Father of the ecosystem

In "The Invention of Air," Steven Johnson creates a fascinating portrait of Joseph Priestley, a friend of Franklin and Jefferson and a freethinker who changed history.

Topics: Science, Books,

Father of the ecosystem

Steven Johnson is that rarest of commodities among 21st century public intellectuals: a progressive — both in the old-fashioned sense and the synonym-for-liberal sense — and an optimist. A Web entrepreneur who founded the sites Feed, Plastic and outside.in, and also the author of a book arguing that video games and reality TV are actually making kids smarter (“Everything Bad Is Good for You”), Johnson has sometimes been branded a techno-utopian. But he has none of the dogmatic, self-satisfied certainty that distinguished, say, the pages of Wired magazine during its late-’90s apogee. His is a questing, limber intelligence, eager to consider opposing arguments, explore new terrain and notice underlying patterns he hasn’t seen before. I don’t know whether it was God or video games that made him so smart, but something did. (I should add here that Johnson has written for Salon and I’ve exchanged e-mails with him. Beyond that, I don’t know him personally.)

As Johnson’s new book about 18th-century scientist and freethinker Joseph Priestley, “The Invention of Air,” makes clear, Johnson’s fascination with the currents of technological and cognitive change is in no way restricted to the computer age. He would certainly agree that the Internet is only a modern manifestation of a primordial human, planetary and indeed cosmological tendency to create information-exchange networks. Johnson clearly identifies a kindred spirit in Priestley, an amateur tinkerer with no formal scientific training who made several important chemical and atmospheric discoveries and also left his mark on Christian theology and revolutionary politics.

If you look up Priestley on Wikipedia right now, you’ll learn that he was the discoverer of oxygen, a confidant of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and a foundational figure in the Unitarian religious movement. Johnson’s book throws a certain amount of cold water on the oxygen claim, but more important, Johnson sees all of that as secondary to Priestley’s greatest accomplishment, a paradigm-changing discovery that neither he nor anyone else in the 18th century was entirely equipped to understand.

Viewed as a modern-day acolyte of Priestley, Johnson no longer seems like such an anomalous figure. At times in “The Invention of Air,” you can feel Johnson positively yearning for the prodigious intellectual ferment of England in the 1760s and ’70s, when “natural philosophers” like Priestley and his good friend Franklin made explosive advances in all sorts of apparently unrelated fields, with no regard for disciplinary boundaries or established orthodoxy. Not merely were they unlocking the secrets of such mystifying phenomena as oxygen or electricity, they were pioneers in democratic discourse and what we would now call the “open source” model for disseminating and refining ideas. By publishing their ideas in vernacular language aimed at an educated lay readership, they sparked widespread popular interest in science. (Isaac Newton, like other scientists of his time, had written mainly in Latin.)

“The Invention of Air” is a slender, deceptively casual book, easy and indeed 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. This book is full of fascinating asides about the relationship between northern England’s coal-based economy, the Industrial Revolution and the culture of scientific inquiry they bred; or about the way London’s cultural economy suddenly exploded when coffee replaced beer as the gentleman’s beverage of choice.

As for Johnson’s title, it’s more than a little mysterious at first. Whether or not Priestley discovered oxygen, he certainly didn’t invent air. As Johnson recounts in exciting detail, Priestley conducted a series of experiments in his home-built laboratory in Leeds, beginning in the spring of 1771, that started from the well-known fact that animals would die rapidly if sealed in a glass vessel without fresh air. Amazing as this may seem today, nobody understood how or why this happened. Air wasn’t merely misunderstood, it wasn’t even considered. As Johnson puts it, air was the nothingness between objects; it posed no problems that needed solving. When Priestley tried to grow sprigs of mint in sealed containers of “foul air” in which experimental mice had perished, he expected them to wither quickly. He was startled to learn that they thrived, and even more startled to learn that over time they somehow created “restored air” that his mice could breathe happily.

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That round of experiments produced another, more famous round a few years later, the one that put Priestley in the history books. Using a huge magnifying glass an aristocratic patron had purchased for him, Priestley vaporized a kind of ash called mercury calx and produced a mysterious gas that made candle flames flare up and kept mice alive half an hour or longer in a sealed container. But as Johnson puts it, discovering oxygen is something like discovering America; it’s largely a question of your perspective and your values. Danish chemist Carl Scheele had actually isolated oxygen a few years before Priestley, and a few years later Antoine Lavoisier would reach a far more accurate understanding of the gas and its properties — and give it its scientific name.

Priestley, in fact, never grasped oxygen’s role in combustion, and continued to cling to the post-medieval notion that burning materials emitted a substance called phlogiston, which was absorbed by the air and made it poisonous. His delicious term for the gas he had discovered was “dephlogisticated air,” reflecting his upside-down conception of the relationship between air and candle flame. At best, Priestley was among a trio of researchers who grappled with the same scientific breakthrough in the 1770s, and he understood it far more poorly than the other two. But if Priestley is somewhat overvalued as the discoverer of oxygen, in Johnson’s view, he was way ahead of his time with his earlier discovery.

When Priestley discovered that his sprigs of mint produced something that could keep mice alive, he was pointing the way not merely toward the isolation of a gaseous element, but also, Johnson says, toward “a whole new way of thinking about the planet itself, and its capacity for sustaining life.” There was a system operating in Priestley’s mint-and-mouse jar, “a microcosm of a vast system that had been evolving on Earth for two billion years.” When Priestley wrote to his friend Benjamin Franklin to tell him about this strange discovery, Franklin came eerily close, in his 18th-century language, to nailing the entire concept of ecosystem science in one shot:

That the vegetable creation should restore the air which is spoiled by the animal part of it, looks like a rational system, and seems to be of a piece with the rest. Thus fire purifies water all the world over. It purifies it by distillation, when it raises it in vapours, and lets it fall in rain; and farther still by filtration, when, keeping it fluid, it suffers that rain to percolate the earth. We knew before, that putrid animal substances were converted into sweet vegetables, when mixed with the earth, and applied as manure; and now, it seems, that the same putrid substances, mixed with the air, have a similar effect.

