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'Invention Of Air' Explains Discovery Of Oxygen

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'Invention Of Air' Explains Discovery Of Oxygen

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'Invention Of Air' Explains Discovery Of Oxygen

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For the rest of the hour, Joseph Priestley. Around three million years ago, the first photosynthetic organisms began to belch oxygen into Earth's atmosphere. Well, let's fast forward to 1772 and a makeshift home laboratory in Leeds, England. Joseph Priestley, a radical preacher and science hobbyist, puts a mouse and sprig of mint in an underwater jar and discovers that plants somehow recharge and refresh our breathable air.

In his new book, "The Invention of Air," Steven Johnson traces oxygen's path from that early algae soup to Priestley's 18th-century experiments, and he tells the story of his deep scientific and religious influence and those influences on many of the American founding fathers. Joining me now to talk more about Priestley, oxygen and the rich science culture of early America, here's Steven Johnson, author of "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America." He's here in our New York studios. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. STEVEN JOHNSON (Author, "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America"): Thanks, Ira. Good to be here.

FLATOW: You have packed so much into this book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But it's really about revolution in every sense, isn't it?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. I think that was one of the kind of dominant initial questions that I had, was, how was someone like Priestley - how did he managed to be so innovative in so many different fields at the same time? It's just - his story is really an extraordinary one, and if you look back at this period that the book kind of traces from basically '65 to when he dies in 1804, he manages to make all these amazing breakthroughs in all these different fields. And it's that kind of connective thinking, connective intelligence, that the book is really celebrating.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And he - in his work with oxygen, he did not sort of patent this idea about oxygen, did he?

Mr. JOHNSON: That's right. He was a compulsive sharer. It's another one of the themes of the book. I mean, he just - he had to get whatever he discovered out to as many people as possible. He was a great popularizer of ideas. In fact, in some ways, he invented the whole genre of popular science. He wrote this book on the history of electricity; it's one of the first things that he did in science. And he deliberately did it - wrote it in English...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: Which is a big, you know, kind of breakthrough and wrote it for kind of a lay audience.

FLATOW: He very much sounds like the British version of Benjamin Franklin.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, he was very close to Franklin, and in some ways - one of the ways I got to this story and one of the key themes of it is his connection to the American founding fathers. I'd known a little bit about Priestley and his investigations into oxygen and a few things, but when I found out that he was as close as he was to Franklin - Franklin was in London, you know, for many years, and he struck up this extraordinary friendship with Priestley. Franklin spent his last day, before kind of being exiled from his second home in London to go back to support the Revolutionary War, he spent that last day with Priestley. And when I found out that Priestley had this connection to the founders and to Franklin, I realized that this was a story not just about scientific breakthrough, but about politics and about the American experience as well.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Priestley supported the American Revolution.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, he was one of the most vocal British supporters. I mean, there's kind of this nice thing of the story of kind of collaboration across the pond during this period, where we almost always hear about antagonism between England and the colonies. So, it's got that nice kind of element of camaraderie in there as well.

FLATOW: I'm sure that the British didn't take it so kindly.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, he grew - you know, it's interesting. Priestley, he was an enormously kind of generous and optimistic guy, who, by the 1790s, became in some ways the most hated man in England, in part for his support of the American cause, in part for his radical religious beliefs, and in part for his eventual support for the French Revolution. So, he had this very unusual kind of evolution of his positions and his kind of relationship with the general public over that period.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And he kept up his writings, and he wrote the Thomas Jefferson and people like that about his views?

Mr. JOHNSON: (Laughing) He was an unbelievably prolific guy. I mean, he wrote something like 500 books and pamphlets over the course of his life.

FLATOW: Amazing.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's just incredible to think about. And apparently, he had - Jefferson wrote, actually, that Priestley was one of his great heroes and that, in fact, Priestly had had the most significant impact on Jefferson's religious views.

FLATOW: In what way?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, Priestley had kind of co-founded the Unitarian Church in England and had written extensively on the history of Christianity. And basically, he'd written this, kind of, empirical version of Christianity, where he went through and said, listen, the original message is Christ is this very important thing, and there's great merit in that, and he considered himself a devout Christian. But Priestley believed that the faith had been kind of distorted by the addition of, kind of, supernatural materials over the years, and so, he wrote this book, "A History of the Corruptions of Christianity," and that book transformed Jefferson's life. And Jefferson wrote - created this famous Jefferson's Bible, where he edited out all these supernatural elements, and that was directly influenced by Priestley's vision of the world.

