It made perfect sense, the other day, to be talking with Steven Johnson about the 18th century while watching our voices be transformed into the jagged digital rise and fall of ProTools tracks: he's comfortable moving from century to century and making the connections between them. The past, to him, seems a kind of future--not that we could return to it, but we could reclaim parts of it to help us move forward. His first books,Interface Culture, Emergence,Mind Wide Open, and Everything Bad Is Good for You, were about the future, or rather that part of the future we were living in now, but in his next book, The Ghost Map, he started to dig into the past, finding in London's response to the outbreak of cholera in 1854 an early instance of modern information science. And now in his new book,The Invention of Air, he's dug a little further back, to the story of Joseph Priestley, a not-quite-forgotten figure who should nevertheless be better remembered: a friend and colleague of Benjamin Franklin with some of the same omnivorous interests: science, religion, and politics. We talked about why there were so many Renaissance men in the Enlightenment, whether we should care what presidential candidates think about evolution, and what the Carboniferous Age has to do with a mouse stuck in a jar with a sprig of mint. You can listen to the podcast below or, after the jump, read the full transcript.
For more from Steven Johnson, visit his own blog at stevenberlinjohnson.com, and check out his guest blogging stint at BoingBoing the past couple weeks (posts here, here, here, and here--my favorite is the anti-Candy Land post, which as a game-playing dad, I fully agree with). It's only fitting he sat in there, since BoingBoing, with its open-source ethic, wide-ranging interests, and friendly marriage of technology, ideas, and hands-on tinkering, seems the closest thing we have to the sort of coffee-house societies that proved so fertile for Priestley, Franklin, and their friends.
Amazon.com: Your book is not a biography in the usual sense but it does have a hero, I think you could say: Joseph Priestley, who is known to people these days, if at all, as the "Discoverer of Oxygen," which you point out he very well may not have been.
Steven Johnson: Right [laughter]
Amazon.com: So how would you describe him? Usually people describe him with a list.
Johnson: Yeah, that's not a bad way to do it. Some people have called him a Renaissance man. I think it is better to call him an Enlightenment man because he was crucial to the Enlightenment in a bunch of ways. He was a great polymath. He was just interested in a million different things.
One of the things that drew me to him and one of the morals to the story is how important that sensibility of connecting different things. He did primary work in chemistry and the science of electricity, co-founded the Unitarian Church in England, wrote very influential political tracts, and he wrote something like 500 books and pamphlets over the course of his life.
And he did all these different things and was influential in so many different disciplines. And so one of the things I wanted to do in the book was to celebrate that kind of thinking and to remind us of the value of thinking across boundaries. We live in a much more specialized age, and so he is a good hero for us, I think, as a reminder of the alternative to that.
Amazon.com: Right. You called him the Enlightenment man, which I was about to myself. So was there something about--he was not the only guy at that time who was a triple threat or quadruple threat.
Johnson: Right. Quintuple. Yeah, in a way, the thing that ultimately convinced me that the next book that I should write should be a book about 18th-century chemistry, which after video games and cholera would seem to be an odd next choice, the thing that really tipped it for me was that he was so close to the American Founding Fathers. Although he was British, he had a great, enduring friendship with Ben Franklin when he was in London, and then had a huge impact on Adams and on Jefferson and shows up in all these funny ways through American history.
And so part of it in my head when I decided to write the book was I am going to write an outsider's Founding Fathers book, a science Founding Fathers book, which is not quite the way that genre is normally written. And so you do see exactly the sensibility, that Enlightenment sensibility, in Franklin particularly and in Jefferson. Franklin was a pioneering scientist and a hugely successful publisher and a political radical and all these things. So there was something in the air at that point that enabled you to do such interesting work in so many different fields. It wasn't just Priestley, although he probably was about as impressive as anyone at that particular point.
Amazon.com: So was it just, "Well, there was all this stuff that had to be figured out then"? Was it easier to be a Renaissance man in the Enlightenment?
