The book is centered on the life of Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century British natural philosopher (or amateur scientist) who most people know as the discoverer of oxygen. Back in 1771, he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen. This places Priestley at the centre of the understanding about ecosystems: the air we breathe is not some inevitable fact of life on earth, but something manufactured as part of a wider system by other organisms on the planet. Priestly wasn’t just a scientist but is a connecter. He connects and build friendships with the American Founding Fathers in all sorts of ways: he was best friends with Franklin for the last ten years or so that Benjamin Franklin lived in London, and his writings on religion had the single most dramatic impact on Thomas Jefferson’s Christianity.
Priestley’s radicalism ends up provoking the Birmingham Riots of 1791, which ultimately drive him to emigrate to America, where he becomes a central figure in the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the falling out — and ultimate reconciliation — between John Adams and Jefferson.
To give you some sense of his role: in the final correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, starting in 1812, Priestley is mentioned 52 times, while Franklin is mentioned five times, and Washington only three.
I was also fascinated by the idea of leisure time in the book. The people mentioned in it were able to dedicate time to science, writing, and big ideas because they had the time to do it. Priestly was a pastor, Franklin was a deputy postmaster, and all of the Club of Honest Whigs had enough free time to experiment, read, and debate into the night at least one week at a local pub.
The results were spectacular. Not only did Priestly, Franklin and others bring in the inventions and technology that helped fuel the industrial revolution in England, they shared that knowledge with the world. Priestly was a searcher who shared his discoveries openly and willingly, crossed disciplinary boundaries with impunity and insight, who conceived of the world as a large laboratory.
He had time to do so because of the freedom his church gave him and later he was supported by a wealthy benefactor who supported his experiments. Later in his life he set up a network of private donors to pay small sums to support his work, an idea that was used by Ben Saunders as he raised money for his Scott Antarctic Expedition.
I think of my pastor/theologian/contemplative/activist friends and wonder what they could come up with if they had 50 hours a week to dedicate to study and learning rather than meetings, marking papers, and fielding complaints and instead dedicate that time to figuring out the problems of our time.
Now in the late 1700s, Priestly’s sermon was his only distraction from his research but I wonder what the impact would be if churches followed Google’s lead and offered a 80/20 solution where 20% of ones time could be spent pursuing other projects approved by the church. Is it going to lead to a scientific revolution? I doubt it but it could lead to a revolution in film making, a new understanding about urban communities, an engagement with the contemplative life, or maybe the launch of a sports league or team for inner city youth. Years ago I listened to Dr. Charles Nienkirchen give a talk about clergy and the spiritual journey in which he suggested taking once a month for pastors to take a “spiritual day” and retreat from the office and go find some silence in which to listen. This is kind of similar but the difference would be the idea to go and create. Not for your own good but the good of the greater community.
There are a lot of great ideas in the book, too many to explore here. For those of you who are from south of the border, you will be interested in his influence on the Founding Fathers and there are some great stories on the spread of ideas long before copyright ruled the earth. It also offers some insight into the early debates about the American experiment and those that were carrying it out.
Johnson paints Priestley as the sort of figure the world needs more than ever: A searcher who shared his discoveries openly and willingly, crossed disciplinary boundaries with impunity and insight, who conceived of the world as a large laboratory. Priestley, who survived riots, threats of prosecution and other hardships and yet never doubted that "the world was headed naturally toward an increase in liberty and understanding." I am not sure some days if we are headed towards an increase of liberty and understanding or as Jane Jacobs suggests, a coming dark age but the book articulates the importance in striving towards something better.