Science has been under attack for a while now. First, by the back-to-the-earth crowd of the Sixties. I remember one encounter between novelist James Michener and a campus radical of those heady days. The youth was excoriating science in general for everything from napalm to Teflon-lined skillets. Michener remarked that the lad was wearing glasses, which were a clear-cut boon to humanity, and a product of science as well. He asked the boy why he didn’t give up his glasses if he was so set against science. “Because I can’t bleeping see!” came the exasperated reply.
And today we see religious groups – in similar fashion - kicking science aside because it gets in the way of their beliefs. Politicians use science, in the form of stem-cell research, among other things, as their whipping-boy. What must it have been like when science had little if any toe-hold on western civilization?
Steven Johnson wrote this book, I think, with that sort of question in mind. But he establishes Joseph Priestley – a backroom scientific experimenter and Protestant pastor – as the very willing lightning rod of science in the eighteenth century. Priestly delved wonderingly into the unknown makeup of air – its complexities, its paradoxes – isolating oxygen as a component of air in the bargain.
Johnson vividly depicts Priestley in English coffeehouses meeting with others of his kind to share their scientific frustrations as well as their discoveries. These casual meetings led eventually to the the establishment of the scientific method, and to the impelling of rational thought into politics and religion as well. And here is where Johnson sees Priestley braving the human elements to the greatest extent - the conservative religious types of his day burned his house down in a moment of less-than-rational rage against his groundbreaking thoughts on science, politics, and religion.
Priestley, a scientific colleague of Ben Franklin, eventually escaped Britain and came to the American Colonies, and became a confidante of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. While everyone else talked obliquely of science and rationality, so as to not upset the masses, Priestley held forth on his subject and its implications loudly, without fear.
Johnson’s prose here stutters and almost falls at times, but he’s taken on a monumental subject – one to which his two-hundred page book hardly does justice. Still, Priestley and the intoxication of discovery in those days can't be denied, and Johnson charts it ably enough to enthrall even the most jaded reader.
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