Reason Writers Around Town: Nick Gillespie on Why Joseph Priestley, "The Father of Modern Chemistry," Was A Gas


In The New York Post, Reason's Nick Gillespie reviews The Invention of Air, a new biography of the man widely credited with discovering oxygen and linking it to blood, creating Unitarianism, and inventing soda water. Arguably the best-known scientist of his day, Joseph Priestley was a close scientific colleague of Ben Franklin, patronized by the Birmingham entrepreneurs who helped create the Industrial Revolution, and an influence on Thomas Jefferson.

Author Steven Johnson figures Priestley, who was hounded out of England after an angry mob destroyed his laboratory in 1794, as precisely the sort of optimistic, rational seeker we need more of today. From the review:

Johnson paints Priestley not as a man of the past but precisely the sort of figure the world needs more than ever: A searcher who shared his discoveries openly and willingly, crossed disciplinary boundaries with impunity and insight, who conceived of the world as a large laboratory. As important, Priestley exemplifies "the temperament that we expect to find at the birth of America‚ÄĒbountiful optimism, an untroubled sense that the world must inevitably see the light of reason."

We live in troubling times, filled with signs of a great economic apocalypse, politicized science on topics from birth control to climate change and religious zealots who kill innocents rather than live peacefully with them. This is exactly the moment to learn from Priestley, who survived riots, threats of prosecution and other hardships and yet never doubted that "the world was headed naturally toward an increase in liberty and understanding." Ironically, "The Invention of Air" underscores that there is nothing natural about progress and liberty, each of which must be fought for and defended every single day by visionary individuals.

Whole review here.

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  1. thank goodness, a new topic.

    waiting for the progressives to tell me what to think about it.

  2. Perhaps it helped that the various disciplines Priestly crossed the boundaries of were very unspecialized in 1794. Today it would take several lifetimes to learn enough to be at the cutting edge of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, for instance.

    Also, “conceived of the world as a large laboratory”? Yeah, quite the libertarian attitude there!

  3. Priestly, the first wikinonomist.

  4. The “Father of Modern Chemistry”? “Dr Phlogiston” Priestley was the father of modern chemistry? Really??

  5. If Priestley were a non-Unitarian Protestant, or heaven forbid if he were Catholic, he’d be getting the Mother Theresa treatment from Reason, be sure of that. I don’t mean the treatment that Mother Theresa gave to dying Calcuttans, I mean the treatment the cosmos give her — blowing up of minor character flaws to defame someone’s entire life.

  6. I’m with Kunal; the failure to break away from Phlogiston makes him more a Tycho Brahe than a Johannes Kepler

  7. cunnivore, you are of course correct. I’m wondering if most of the Franklin worship going on in libertarian circles is simply due to his deism.

  8. I don’t mean the treatment that Mother Theresa gave to dying Calcuttans…

    You mean pray while they starved and wasted away? Yeah, sounds pretty pointless here, too.

    Honestly I understand the impulse to beat on the Catholic church from a libertarian perspective, because they are practically the definition of a univocal arrogated authority that seeks to control peoples’ behavior and thoughts. I understand it, but don’t for the most part share it.

    But I haven’t detected much of an animus towards Protestants, except the extremists. Linky?

  9. If Gillespie wrote a book, I’d hope it was about religion in early America through the Second Great Awakening and how it related to liberty today. I remember him talking to Moyers about Roger Williams once–he definitely has early Rhode Island down.

    …but I wouldn’t want him to write a book. I’d want him to do a documentary or a series or something.

  10. Geez, anything to avoid talking about Madoff’s fraud.

  11. how cool, i can still be progressive because i was never catholic. too bad i am not an ex catholic, would have some street cred there.

  12. What about the Maidoff fraud?

  13. … bif fan of joe p …,

    What has happened to Jennifer, I have seen no posts from her in a long while?

  14. If Gillespie wrote a book, I’d hope it WOULD BE about religion… Idiot.

  15. wayne, she just posted something on one of the threads. that is why i added her. she is brilliant like joe.

  16. Maybe Jennifer was kidnapped by those deprogrammers. Cults sometimes lose members that way.

  17. “You mean pray while they starved and wasted away?”

    You mean giving sick paupers, who otherwise would have starved to death on the streets in India’s socialist paradise, a place to sleep and a chance to live out their last years with dignity?

    Too bad these paupers didn’t sign up at the atheist hospice down the street and get more advanced care. I assume there *was* an atheist hospice, of course.

    As to Priestly, not only did he defend the phogiston theory, as posters above have noted, he defended the French Revolution. It’s too bad that Priestly was persecuted by a mob, but he survived; if he were a Frenchman (like the chemist Lavoisier) he might have had his head cut off – according to the best scientific evidence, this is generally fatal.

    Priestly was a Unitarian, which means that he believed that there was exactly one divine Person in the Godhead. Or, to put it in H&R terms, he was an irrational Christer fundy.

  18. I don’t really know what all the hating is about over this guy. I heard the author on NPR this past friday, and he was pretty interesting. This whole thread is just nitpicking character flaws, but overall he seemed like a pretty interesting dude, unitarian or not.

  19. I’m wondering if most of the Franklin worship going on in libertarian circles is simply due to his deism.

    Franklin actually wasn’t a deist but possessed a theological creed that was more or less the same as Priestley’s. Click on the link to my blog, American Creation, and scroll down to Tom Van Dyke’s post.

  20. You mean pray while they starved and wasted away?

    Dammit, Elemenope, she was a nun, not a doctor!

    And I wonder what all the people who criticize her for things like this were doing while those Calcuttans were wasting away. I guess completely ignoring a dying person is better than praying beside them in some people’s book.

    Note: as my name suggests, I am no longer a practicing Catholic, but I do have a great deal of respect for principled Catholics. We all need delusions of some sort to get us through the day.

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