Innovation in the time of revolutions

[Title with apologies to several authors]  For my Dad's birthday this year, I gave him a copy of Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air.  He burned through it quickly, and then gave it to me to enjoy.  And enjoy I did. 

I don't quite know how I got on this kick of reading, but in the last year or two, I have read a number of books that are centered around the 18th and 19th Centuries and many of the discoveries and social upheavals that happened around that time.  It's fascinating to learn about how these things are all inter-related.

The Invention of Air is a perfect combination of those topics.  Just get a load of the subtitle: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.  It is primarily the story of Joseph Priestly, credited with discovering oxygen and many other scientific finds - his book on electricity was a standard textbook for ~100 years.  But he is also a theologian, founding the Unitarian Church.  And he looked at social theory/politics, believing the revolutions in the fledgling United States and in France would happen in the UK and elsewhere.  He even wrote on English grammar.

The book is engagingly written, describing Priestly in both his positive and negative qualities and how his work fits into the greater context of what was happening in England and on the larger global stage.  One theme that was repeated throughout the story has to do with his deep interest in many areas: natural philosophy, religion, and politics being the primary areas.  He was deeply curious in all these areas with the best evidence being his prodigious talent for writing in all these areas.  The fact that he was interested in all these things was not enough to make him an important figure.  He had the opportunity to interact with many of the leading thinkers of his time from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to Antoine Lavoisier to the members of the Royal Society.  Along with this wonderful social network, Priestly's vast interests also gave him an intellectual and idea network that was perfect for the age of amazing discoveries and thinking in this age.  And on top of these fantastic networks of people and ideas, Priestly (and many others of this age) had another key quality: he had the leisure to explore these things.

Steven Johnson also makes the suggestion that we still need people like Priestly and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin because they were able to blend ideas across many disciplines and do something with them.  Having politicians who are only politicians, or scientists who are only scientists, or religious leaders who only know religion is not a good thing.  We need people leading us who understand things like climate science, rather than dismissing it as something only eggheads can understand.  I couldn't help think of my friend, Shannon Clark and his attempts at bringing together network thinkers of many varieties in MeshForum.

Speaking of chemistry.  I just love the Periodic Table of Videos about each of the elements in the Periodic Table, thanks to the chemists at University of Nottingham.

4 Comment(s)

Brett Author Profile Page said:

Another great book by Johnson and another great book about that incredible period of time when so much happened. If you haven't already, you should check out Carl Zimmer's "Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain - and How It Changed the World". Primarily about Thomas Willis, takes place in the early days of the Royal Society.

Brett Author Profile Page said:

Another great book by Johnson and another great book about that incredible period of time when so much happened.

If you haven't already, you should check out Carl Zimmer's "Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain - and How It Changed the World". Primarily about Thomas Willis, takes place in the early days of the Royal Society.

Brett Author Profile Page said:

I don't quite know how I got on this kick of reading, but in the last year or two, I have read a number of books that are centered around the 18th and 19th Centuries and many of the discoveries and social upheavals that happened around that time.

My interest in that period was sparked by fiction, specifically Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle. I know you recently read Quicksilver, maybe that had something to do with your interest?

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

Yes, you are right. Stephenson's Baroque Cycle got me hooked. But I don't know that I have explicitly gone out to find these other books on topics around the same era: they seem to have found me, like this book that I gave my Dad. Stephenson's fiction certainly has my mind ready to read about the non-fiction about the era.

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