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.