Book Review: The Invention of Air

I was so impressed by Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From that I immediately bought two more of his books. I have just finished reading The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, about Joseph Priestley, a remarkable but overlooked historical figure.

Johnson describes Priestley as “a lost Founding Father” of the United States – a friend of Ben Franklin, a major contributor to Thomas Jefferson’s religious outlook, and a key figure in the controversy over the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. He is most well known as one of the discoverers/inventors of oxygen, but Johnson spins his key discovery – that plants generate oxygen and make “bad” air good – as the start of ecosystem science. He was a famous scientist (or “natural philosopher”) in his time, but also famous for his religious and political radicalism. The closest we might have to someone of his stature in our day is Noam Chomsky, who is a giant in the scientific field of linguistics and also a prolific writer on politics from a radical viewpoint.

The Long Zoom

Neurochemistry Individual biography Social networks Information networks Technological platforms Scientific paradigms Political regimes Economic modes Settlement patterns Energy flows

Johnson brings his “long zoom” method to bear in this book, helping to place Priestly and his accomplishments in perspective. For instance, Priestly’s somewhat haphazard, roving style of scientific inquiry would not have been suited to a more mature science – but coming as he did at the beginning of a “real” science, he was able to provide valuable insights and breakthroughs. Johnson also places the time in the larger scene of the Industrial Revolution – the energy surplus from long-dead plants and animals (as coal) provided the possibility for that period’s scientific revolutions. Some of the points seem cutesy: the fact that long-dead plants powered the society that allowed Priestley the leisure time to discover that plants produce oxygen and live in balance with animals is poetic, perhaps ironic, but not earth-shattering. But Johnson does a good job of spinning a narrative that brings disparate threads together along some common themes: energy, vortex, networks, tectonics, ecosystems.

While not all the layers in the thematic stack (in the image to the left) are discussed at the same length or with the same vigor, each makes its appearance, and Johnson argues them all convincingly. One of my favorite passages in the book is the section from page 41 to page 52, where Johnson writes, “we should … consider the interpretative problem [this extraordinary chapter in Priestley’s life] forces us to confront: not just the what of what happened, but the why.” Johnson, of course, steps right in there and attempts to answer, but first leads the reader through a short history of the philosophy of history, from Descartes to Hegel through Marx and Kuhn, and then finally to his own use of the metaphor of ecosystem to describe sweeping historical change, and the following claim:

Epic breakthroughs happen when the layers align: when energy flows and settlement patterns and scientific paradigms and individual human lives comes into some kind of mutually reinforcing synchrony that helps the new ideas both emerge and circulate through the wider society.

Thomas Kuhn

You can see from this book where Where Good Ideas Come From came from. I see an analogy to the work of Thomas Kuhn, who is most famous for The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which I would rank among the most important books of the 20th century. Kuhn originally trained as a physicist, but became a historian and philosopher of science. His scientific background and experience allowed him to make profound insights into how science actually operates as a social process.

Before he wrote Structure, however, Kuhn wrote another amazing book, The Copernican Revolution. In it, Kuhn does an absolutely fantastic job of explaining the Copernican Revolution: the shift in Western astronomy from an Earth-centered to a Sun-centered (and thus totally decentered) paradigm. Kuhn carefully explains the current astronomical knowledge and the “obvious”, Earth-centered view that was held by folk astronomers and learned men alike for millennia. Kuhn then gives a brief account of Aristotle’s cosmology – an entire worldview of what the universe consisted of and how it worked, anchored in an understanding of the Earth as the center of it all. He sketches the scene before Copernicus, and convincingly shows why it took so long for Western science to discard and move beyond Aristotle. He then leads us through Copernicus’s discovery and its consequences.

In short, Thomas Kuhn studied and explained in tremendous detail one example of a paradigm shift in science. Along with a few other, shorter studies (including one on the “invention” of oxygen, including the work of Joseph Priestley), this formed the basis of his insights behind The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A study in specific led to a theory in general. In the same way, Johnson’s work on John Snow and cholera (The Ghost Map) and this book on Joseph Priestley are in-depth studies of two cases of “good ideas” that changed the world. From those, he derived the insights that became the basis of the more general book Where Good Ideas Come From.


As such, I find Where Good Ideas Come From to be the more interesting book from a larger-scale, general perspective, but drilling down into one specific example really shows how those components of innovation function in practice. Johnson is also a great storyteller and thinker, so this multi-level, long-zoom book itself succeeds on many levels: as a lively story and biography, as a satisfying chunk of forgotten colonial and science history, as philosophy of how innovation happens, and as a wide-ranging exploration of the meaning of the life and times of one man.

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