FLATOW: Hmm. Talking with us, Steven Johnson, author of the "Invention of Air," on Science Friday from NPR News. Did he separate science from religion? Was he able to do that?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think part of what makes him important to us now is that he - not only did he not do it, he didn't want to do it, and that he saw those worlds as related to each other and as reconcilable on some level. He believed that the great march of progress over the preceding years, the centuries of the Enlightenment, were really, you know, the great emblem of, kind of, God's will on Earth that we were able to see more and more. He never totally persuaded Franklin of that, who was less religious than either Jefferson or Priestley. But I think that was the model of, kind of, reconciliation between the two that really influenced Jefferson a great deal.

FLATOW: It's interesting. All three of them were sort of renaissance people, weren't they?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. Although, in a funny way, I think we shouldn't use the word "renaissance," because what's important about - one of the things that's important about what Priestley introduced is that he introduced in many ways this idea of enlightenment progress, this idea that society was on this kind of permanent movement upwards in science and technology, and we were just going to learn more and more and more about the world. And if you go back and look at kind of the Renaissance, the view of the world at that point was much more cyclical. There was this kind of new flowering of intellectual activity that was happening, but no doubt, it was going to go away and there would be another Dark Ages. And it was really only with the Enlightenment that we start to see this idea that we're on this permanent, kind of, escalator upwards and we're going to understand - each generation will understand more about the world than the generation before it.

FLATOW: Hmm. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. We're talking with Steven Johnson, author of "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America." How did they all get intertwined together? What was Priestley's interest in that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, one way was the coffee house, a very important, you know, player in enlightenment culture, particularly in London. It became this interesting, kind of, melting-pot space, where people would come together with very different backgrounds and hang out in this, kind of, public space, drinking coffee.

FLATOW: People think today that Starbucks invented the coffee house.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right now, the coffee house - and the coffee house was important in two ways. It created a cross-disciplinary space, where people could come together and share ideas and just, you know, riff together...


Mr. JOHNSON: As Franklin and Priestley did. That's where they first met; it was at the London Coffee House near St. Paul's Cathedral. But the other thing it did was it introduced caffeine to the daily, kind of, beverage intake of Londoners. And if you go back a century or two before, most of the day, people drank alcohol all day, because it was really the only safe beverage you could drink, because their water wasn't safe. And so, pretty much, you had people waking up and starting to drink beer and wine all through the day...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: So, you get an entire population that was pretty much drunk from about nine o'clock on, right? And so, it's not an accident that the Age of Enlightenment coincides with the arrival of kind of caffeine and tea as the kind of daily beverage of choice for that population. They're just - everybody was a lot more alert, basically, during the day.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Priestley was called Gun-Powder Joe, because he was - he liked to ignite stuff (unintelligible).

Mr. JOHNSON: He liked to ignite stuff. He gave a very controversial sermon that talked about laying the gun powder grain by grain underneath the Church of England. And he was advised not to give this speech, but he have this strange, kind of, openness and optimism about his ideas, that he felt that if he just said what he was thinking, people would come around and people wouldn't be so scandalized by them. And so, he kept, kind of, digging himself into deeper and deeper holes, and it eventually got him, you know, run out of England.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Steven Johnson, author of The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America." If you'd like to send us a tweet, as they say, you can Twitter us, @SciFri. It's the at sign, S-C-I-F-R-I, or join us on Second Life, and also there's a group over there is discussing it. Get your free t-shirt. We have to break away for a short break. We'll come back and talk about some more with Steven Johnson and take your questions about the life of Joseph Priestley. And we'll talk about how the invention of seltzer got started, actually. He could have invented it - he invented it. Well, there's good story behind it, so invention of seltzer after we come back. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow, interviewing Steven Johnson about his new book, "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America." 1-800-989-8255, and in the book, he details the story of oxygen and Joseph Priestley in the 1770s. He discovered that you could mix carbon dioxide and water and make what we call here in New York seltzer, what they call everywhere else soda water, but he didn't make a nickel on it, did he?

Mr. JOHNSON: It's one of the great little accidents of history. He moved with his wife to a house in Leeds. He was taking over as a minister in Leeds, and there was kind of a temporary house that they gave them before the official residence was open. And it happened to be - the - kind of adjacent to the local brewery, and ever inquisitive, Priestley would kind of pop over there and look at all the vats of beer that they were brewing, and he noticed that there were kind of these little haze over the water, over the fluid.

