Somebody Call a Priestly! (Read)

I picked up Steven Johnson's latest book not because of science, or even history, the author's areas of expertise.

It was religion.

The Invention of Air is Johnson's biography of Joseph Priestly, the founder and first minister of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. (It's aptly named, as the church is the first in the country to call itself "Unitarian.") The 14th minister of the First Unitarian was Rev. Ken Collier, who married me and my wife.

However, science plays a huge role in Johnson's book, which highlights Priestly's amazing string of success -- a productive eight-year period that included his discovery of oxygen and creation of soda water. It's probably just my lack of scientific curiosity, but I struggled through the middle of Invention. It seemed weighed down in science and unnecessary conjecture, as Johnson tries to find a connection between Priestly's amazing run of success and others, such as Joe Dimaggion's 56-game hitting streak.

Luckily, Priestly had a pretty amazing life outside of the home lab, too. He was an educator, writer, philosopher, politician, dissenting clergyman. It was his political and religious activity that led an angry mob to burn down his house and church, causing Priestly and his family to leave England for America.

Johnson gives Priestly a human quality, whether it's doing tricks for kids or conducting experiments at the local brewery.

Priestly was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. He was part of a group -- the Lunar Society -- that included not just one, but both of Charles Darwin's grandfathers.
Invention of Air is not really not just about Priestly. It's about an era, when men sat around coffeehouses discussing problems and searching for solutions; where science, philosophy, politics and religion mixed openly. Information was shared freely, which is why Joseph Schweppes ended up making millions off of Priestly's soda water.

Priestly makes for a fascinating topic and a book worth reading, even if it does veer just a little off course at times.

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