February 24, 2009
On Steven Johnson's new Biography on Priestley
I just finished Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air and strongly recommend it. Johnson writes popular books about scientific concepts and his work has deeply shaped my thinking.
When I learned he had turned his gaze to the inventor of seltzer, I was equally concerned and excited. Concerned that I had missed my chance, as who could compete with Johnson, and excited, to read his perspective on the man without whom my project would not exist.
First to the concern part. I needn't have worried. The invention of soda water is covered, but sparsely, over a few pages. The aspect of Priestley’s live still remains to be written.
But, boy, was I right to get excited. How often is a scientific biography so thrilling. Similar to Malcolm Gladwell's recent Outliers, Johnson tells Priestley's tale from an ecological perspective, situating the man, his work and ideas within the social networks, ideological currents, and economic, religious, and political shifts of the time.
He makes the argument that in face Priestley was falsely credited with the "invention" of air - it was an idea that stuck and then had great immediate impact - but, rather, his greater importance was through his work that wouldn't have impact for centuries and impacts out lives today.
This is where Johnson and I part ways. He says that importance was the introduction of ecological thinking, from a systems-perspective.
I say it was the invention of seltzer.
In either way, Johnson unearthed some great quotes.
From Ben Franklin to his friend Priestley, written in 1785:
"I know of no philosopher who starts so much good Game for the Hunter after Knowledge as you do. Go on and prosper."
Even better is this quote from the conservative Edmund Burke, in his influential Reflections on the Revolution in France, using Priestley's own recent invention to critique the man's support of the recent changes in Paris:
"The wild gas, the fixed air, is plainly loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface."
You gotta love it - fizzy seltzer as a metaphor fixing the state of affairs caused by the French Revolution. Clearly the start of a now longstanding tradition of iconic seltzer being a stand-in to meet our every metaphorical need.