaders and politicians served as cultural petri dishes in which ideas were discussed, experimented with, discarded or accepted …[Johnson] gives long-overdue time and space to some of the more controversial aspects of [Priestley’s] work …Priestley may not have gotten full credit for his work on oxygen, but this new book gives plenty to the life of the man himself.”
Dallas Morning News

“Steven Johnson's latest book, The Invention of Air, is a wide-ranging, learned, engrossing biography of the polymath pioneering scientist, Joseph Priestley … Johnson uses the life of Priestley to illuminate a theory of history that holds that great people are neither an inevitable product of their times, nor luminous, supernatural geniuses -- rather, they are the product of an ecosystem of influences, technologies, climate, and energy (literally -- the story of stored energy in coal, saltpetre, and plant-bound carbon are vital to the story). He pulls this off deftly, with a series of insightful, beautifully realized anaecdotes from the life of Priestley and his contemporaries -- his allies and his many enemies -- that make the idea of history being shaped by webs and networks seem absolutely true.”
— Boingboing

“[Johnson] refracts just about every beam of Enlightenment thought through the prism of Priestley.”
Seattle Weekly

“We rarely hear of [Joseph Priestley] today, but it wasn't always thus: the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams includes 52 mentions of Priestley, versus just three of George Washington. With The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson brilliantly explains why … For all of Priestley’s many achievements, laid out so delightfully in Johnson’s account, it’s his work with plants and the oxygen cycle that rightfully gained him immortality … Engrossing.”

“In The Invention of Air Steven Johnson gives a biography not just of a man, but a time in which the spigot of ideas was gradually being cranked wide open. It's a fun (and quite short) read for anyone interested in the intersection of science, politics, and religion. It's also an interesting look at how societies react -- for good and ill -- to periods of rapid change.”
—Daily Kos

“A breath of fresh air … Johnson paints Priestley not as a man of the past but precisely the sort of figure the world needs more than ever: A searcher who shared his discoveries openly and willingly, crossed disciplinary boundaries with impunity and insight, who conceived of the world as a large laboratory … We live in troubling times, filled with signs of a great economic apocalypse, politicized science on topics from birth control to climate change and religious zealots who kill innocents rather than live peacefully with them. This is exactly the moment to learn from Priestley, who survived riots, threats of prosecution and other hardships and yet never doubted that ‘the world was headed naturally toward and increase in liberty and understanding.’”
New York Post

“Intelligent … Steven Johnson, who has a fine reputation for discerning trends and for his iconoclastic appreciation of popular culture, chooses his topics well. 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.”
Publishers Weekly (Signature Review)

“Arresting account of the career of Joseph Priestley … Johnson employs his customary digressiveness to great effect … Another rich, readable examination of the intersections where culture and science meet from a scrupulous historian who never offers easy answer to troubling, perhaps intractable questions.”

“Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was a veritable Renaissance man, whose interests and skills ranged from science to religion to politics. Science writer Johnson (The Ghost Map) weaves together all of these themes and how they played out in his life, in early America, and among the Founding Fathers. He tells the story [of Priestley] in a reader-friendly manner that also encourages readers to think about how these themes apply in today’s world.”
Library Journal

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Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

Steven Johnson is the author of the national bestsellers Everything Bad Is Good for You and Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, as well as Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate.

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An Erudite Assessment of the Life, Times and Ideas of One Man 26. Dezember 2008
Von Eric F. Facer - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
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. Though he was not without shortcomings and, on occasion, got things completely wrong, Priestley was an intellectual giant upon whose shoulders many great scientists, philosophers and discoverers will continue to stand well into the 21st Century. And Mr. Johnson has rendered a valuable service by re-telling Mr. Priestley's story from a fresh and enlightening perspective. Highly recommended.
209 von 252 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
Interesting but should only be used with caution 8. Januar 2009
Von Robert Moore - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Vine Kundenrezension eines kostenfreien Produkts ( Was ist das? )
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.

