Steven Johnson is the author of six books and the co-founder of the hyperlocal site outside.in. This month you might have seen him on The Colbert Report, or read his recent essay here on the future of the news ecosystem. He joined us today for a live conversation about his latest bestseller, The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America, which Bill Clinton called "fascinating" in a speech last week. Read the discussion here:
The Invention of Air tells the story of the network of ideas and collaboration that surrounded the brilliant 18th-century polymath, Joseph Priestley. Priestley was British by birth, but he was nonetheless extremely close with Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, and he played an important, though generally neglected, role in the early history of the United States. He helped create the legend of Franklin the pioneering scientist, and he collaborated with Franklin on one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the age, the discovery that plants create the oxygen in our atmosphere, one of the founding insights of modern ecosystem science. Priestley's writings on Christianity had a defining impact on Jefferson's religious worldview, and after Priestley's controversial writing inspired a mob to burn down his house in Birmingham, he emigrated to America in the 1790s, our first great scientist-exile. Controversy soon followed him, though: by the end of the decade, his old friend John Adams nearly had him deported under the Alien and Sedition acts.
To give just one quick statistic that suggests the influence that Priestley had over the founders: in the final Adams/Jefferson correspondence - that most epic of American political conversations -- Priestley is mentioned by name fifty-two times; Washington, Franklin, and Hamilton between them warrant only ten references.
Priestley had a fascinating life, and it was great fun as author to get to reconstruct the times he lived in, and the extraordinary - and too long neglected - web of his influence. But I didn't write the book just to correct the historical record or to tell an interesting story. What drew me into this particular story was its direct relevance to our own current moment, because something different happens when you look at the birth of America through the outsider view of Priestley's career--when you take Jefferson at his word that Priestley's life was "one of the few precious to mankind." Perhaps the most important lesson is that Priestley and his American friends refused to compartmentalize science and politics. Quite the opposite, in fact: they believe the new explanations of "natural philosophy" could help shape new political systems, and redefine faith for an Enlightened age. Adopting a know-nothing attitude towards scientific understanding--hiding behind the cloak of piety or political dogma--would have been the gravest offense to Priestley and his comrades.
In the popular folklore of American history, there is a sense in which the Founders' various achievements in natural philosophy--Franklin's electrical experiments, Jefferson's botany--serve as a kind of sanctified extra-curricular activity. They were statesmen and political visionaries, who just happened to be hobbyists in science, albeit amazingly successful ones. Their great passions were liberty and freedom and democracy; the experiments were a side project. But the Priestley view suggests that the story has it backwards. Yes, they were hobbyists and amateurs at natural philosophy, but so were all the great minds of Enlightenment-era science. (The importance of amateur intellectuals is another key link to our own time.) What they shared was a fundamental belief that the world could change--that it could improve--if the light of reason was allowed to shine upon it. And that belief emanated from the great ascent of science over the proceeding century. The political possibilities for change were modeled after the change they had all experienced through the advancements in natural philosophy.
A few days before I started writing this book, I happened to be watching a debate on CNN in which Mike Huckabee was asked about his belief (or lack thereof) in evolution. He shrugged off the question with an dismissive jab of humor. "It's interesting that that question would even be asked of someone running for president," he said. "I'm not planning on writing the curriculum for an 8th grade science book. I'm asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States."
It was a funny line, but the joke only worked in a specific intellectual context. For the statement to make sense, you had to assume that that "science" was some kind of specialized intellectual field, about which political leaders needn't know anything to do their business. Imagine a candidate dismissing a question about his foreign policy experience by saying he was running for president and not writing an International Affairs textbook. The joke wouldn't make sense, because we assume that foreign policy expertise is a central qualification for the Chief Executive. But science? That's for the guys in lab coats.
So one of things I hoped to do with Invention of Air was to remind people that when our leaders take these anti-science positions, or when they happily plead ignorance about some of the most important issues of our time - our energy use, global warming, genomics, all the revolutions unleashed by computer science -- they're not just being anti-intellectual. They're also being un-American. The people who founded this country were serious science geeks. We should be celebrating this fact, not running away from it. Hopefully Priestley's life can help us re-connect with those roots.
Of course, a life as interesting and diverse as Priestley's has many more connections to today's world.
Steven Johnson is the author of six books, including the national bestsellers Mind Wide Open, Everything Bad Is Good For You, and The Ghost Map. He's also the co-founder of several influential web sites, including FEED, Plastic.com, and currently, the hyperlocal platform outside.in. His latest book is the bestseller The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America, which Bill Clinton called "fascinating" in a speech last week.