And so, he decided that he would start conducting experiments, and the people at the brewery were very nice and let this kind of strange minister come over and do these things. And he found that if he passed, kind of, water back and forth between two glasses over the beer, he would get this, kind of, delightful taste of, like, certain mountain spring waters that people had experienced. And so, he wrote to a lot of people about it and never attempted to patent it and just try to - he though for awhile it might be good cure for scurvy, which was entirely not true. But he tried to get people on to that idea. And you know, a few years later, Johann Schweppes patented his delightful tonic water...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: And did a little better on the financial front than Priestley did, but that's the way he was, and in fact, that's the way so much of Enlightenment science was. I mean, we really hadn't developed the system; the idea of, kind of, corporate, industrial R&D really didn't exist yet and was just starting to exist with the Industrial Revolution. And so much of Enlightenment science was about just taking ideas and sharing them and really doing it without any sense of commercial benefit at all. There wasn't really a mechanism for commercial benefit at that point.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, somebody had to pay for it, right, for their time?

Mr. JOHNSON: Right. And that's crucial to the story of his life, because he was constantly in search of patrons. And one of the things that I tried to talk about in the book is the importance of energy in all this stuff. What Priestly needed was leisure time; he needed leisure time to kind of pursuit these, you know, eccentric investigations that he had, and in a sense, the price of leisure time is paid in energy.

When you have a society that has a lot of energy flowing through it, as England did at that point - thanks to industrialization, there was a lot of money being made because of that energy - and he managed to fall in with these folks in Birmingham called the Lunar Society, a bunch of rising industrialists, who basically said, this guy is a genius; we should just, you know, pay his bills and occasionally ask him questions and invite him over for dinner, and it will be worth our time just to keep him going. And so, he lived, in a sense, off the Industrial Revolution in this kind of indirect way through the 1780s and early 1790s.

FLATOW: Did he understand, or did scientists understand, at the time how important oxygen was in the history of the world?

Mr. JOHNSON: No, not at all, certainly before he started looking into it. I mean, you have to go back and think about air as a problem. I mean, you had to - you had to have a major breakthrough to think that there was anything to study there on the first place, right? I mean, if you just look around and you see lots of things worth studying - that tree over there and that animal over there - but the stuff - the invisible stuff between all those things doesn't seem like there's actually anything there. So, the first thing that happened is that people proved that there was this anti-air, a vacuum, and so that somehow, air was different from anti-air, even though it didn't look any different.

And then people started to think, well, maybe the air is a mixture of different gases, and so, that's kind of where Priestly got into the question. And the great breakthrough that he had that - he's most famous for isolating oxygen, which - he kind of gets it wrong, because he wasn't really the first person to isolate it, and he made some mistakes along the way. The thing that I think is so fantastic and that I think he deserves more credit for, as you mentioned, is that he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen, so that the natural, kind of, makeup of the Earth's atmosphere would be, basically, about one-percent oxygen. But in fact, for millions of millions of years, it's been 20-percent oxygen, and that's because we have these amazing little machines of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: Photosynthetic machines of plants that are pumping our atmosphere field full with oxygen. And so, Priestley was the first guy that kind of stumbled upon that. And importantly, the first person he really shared this breakthrough with was Ben Franklin, and it was Franklin who suggested that perhaps it was a broader, kind of, global pattern. And so, it was a real collaboration between the two of them, and Franklin even said, well, I hope this will stop people from this latest trend of cutting down trees near where people live, because the trees make the air unwholesome. You know, back in America, we have lots of trees and we're very healthy. And so, right there, it's almost the beginning of an environmental view of the world, a kind of a green view of the world, that our atmosphere is created by other organisms around us and that we have to be careful what we do with it because it's fragile.

FLATOW: Interesting. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Scott in North Manchester, Indiana. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT (Caller): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon to you.

SCOTT: I just wanted to make sure that your guest if he doesn't already know and your listeners know of the play called "Oxygen." It's written by two chemists, one of whom was a Nobel laureate in chemistry...

FLATOW: Carl Djerassi.

SCOTT: Yep, well, he wasn't the Nobel laureate; his partner was; and the conceit is that a fictional committee at the hundredth anniversary decides to award a posthumous Nobel Prize to the person who had the greatest discovery, and they decided that oxygen was the greatest discovery. Problem was when they reconvened, they had three names. Your guest probably knows the other two...

Mr. JOHNSON: Yep, Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Lavoisier, yeah.

SCOTT: Scheele, yep, and so, the conceit is to try to decide amongst the committee which one really did discover oxygen first. The other thing for the theater production is that three experiments are performed on stage.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

SCOTT: And a...

