It’s a good day!
My copy of The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson just arrived and I am pumped. Just had the chance to quickly read through it and am already hooked. And, of course, this means I’ll be up late to tonight getting through it in detail.
I enjoy the way he is able to encourage thinking on broad subjects by focusing on a specific topic or person. In The Invention of Air, Johnson introduces the reader to Joseph Priestley, a remarkable thinker of the American Revolutionary period who until this book I had never known.
Priestley’s impact on early American politics and science can be measured by a reading of the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams during their last 13 years. The two wrote 165 letters during that period and mentioned Benjamin Franklin five times, George Washington three times and Priestley 52 times.
Johnson broad topic?
If there is an overarching moral to this story, it is that vital fields of intellectual achievement cannot be cordoned off from one another and relegated to the specialists, that politics can and should be usefully informed by the insights of science.
It’s a bold approach but one that seems to work.
Johnson starts his book by quoting one-time 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who when asked whether he believed in the theory of evolution said:
It’s interesting that that question would even be asked of someone running for president. I’m not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth grade science textbook. I’m asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States.
Based on his interpretation of how Priestley, Franklin, Jefferson and Adams saw politics, science, religion and philosophy flowing together, Johnson suggests that perhaps we can learn something from Huckabee’s comment:
It was anti-intellectual, to be sure, but it was something even more incendiary in the context of a presidential race. It was positively un-American.
As one of the Founding Fathers you’ve never heard of, Johnson claims that Priestley represents the true America. Priestley was “a . . . progressive” who thought the world (and America) was heading toward an “increase in liberty and understanding.” But progress implies change and an undermining of
the institutions and belief systems of the past.
Johnson suggests that Priestley represents the type of thinking that is needed in the America of 2009: positive in outlook, confident in the abilities of people and trust in the ability of science to guide thinking without ignoring the impact of faith.
And, of course, broad subject aside, you can read Air as an intriguing story of a man instrumental in the creation of the United States. Either way, you’ll walk away knowing it was a good day!