The fact that Priestley should play such a transformative role in the Jefferson-Adams letters, coupled with the fact that he is mentioned in that archive far more frequently than Washington, Franklin, or Madison, gives us some sense of the magnitude of Priestley's presence in the minds of Jefferson and Adams. Priestley was a king of Zelig of early American history, appearing at key turning points like some kind of errant founding father: Franklin's kite; the Privy Council; Alien and Sedition; the Jefferson-Adams correspondence.I think the errant founding father notion is a bit of a stretch, but Johnson's thesis about why Priestley's polymathism was more natural to his time than to, say, our own is right on the money.
...Priestley's maverick beliefs and cross-disciplinary thinking would damage his reputation in the coming decades. He became a kind of sacrificial lamb for the parallel developments of specialization and professionalism that dominated nineteenth-century science. Serious science became the province of experts and specialists, not dabblers and amateurs. Pioneering research - according to the new consensus - required that the scientist isolate himself from the external worlds of politics or faith, and not seek connections to them.Johnson is at his best in describing the movement of thought, that was what made his The Ghost Map such a terrific book. He has a harder time blending his closing argument with the structure he set up for himself in The Invention of Air but, all in all, this is a compact and energetic book that links American history, basic science, and modern ideas of information theory in a convincing and readable way. I continue to admire Steven Johnson's talents as a synthesizer of ideas in the context of culture. My other thoughts about this book are here, here, and here.