Thursday, February 26, 2009

What price polymathism? (Books - The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air begins, as most of Johnson's books do, as a book about ideas - the discovery of electricity, of oxygen and carbon dioxide, the development of unitarianism. Johnson asks why certain information is not only discovered at a certain moment in time, but why it is accepted and how it spreads through the culture out of which it sprung, or, contrarily, why it may be uncovered by a solitary genius but never find acceptance. Johnson's subject, Joseph Priestley, is a seventeenth century polymath - scientist, theologian, radical political philosopher. Johnson's prologue for this short book is set on the ship Samson, on which Priestley and his wife sailed to America in 1794, seeking asylum, having been persecuted in England for radical political and religious ideas. Priestley tells us of dangerous waterspouts the ship encounters on the Atlantic while Priestley, unruffled, stands on the deck dipping a thermometer into the ocean to confirm the temperature changes that Benjamin Franklin observed on an earlier voyage and which led to his charting of the Gulf Stream. Johnson writes four chapters on the evolution of Priestley's investigative and creative output. They are lively, tight narratives chock full of ideas but rendered in language comprhensible for the non-scientist. Somehow Johnson's last chapter does not live up to the previous four. This chapter also begins on the Samson, but by that time I had forgotten the opening scene. That may be my fault for allowing too much time to elapse between reading the beginning and the end of the book, but Johnson does not remind us of this powerful image with which he begins - Priestley focused solely on his work while all around him powerful forces of nature rage. Sadly, the last chapter finds Priestley's life unravelling around him - no fault of Johson's -but somehow this chapter, too long for an epilogue but too short on ideas relevant to Johnson's theme, takes on a desultory character. Johnson relates a series of events - finding a place to live, tragedies befalling the Priestley family - which would all seem natural to the final pages of a more conventional biography, but in this narrative, more focused on a man's impact on science and philosophy than on his life as a whole, it seems dry and out-of-place. One success in this final section is Johnson's connecting Priestley to the Jefferson-Adams correspondence:
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.

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