The Invention of Air and Science Teaching

Several months ago I purchased Steven Johnson’s new book The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.  I started reading it, but for some reason put it away, only to return to it this weekend.  I finished reading it this morning, and have been thinking about making a post related to the book.

Here it is.

In previous posts I’ve written about a humanistic science paradigm to reform of science teaching—one that attempts to think in wholes, and values interdisciplinary thinking, not only amongst fields in science, but across disciplines to include science, history, politics and religion.

After reading Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley, I realized that perhaps he (Johnson) was writing a story about someone who attempted to cross disciplines in the spirit of the humanistic paradigm.  The book describes  events that involve science, faith, revolution in 18th Century England, and into the early part 19th Century America.  At the center of these events, was Joseph Priestley, a minister and a scientist (natural philosophy).

Here is a video clip by Steven Johnson that will give you an impression of the book, and the author:

Priestley had published more than 500 books and pamphlets, had won prestigious prizes in science (he isolated oxygen, and was the first to discover that plants expire oxygen), wrote important books in science, religion and politics.  Yet, in 1794, he was “the most hated man in all of Britain” according to Johnson.  He escaped to America that year, and settled in rural Pennsylvania, where he became the most celebrated scientist in the country, and became a very close friend of Thomas Jefferson.   While in England he joined with Benjamin Franklin and other intellectuals at The London Coffee House in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and laid the plans to write one of the most important books in science: The History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments (1769).  The book was the result of collaboration with other experimenters of the day, among them Benjamin Franklin.  You can read the original book at the previous link, and I think you will find it interesting to the visit the site, and look the book over.

Another very important book in science that Priestley wrote was Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1775).

Priestley was also an educator (he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on the curriculum of the University of Virginia), and published an important book on English grammar.  As a minister, he led a dissenting congregation in England, which led to the formation of the Unitarian church in England.  He wrote two major books on the history of Christianity, and indeed influenced Thomas Jefferson’s view of religion (see The Jefferson Bible).

During the period of Priestley life, paradigm shifts were happening in several fields, each of which involved Joseph Priestley.  For example, in science, Johnson suggests that Priestley helped bring about the organizing principle of the ecosystem through his experiments with plants, animals and air.  Today the ecosystem paradigm has been subsumed by Earth System Science, and provides a framework for work done today in various fields of science.  The American and French revolutions were underway during his lifetime, and Johnson depicts Priestley as important to America’s “founding fathers” especially John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.   He written years before he came to America An Essay on the .  And in the realm of religion he led a movement in England that led to the formation of the Unitarian church there, and influenced the thinking of the “founding fathers” in this realm as well.

Priestley was a progressive of the Enlightenment Period, and like many progressives suffered the wrath of those who didn’t agree with his philosophies.  In 1791, his church and house was burned to the ground destroying all of his property, and laboratories.  He later fled to America with his family.

I highly recommend Steven Johnson’s book, The Invention of Air.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.