The Invention of Air Revisited

Recent upheavals in the Middle East remind me of an interesting non-fiction book, The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson that came out several years ago.  The protagonist, Joseph Priestly was a brilliant scientist, a dissenting Christian minister, a questioning philosopher, and a friend and supporter of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and democracy.  Besides discovering that plants make oxygen (called “good air” at that time), one of his other great accomplishments was writing about science and scientific experiments in vernacular narratives instead of stilted Latin treatises.  Making new scientific ideas into lucid stories immediately engaged the imaginations of non-scientists, so challenging ideas spread much faster than previously.

But the main reason I’ve returned to The Invention of Air now is that the similarities of the mid-eighteenth century and the early twenty-first century bring me up short.  Extreme and rapid change are hallmarks of both times:  revolutionary politics (and in particular an inexorable march toward personal freedom by unlikely and, according to some observers, unworthy people), and scientific awakenings leading to breathtaking changes in the way men view themselves, their spirits, and the way they live.  Who could have guessed at the independence of thought and entrepreneurial innovation set in motion during The Enlightenment?  Who could have predicted the physical and mental mobility they would make possible?  Who doesn’t empathize with the feelings of destabilization endured by those who were, or thought they were, left behind?

Because as we all know, change, even change for the better, creates fear.  I imagine it terrified many when upstart British colonials dared to declare war on a divinely chosen king.   They must have felt even worse when the French, emulating them, but going a step further, turned to the guillotine.  I remember my shock when a fellow member of The Keeler Tavern Preservation Society in Connecticut, a group that celebrated the success of the rebels in the Revolutionary Battle of Ridgefield in 1777 told me she would have been a Tory had she been around for the battle itself.  I realized for the first time that what we value in the present is often built on a scary past.  Priestly was a member of the Royal Society and a winner of its highest honor, the Copley Medal, yet he was roundly vilified as “an evil man” by many of his fellow Englishmen when he publicly supported the American cause and questioned the Church of England.  And although he had explained the positive and negative charges of electricity, put forward the first inklings of the chemical and biological interconnectedness of all living, earthly things, (and invented soda water!) his house, library, records and laboratory were burned and he was driven out of the land of his birth.

“Free thinker” became a toxic term when Priestly became a founder of and an apologist for Unitarianism.  The creation of capital and larger scale industry caused generational strain and social fracture.  Who knew what would happen next?  People were often at each others’ throats in the late seventeen hundreds.  I returned to The Invention of Air to remind myself that mankind’s basic nature changes very little and very slowly while the things mankind discovers and makes can become radical and rapid indeed.  We are creatures who cling to old habits.  We hold on for dear life (or death) to the devils we know.  Today, methods of communication fly forward; people stuck in abusive, and/or static situations demand freedom and better lives, sometimes violently.  We feel we’re standing in sand.  But as Johnson’s book makes clear, we’ve been here before and we’ve made it through.  Two hundred years later, we even commemorate it.  Let’s thank God (or The Organizing Principle) we weren’t around to experience the rise of agriculture, which must have been so dislocating that many of our hunter-gatherer forebears probably retreated to the darker corners of their caves and sucked their thumbs.

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