Johnson: Yes and no. Certainly part of the lesson is exactly as you say, that the world was filled with phenomena that had not yet had the scientific method applied to them. If you can learn this technique of empirical research and experimentation, you could go and build a little home lab in your kitchen and discover new gases that no one had ever discovered before.
It's very hard to do that now in your home lab, right? On the other hand, it was very hard to get information, right? When Priestley met Franklin for the first time, one of the first things he was begging for was just copies of their correspondence and their notes and their papers about electricity because he was interested in electricity. So it's harder to do pioneering research as an amateur, as a dabbler, obviously, than it was then. On the other hand, it's vastly easier to develop an interested, amateur lay expertise in a field than it ever was before thanks to things like the Internets.
And so it has never been easier, if you think about just in terms of software, it has never been easier to create little things to do interesting work in computer science and software design and application design and share those things with the world.
So there's a little bit of an Enlightenment 2.0 quality to where we are now. I am going to soon create a conference with that name on it.
Amazon.com: [laughter] Have you trademarked it?
Johnson: Yeah, right. I need to.
Amazon.com: From the way you told his story, it seemed there are two things that needed to happen for those moments of Renaissance to happen: you have to have a network of some kind. His network was often what you call these "small societies," like the one he met Franklin through.
Amazon.com: But then also new tools like the scientific method where you could turn that machinery towards discovering all sorts of things.
Johnson: Yeah, one of the things you said at the beginning, it's not a traditional biography--I think it's not. There is a story here largely focused on this guy's life but it's not by any means an authoritative biography and I skip over whole periods of it, because ultimately, what I am trying to do is try and come up with a good answer to the question of why did it happen--not just what can happen, but why was Priestley able to be so revolutionary in so many different fields? Why were all these guys capable of this?
So when you try and answer that question I think you have to go beyond just the individual circumstances of their lives or even the kind of social movements way of thinking about society and change and history, and as you say one of the things is their information network. Without the postal service--so much of this story transpires through the letters that they share with each other. And if there weren't a reliable information network of the post, the story would have turned out very differently.
And the technology of the day is crucial. They had things like an air pump which had been invented a century before that enabled them to basically create a vacuum by pumping the air out of a closed vessel. And without that, they would never have even realized in a way that there was something to study in the first place, in the science of air. Before they could prove that there was this thing that was non-air, anti-air, air just seemed like this invisible thing that no one would want to talk about. You want to talk about all the stuff between all the air, but why would you want to talk about air in the first place? They needed all this technology as well.
It's partially the information network, it's partially the technology of the time, and then it's partially the people and their individual biographies.
Amazon.com: So it's the conditions that made this moment possible. You go pretty far back [laughter] in your "Intermezzo." I think you've used the term "long zoom."
Johnson: Yeah. Yeah.
Amazon.com: You go about 300 million years back.
Johnson: It was designed, not as a joke, but I was being a little bit playful with it. This approach that I was describing before of the long zoom, which is basically to make this explanation of what really happened you have to work across different scales. Sometimes that's the scale of a human life, sometimes that's a physical, geographic scale of a coffee shop. The space of a coffee house was crucial to the story. And sometimes it's the scale of technological change that takes 100 years or 200 years to unfold.
But another crucial element is the history of macro changes and the flow of energy through society. A lot of times when we see great change happen is because there has been some fundamental change in the way in which a given society is capturing and distributing energy.
And it turns out that a lot of Priestley's life, particularly after he moves to Birmingham, in 1780, is bound up in the Industrial Revolution and the emerging industrial class that was happening in the north of England, and that, in a sense, the profits from that new industrial reality funded Priestley during this period and in a weird way allowed him to radicalize in his views. Those profits wouldn't have been there had that part of England not been sitting on those coal deposits. They were just really extensive and really close to the surface, so you can easily get all these amazing fossil fuels that were stored there. And if they had not been laid down there 300 million years before, during the Carboniferous age, Priestley's life would have been radically changed. It probably would have happened quite differently. And so if you want to know why on some level, you have to go all the way back to tell the full scope of that story. And so each chapter is dated. And so it goes, "December 1765" [laughter], "August 1771," and then "300 Million BC," and hopefully people will smile when they see it, and not run away screaming.