Another example. Any credible account of the history of the theory of ecosystems is not going to begin or even include Joseph Priestley, but Johnson implies that the science began with him. This is a preposterous stretch.

In other words, the book is simply not reliable. It doesn't attempt to disclose the general opinion of Priestley's place in history by philosophers and historians of science. By leaving this all unsaid, he implies that Priestley was a much more important than in fact he was.

All of this is a tremendous disservice to Priestley, who while not a genius and not a scientist or thinker of the first rank, was unquestionably an immensely interesting and fascinating figure. The problem with the book is that it wants to go beyond this to portray Priestley as something that he was not. He definitely played a role in the growth of science. But he was not an Antoine Lavoisier.

Still, if one grasps this fundamental weakness in the book, it can be a fun and interesting lead. Much like another Englishman whose interests ran in all imaginable directions, the Rev. George Berkeley (who had a town adjacent to San Francisco named after him), he is an immensely likable individual. One is impressed by his passionate quest for knowledge, his generosity of spirit, his progressive attitudes, and his great goodheartedness. I'm not quite sure why Joseph Priestley as he actually was seemed inadequate to Johnson; I'm not sure why such a fundamentally sympathetic figure needed to be elevated to a pivotal figure in the history of science.

So I'm in a dilemma about this book. It is a fun and interesting read. And it does a good job of explaining why we should care about Joseph Priestley. Yet he outrageously exaggerates his place in thought. I had other problems with the book (some of his metaphors are stretched to the extreme), but this was the major one. It reminds me of various rock historians who try to make us believe that the Doors and Jim Morrison were the equal of the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, whereas in fact they didn't even come up to the level of the Kinks.

I do completely agree with Johnson about one thing. The incredible narrowness of most supposedly educated people today is appalling. Johnson begins the book by quoting a former undergraduate classmate of mine, Mike Huckabee (who even in the couple of theology classes we had together at Ouachita Baptist University did not especially distinguished himself), who when running for president disdained the knowledge of science (actually, he was trying to avoid stating that he denied the validity of science). Modern science actually began among Christians who believed that the universe, as the creation of a rational God, had a logical, rational structure that his creatures, created in his image, could understand. Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes, for instance, were deeply religious and practicing Christians (Newton wrote far more on Christian prophecy, for instance, than he did on physics, while Descartes' entire project was to create a view of the world compatible with the Christian Platonism of Augustine rather than the Aristotelianism of Thomas) Aquinas. Both would have found Huckabee's irrationalism un-Christian. No doubt one of Huckabee's motives was to avoid alienating minimally educated individuals who would have found his no-nothingism grounds for disqualification in a presidential candidate. But it is also quite true that far too many people today do not strive to comprehend the world around them. I find Joseph Priestley's passion for knowledge to be both admirable and inspirational. But it doesn't elevate him to the level of the top rungs of science. He was not a Lavoisier. He was several rungs below a James Clerk Maxwell. And frankly I believe one of the disservices of the book was to make Priestley take on a role that does not befit him. As I said earlier, he was a good scientist of the second rank. He was, however, an absolutely outstanding human being.
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Great Promise, A Flimsy Presentation and a Fatal Flaw 21. März 2009
Von B. E. Mann - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Verifizierter Kauf
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, " 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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Interesting and Inspirational (but not for everyone) 11. Januar 2009
Von Biz Book Reader - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air" is a brief but sprawling assemblage of anecdotes, observations and extrapolations - a diverse and jumbled layering of various interrelated ideas that will undoubtedly entertain and encourage more diverse thinkers but might disappoint those looking simply for a "good read."

Johnson really seems to have at least four different tasks at hand with this work: articulating his Theory of History (which often takes center stage and stalls the particular history recounted here), celebrating more open and interdisciplinary approaches to building knowledge (implicit throughout), calling for greater respect and awareness of scientific methods and issues among our elected officials (a bit of a bracketing device for the book) - and telling the story of Joseph Priestley referenced by the book's title. It's an ambitious, worthwhile and thought-provoking undertaking (and one that serves as a good companion to Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers"), but ultimately I think the various objectives are not well-served by the meandering approach; Johnson jumps in and out of Priestley's story so frequently that it fails to flow and inevitably leads to key elements being relayed more than once in order to restore some momentum to the narrative.

