26 October 2009

The Invention of Air

I used to enjoy reading science-y books and I think my biology major/pre-med/MCAT studies/epidemiology master's pretty much ruined science for me for many, many years. I recently decided that science was fun and good again (probably because I drool all over the TV show Numb3rs) so picked up a number of books about physics, math, and the history of science.

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson recently released in paperback and I picked it up last week. Now, I did start it before the readathon but it was the first book I finished in that 24 hour period. This is quite an easy book to read and really falls on the history side of the category "history of science." While Johnson goes through Joseph Priestley's discoveries in some detail (the discovery of "soda water" and Priestley's experiments concerning the composition of gases/air), he really doesn't go much beyond the layman's level of explanation. It was just a shade boring, very simplistic, to someone with what amounts to a minor in chemistry but it was not so boring as to be unreadable.

What was most interesting in The Invention of Air was Johnson's recounting of Priestley's work in theology and politics. Priestley was a Dissenter, someone who did not abide by the 39 articles of the Church of England, and could be potentially seen as a traitor to the UK. Additionally, Priestley was a supporter of the American Revolution not because he wanted the UK to lose but because he thought the colonists were being treated unfairly. Eventually, a mob destroyed Priestley's home and work in Birmingham, his politics became intolerable in the UK, and Priestley emigrated to Pennsylvania with his wife. Johnson also includes snippets of letters between Priestley and his great friends Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (Priestley's commentary on John Adams's politics became one of the means of repairing Jefferson's friendship with Adams).

Polymaths are very rare these days; the gentleman of leisure who studies science, ponders philosophy and religion, speaks eloquently, plays music, and reads extensively is pretty much a thing of the past. Knowledge in certain areas is so incredibly specialized that a man like Joseph Priestley is all but unheard of these days. A physical chemist with a doctoral-level knowledge of theology? Reading of the intersection of those disciplines in Johnson's book was very enlightening (a bit of a pun considering the time period) and that was what made the book enjoyable for a burnt-out nerd.

A good book to start off with for the readathon.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challege Count: 3/4

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