Of course that isn’t entirely accurate by modern scientific standards, but for a person with no knowledge of microbiology or organic chemistry or evolutionary theory, it’s a remarkable insight. At least momentarily, Franklin and Priestley seemed to glimpse a branch of scientific inquiry that would not reach the mainstream until the mid-20th century: the study of all planetary life as a single interlocking system, a complex web of energy flows and chemical interactions that extended from the smallest microorganism to giant redwoods and blue whales.

As Johnson sees it, Priestley’s breakthrough was connected to another, vastly ancient one — what he had discovered was not just oxygen but in fact “the invention of air.” Two billion years earlier, the blue-green bacteria of the primordial ocean had concocted a metabolic strategy that enveloped the planet with oxygen, Johnson writes. “A long parade of events follow: Dinosaurs go extinct, mammals rise, continents separate, Homo sapiens evolves, language appears, agriculture blooms. And then Joseph Priestley sits in a room in Leeds and watches a plant grow in a glass, and grasps — for the first time in recorded history, as far as we know — the original breakthrough that made aerobic life possible in the first place.”

Moving forward from Priestley’s moment on the scientific mountaintop, even Johnson can’t muster much interest in Priestley’s role in the red-hot theological debates that set 18th-century Europeans and Americans ablaze. A preacher by trade, Priestley wrote a book rejecting the divinity of Jesus Christ that influenced Jefferson’s version of Christianity and was instrumental in the Unitarian movement. It’s noteworthy that such an important figure of Enlightenment science was also a believer, even if a heterodox one — when Priestley met Lavoisier and other leading French scientists, they were amazed to learn that he believed in God. But those aren’t issues that get Johnson’s motor running.

Both Priestley and Johnson are fundamentally creatures of the Enlightenment, men convinced that human society and scientific knowledge are riding a “permanent escalator” toward greater freedom and deeper understanding. If Johnson is disappointed to be living in a post-Enlightenment era governed by widespread superstition and by a worldview that conceptualizes human society more in cyclical or apocalyptic terms, he doesn’t let on.

Indeed, when Johnson describes Priestley’s “relentlessly sunny outlook” — this after the latter had seen his home and possessions in England burned by a reactionary mob in 1791 and been forced to flee across the Atlantic as a perceived heretic and potential regicide — he seems both to be describing himself and asking a broader question: Wouldn’t our economic, environmental and social problems, daunting as they may be, seem more manageable if we weren’t in such a bad mood? As he ruefully puts it, “The radical’s default temperament today is precisely the opposite of Priestley’s: filled with gloomy predictions of imminent catastrophe.”

When Johnson is tracing the relationship between a guy who improvised experiments in a household sink 230 years ago and the birth of ecosystem science, he’s an infectiously exciting writer, consumed by what Priestley might have called a quest for the sublime. Here is “the beautiful thing about ideas,” he writes: “Sometimes they generate clues that, centuries later, help you understand the mystery of their own origins. The mountain lifts you high enough that you can finally see the land masses that made the mountain in the first place.”

That’s exactly what Johnson is trying to do in “The Invention of Air” and his other books (which include the bestsellers “The Ghost Map” and “Mind Wide Open,” along with “Everything Bad Is Good for You”) — gain some perspective on how major intellectual advances or paradigm shifts occur, and how they connect human beings to each other, and connect the future to the past. If he can help rehabilitate the reputation of a half-forgotten 18th-century pioneer, that’s a bonus. (By Johnson’s count, Priestley is mentioned by name 52 times in the legendary correspondence between Adams and Jefferson. In contrast, Franklin gets five mentions, and George Washington three.)

Although Johnson does his best to view the rest of Priestley’s life and career through an optimistic prism, other authors might indeed paint it more sardonically. After making a discovery so big no living person could understand it, he was first driven out of England by monarchist, Anglican thugs (as amusing as that concept may sound today) and then demonized as a French spy and nearly deported from the United States under the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts signed by his former friend John Adams. He spent much of his later life in the literal and figurative wilderness of rural Pennsylvania, craving the intellectual climate of London or Paris. He embraced political and religious currents — the French Revolution and Unitarian Christianity — that led either to bloody darkness or irrelevant dead ends.

In fairness, the coda to Priestley’s life was happier. In 1801, three years before his death, he saw his enthusiastic admirer and fellow tinkerer Jefferson assume the presidency. On his first day in office, Jefferson wrote to Priestley to renounce the anti-scientific bigotry and political persecution of the Adams administration:

Our countrymen have recovered from the alarm into which art and industry had thrown them; science and honesty are replaced on their high ground, and you, my dear Sir, as their great apostle, are on its pinnacle … The order and good sense displayed in this recovery from delusion, and in the momentous crisis which lately arose, really bespeak a strength of character in our nation which augurs well for the duration of our Republic, and I am much better satisfied now of its stability than I was before it was tried.

With another new president about to take office who seems to offer a “recovery from delusion” and a return to “science and honesty,” at a moment when the republic’s stability seems uncertain, it’s a good time for all Americans to imbibe a little of Johnson’s, and Priestley’s, irrepressible hopefulness.

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