Amazon.com: But going back to the Carboniferous age actually has a thematic connection to his work. I didn't know his story that well at all, but the experiments that you spend quite a bit of time on that I think were so elegant and must have been amazing to witness at the time were related to his oxygen discovery. It was a little experiment that he did with a sprig of mint
and a mouse--or a series of mice, I guess.
Johnson: Yes, four mice.
Amazon.com: I wonder if you could explain that, and what he learned.
Johnson: In a way this is what drew me into the story in the first place. Everybody had known that if you took a mouse or a spider, isolated it in a jar, cut off its air supply, and gave it a finite amount of air--over time, the mouse would use up all the air in some fashion. We didn't quite understand how it was working, but the mouse would eventually die. It would run out of air, or they would poison the air-- we didn't know which it was. In fact, it turned out it was a bit of both.
Priestley had this idea: "Well that's interesting. We know that. So how long would it take a plant to die if you isolated it and just left it with a finite amount of oxygen?" So he takes this little sprig of mint, little mint plant, puts it in a jar in his home lab in Leeds in 1771, puts it away, and comes back two weeks later. It turns out the plant isn't dead. In fact it's growing. It's healthy, it seems fine.
Then he has this ingenious twist on it. He takes a candle, and he puts the candle inside this little vessel with this mint plant. He seals it up, and then he takes a burning lens, and from the outside of the glass he concentrates the sun's rays and he lights the candle. The candle basically burns all the oxygen out of this little vessel. And so at a certain point the candle is extinguished because it can no longer combust--there is no oxygen left in there to support the flame. All the air has been removed from the thing.
He goes away and comes back two weeks later, takes his burning lens and focuses the sun's rays on the candle, and a flame lights. Somehow there's air where there was no air before--so where did the air come from? He does a number of experiments, variations on this, and he realizes that it's the plant that's creating this oxygen.
It turns out, as Franklin ultimately suggests to him--Franklin completes this experiment for him--that what he was witnessing in that little jar, is in a sense, the key to our survival on this planet as humans. Our atmosphere is created by the plants. The earth's atmosphere would naturally be less than 1% oxygen. In fact, it's been stable at 20% oxygen for millions and millions of years. That's because that oxygen has been artificially produced for us by photosynthesis, which happens to output oxygen as a waste product.
And when scientists went back centuries later, two centuries later, to retrace whether oxygen levels had been stable for that long, they found that in fact they had been stable for a very long time, which was an interesting question in itself. Why were they able to stabilize like that? But they found there was a big spike, and that spike happened to coincide with the Carboniferous Era. It went up to 35% oxygen. It's partially because there was all this organic plant material that wasn't being decomposed by bacteria for complicated reasons, that ended up getting stored. And instead of getting broken down and distributed, it ended up getting stored. That got buried and that became the coal deposits of England.
And so the story is beautifully connective on all these levels. There's poetry in looking at it that way, and a real causal chain of events that really shaped Priestley's life.
Amazon.com: That seems to me that must have been a pretty theological moment, to realize that about the earth, that it has that balance.
Johnson: Yes, you know, it was interesting. Franklin was ultimately a non-believer but Priestley stayed a very unusual, but eclectic Christian, but he stayed a Christian to the end. His view was that the real way one experienced God was not through magical displays. It was not through saints or Holy Ghosts or anything like that. It was through this path of enlightenment that society seemed to be on, this increased understanding that God was expressing Himself through His gradual sharing of the inner workings of life--the inner workings of His creation, in a sense.
Priestley saw what he was doing as God's work in this funny way that seems strange to us now, where we see science and faith as being so separate. For Priestley they were really united.