The easy response to that objection is that the book is intended to emulate the dabblings of its protagonist, whose work was both multi-disciplinary and less-than-disciplined; indeed, Johnson more than once favorably mentions Priestley's bias to distribute early observations and half-formed hypotheses in order to get a larger conversation going, and few people would argue with the value of this approach to the many collaborations in which Priestley was engaged - so in that regard, "The Invention of Air" is a valuable contribution that would make Priestley proud. But the reality is that Johnson chose to publish this as a book (and not, for example, as a series of short blog entries, though elements of it have been tried out there), and the time and expense associated with such a medium affords an opportunity for the author - some might say even creates an obligation on behalf of the reader - to take more care in presenting the results of his research.

(A quick note for potential buyers: If you are familiar with Johnson's earlier work, you might consider this volume a small step back from the historical "Ghost Map" toward the half-personal, half-scientific "Mind Wide Open" and "Everything Bad is Good for You." If you are NOT familiar with his work and don't have a specific interest in this period of history, you might fare better starting with one of those and then returning here.)
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"A Comet in the System" - John Adams describing Joseph Priestley. 28. Dezember 2008
Von David McCune - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Vine Kundenrezension eines kostenfreien Produkts ( Was ist das? )
Steven Johnson starts his very readable biography of Joseph Priestley with a brief aside on the 2008 Republican Presidential debate, where a show of hands was requested regarding belief in evolution (the only highlight from my perspective was that Sen. Fred Thompson refused). While this sort of willful anti-intellectualism is dismaying, to me it is of a piece with the faux-intellectualism that characterizes the "settled" science of anthropogenic climate change. In both debates we have a political and a voting class that is at best only partially literate in science. We have ceded the debate to "the guys in the lab coats", as Johnson puts it, and are probably the worse for it.

Priestley, in contrast, made a mark in all three spheres of religion, politics, and of course science. Johnson's description of Priestley's meteoric rise in "natural philosophy", as science was then termed, is fascinating. The sheer exuberance with which he experimented, tinkered, theorized, and wrote beggars belief. He popularized science, and his "History and Present State of Electricity" was the "A Brief History of Time" of its day. With a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ideas, electricity and air, Priestley deduced the existence of oxygen, created carbonated water, and gained the first insights into the ecosystem that supports plant and animal life on the planet. For these he received the highest science prize of his day, but that was only a part of his accomplishments.

He was perhaps the most prominent dissenter from the Church of England at a time when dissent was considered treason. He looked to the French Revolution as the next inevitable step of ongoing human progress begun in the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. These twin dissents proved too much for his countrymen, and he was forced to relocate from England to Pennsylvania for the final phase of his public life.

In the fledgling United States he was the prototype of the expatriate scientist that has so enriched this country, but he was also more. He critiques of excessive mysticism in Christianity influenced many, most notably Thomas Jefferson, and his rebuttal to the Alien and Sedition Act was considered by many to be a most stirring defense of Republican government. In a fitting coda to is life, even in death his ideas were debated in the letters of Jefferson and Adams.

Johnson account of this remarkable life is informative and entertaining. He does appear to strain at the confines of the traditional biographical narrative arc, with digressions on the many other luminaries whose paths crossed Priestley's. Including Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson broadens the narrative at the expense of exploring Priestly himself more deeply, but I think this does allow a reader to place Priestley's historical contribution in the proper context. Digressions by Johnson on the role a caffeine in the Enlightenment, the correlation between energy stores and ideas, and a discussion of the degree paradigm shifts are the work of "great men" versus historical forces are a mixed bag. Some of this is beyond the scope of such a book and ads some unevenness.

Overall, a worthwhile and enjoyable history of a man who deserves far better than the single entry (Priestley: discoverer of oxygen) he received in my history book.

4 stars.
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