This is the biography of Joseph Priestley, Unitarian minister and Chemist. In his early days he was the author of a best-selling history of Electricity (a friend of Franklin). Later he invented soda water' He discovered that plants produce the air that flames and animals need to stay alive (but he never really discovered Oxygen, leaving that to the more careful Science of his friend Lavoisier). He was sponsored by the Lunar Society. He then wrote a controversial book debunking Christianity (he was one of the inventors of Unitarianism, denying the Trinity and the divinity of Christ). This and his radical political views at the time meant that the Birmingham mob burned his chapel and his house down and he had to go into hiding. He then emigrated to the newly independent USA. He was a great mate of 2nd President John Adams until his belief in the Book of Revelation got in the way. Later, unable to resist meddling in politics, he fell foul of the newly enacted Alien and Sedition Laws but President Adams kept him out of jail. He was quite a mate of third president Jefferson.
In other words he was a political hothead who could not restrain himself and an amateur scientist whose haphazard methods (and unwavering belief in phlogiston) made him unable to make real progress in his science.
Along the way this book muses on the Philosophy of Science. It does not really believe in the Great Man theory of history. Rather, it believes that what it calls a 'hot hand' is just a lucky streak: "a fantasy of misinterpreted probability" (p43). This fits in with the ideas suggested by eg Nate Silver in The signal and the noise and Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, fast and slow.
He also muses on the coincidence that Priestley's discovery of the interdependence of plant life and animal life came as a result of the leisure time he had due to the industrial revolution based on coal from the carboniferous era when plants evolved lignin and decomposers took some millions of years to learn how to rot lignin so it got buried and metamorphosed into coal. We tend to think of money encouraging innovation because it functions as an incentive ... but accumulated wealth ... allowed people like Joseph Priestley to pursue scientific breakthroughs without the promise of financial reward." (p129)
A delightful book although it tends to show what a shallow scientist Priestley was and ekes this out by an American-centric account of his relationship with Americans Franklin, Adams and Jefferson.
December 2011; 240 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57