Arresting account of the career of Joseph Priestley (1733–1804)—scientist, political polemicist, preacher, radical and friend of the American and French revolutions.
The subtitle is no throwaway: Johnson (The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, 2006, etc.) takes a close look at what in Priestley’s time were the overlapping domains of science, religion and politics. He notes, for example, that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were Priestley’s friends, applied the principle of reason to the most serious questions of the time, an approach that ignited decades of revolution and backlash. Priestley’s radical views eventually forced him into exile after an angry mob burned and destroyed his home and laboratory in 1791. He died in America, his friendship with Jefferson deepening in his final years. Johnson opens the book with the image of waterspouts viewed by Priestley aboard the ship bringing him to America; the author revisits this image later when he compares waterspouts to mobs of marauding humans. Johnson examines Priestley’s great strengths, among them his curiosity about the plainest things in view, which were often the most unexplainable. He also notes that Priestley came along at a most propitious time. Scientific equipment was becoming more sophisticated, enabling him to conduct his foundational experiments with oxygen, while the improving English economy and a supportive spouse provided him with essential leisure. Johnson employs his customary digressiveness to great effect, with asides on the importance of coffee to the Enlightenment, on the significance of England’s vast coal deposits, and on Lavoisier’s improvements of the French gunpowder that powered the American Revolution. Priestley questioned religious mysticism, the magical view of Jesus and the worship of saints and relics, the author notes, but never abandoned his fundamental belief in God.
Another rich, readable examination of the intersections where culture and science meet from a scrupulous historian who never offers easy answers to troubling, perhaps intractable questions.