Amazon.com: That's one of his main connections to the Founding Fathers, then. He came to the US after the revolution, but not by choice. (That's another story.)
Johnson: Yes. He comes to the United States--really, an angry mob burns down his house because he becomes so controversial in England. He really is our first great scientist-exile, in a way. When he gets here, it turns out that Jefferson has read his religious writings, and been immensely influenced by them. Priestley had a bigger influence on Jefferson's religious views than anyone. What Jefferson found particularly moving was this solution that Priestley had come up with for reconciling the enlightened, rational, empiricist's view of the world with some kind of Christianity.
Jefferson famously created this bible where he edited out - a mash up of the bible before its time. [laughter] He edited out all the magic bits that had been added to the story and just left the core words of Jesus, and Jesus' life as a man, not as a divine figure. That bible, which is one of the great underground texts of American history, that bible was directly influenced by Priestley's writing. It was an attempt to put into practice what Priestley had written about in theory. So he continued to have this effect in this new country.
Amazon.com: One of the facts you begin with to measure his importance to those people is the famous correspondence between Adams and Jefferson in their later years as they reconciled their old controversies. Their main topic--the ground on which they seemed to reconcile--was Priestley.
Johnson: Yes, he's mentioned 52 times in the post-1812 correspondence. Hamilton, Washington, and Franklin are between them mentioned less than ten times. Part of that is because the conversation is really sparked by this letter that is uncovered that Jefferson had written to Priestley many years before that is really an apology for--it's one of the first letters that he writes after Jefferson is sworn in as President--it's an apology for the abuses of the Adams administration which Priestley had been caught up in. It's a very critical letter about Adams. It has this whole attitude of like: "You, Joseph Priestley, and I, Thomas Jefferson, we understand what this country is all about. It's about the future. And that Adams guy was always looking backwards," and all this stuff.
Years after Priestley dies, this letter finds its way into Adams's hands, kind of indirectly. He's just started this correspondence with Jefferson, but it's a very delicate exchange. They aren't really talking about ideas or anything like that. He reads this letter and it's like: "What is going on?" So he writes this angry screed to Jefferson, he writes another one saying: "How dare you say these things about me? How dare you call me anti-science?" and all this stuff. And then Jefferson finally writes back and he apologizes a bit, but more--he holds his own. And that's where the conversation really starts. They really get into what the revolution meant, science, progress, religion and Priestley. And that great political conversation in our country's history in a strange way was started by Joseph Priestley eight years after he died. It gives you a measure of how important he was.
Amazon.com: In this time when we keep looking back to the Founding Fathers to somehow explain who we're supposed to be. The place you actually begin your story is with an anecdote about one of the presidential candidates saying: "Well, you don't need to know what I think about evolution. That has nothing to do with being president." It seems clear that the first presidents thought that was quite important to what they were doing.
Johnson: That's a really nice way of phrasing it, that the founders--we look to them to try and figure out who we want to be, right? They're going to be our role models, so let's figure out what the values are we associate with those models. There's part of the reason I wrote this book. I think we're having a nice reception to it for a book about somebody who is relatively obscure, and lived a long time ago I think because people see this connection and feel it.
Priestley's life is a reminder that the founders really did see the integration of science and technology into their world view and political being as something that was essential. You couldn't pretend to be a know-nothing about those things, or pretend it was just something for the specialists that you didn't need to be concerned about. To take that position would be irresponsible. If it were true back then, it's even more true now. Think of how many science and technology issues are central to the core issues of our time: energy issues, environmental issues, genomics, neural science, and computer science in the form of the Internet--all these things.
This book, I really want it to be a reminder that interest in those things, the passion for those things, and the desire to connect to those different worlds really was one of the core values of the Founding Fathers. In a way, those are our roots, right? We should be returning to them, and celebrating them, and not running away from them.
Amazon.com: Well, thank you for that reminder.
Johnson: Thank you for letting me make it.