FLATOW: Have you seen the production?

SCOTT: I produced and directed it at my small college.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

SCOTT: And I know of other productions that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCOTT: Had a lot more technical facility than I did, but it was a wonderful play to create a collaboration between the science division and the theater department.

FLATOW: Yeah. We've had - Djerassi's been on talking about the play.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's great. You know, one of the things that was fun for me writing this book is I hadn't realized, until I was about a month or two into researching it, that the story of oxygen shows up in one of the very early chapters in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn, one of the most influential books of the last 50 years, which I had read many years ago and just had kind of forgotten that he tells the story very early on, and he - and so, that becomes one of the issues that the book kind of deals with is how change happens, how breakthrough ideas happen.

And Kuhn tells the story precisely to show how blurry it often is at the boundaries, that it's very - when you actually have the transition (unintelligible), that it's very hard to say who really was first, because the definitions haven't been, kind of, set up. I mean - and this is just a great case study in that. But I feel that he did - the one thing that is much clearer is that he did - he does seem to be the first person to realize the connection between plants and breathable air. So, we need to give them more props for that, I think.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Scott. Have a good weekend.

SCOTT: Thank you. You, too.

FLATOW: Bye. 1-800-989-8255. Lots of folks want to talk about this. Let's go to Thomas in New Brunswick New Jersey. Hi, Thomas.

THOMAS (Caller): Yes, how are you? And my questions just kind of changed since I've listened. At first I was more into the American Revolution, and I was going to ask about Adams, Franklin and Jefferson and the amazing thing that Adams and Jefferson died within hours of each other on July 4th, of all things. But this amazing oxygen discussion is incredible. I was wondering what the guest thinks - I've read a lot of places that said oxygen is actually a very dangerous, you know, thing, to put it very simply. Is that true? I mean, in certain forms, is oxygen a very dangerous?

Mr. JOHNSON: Ah, absolutely, and in fact, one way you can think about the global emergence of photosynthesis, which produced oxygen as a waste product, is that it was the first great case of planetary pollution. It was - oxygen was lethal on contact for many of the organisms that existed on the planet at that point, and it took, you know, millions of billions, really, of years for organism to kind of stumble across a way to make a living off of it and to survive, and we are the descendants of those organisms. But initially, it was a catastrophe, and it took a long time for evolution to, kind of, shape a response.

But I'd say one other thing, since you brought up the Adams and Jefferson connection as well; one of the things I love about this story is that Priestley shows up right at the epicenter of the Adams/Jefferson letters. He really is the, kind of, turning point in that famous conversation between those two men, and he's a turning point, strangely enough, about eight years after he died. Jefferson - Adams uncovers a letter that Jefferson had written to Priestley, where he'd said all these, kind of, nasty things about Adams, including suggesting that Adams was anti-science and was resistant to the innovations of the day and wasn't as forward-thinking as Jefferson and Priestley were.

And Adams just, you know, got completely outraged by this, as he sometimes would do, and writes this kind of angry letter, and it's that angry, kind of, initial response that starts the real substantive conversation of the Adams/Jefferson letters. But I think it's interesting in our own climate to think that the thing that Adams was most outraged by was the accusation that in some way he was anti-science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: And that's something important, I think, to think about in our own political climate. If there's a message of this book, is that to be anti-science is not just in some sense to be anti-intellectual. But if you go back and look at the story the founders through the lens of Priestley's life, on some basic level, it's un-American; it's a betrayal of kind an intellectual sensibility that the founders have.

FLATOW: We had presidential candidates raising their hand, being proud to be anti-science.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I did - the book has a little prologue, where I start with this very funny line, actually, that Mike Huckabee had - although I don't name him in the book - during one of the debates, when he was asked about evolution, and he said - and they asked him if he believed in evolution, and he said, I don't - I think it's funny that I'm being asked that question; I'm running for president. I'm not asking to write an 8th-grade science textbook. And the idea that those worlds could be kept that separate, that science is just the thing for the guys in their lab coats - you know, I'm concerned with important issues as president - given how many important issues of this day revolve around science and technology, it's just...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's not responsible.

FLATOW: C. P. Snow talked about these two cultures, but this is not the two cultures he was talking about...

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah.

FLATOW: In that exact sense. He's talking to intellectuals versus the scientists, not the non-believers or believers in science.

Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly. And I think we have had this divide, in some ways - if there's a common theme of most of my books, it's been trying to bridge the, kind of, the culture of humanities and the culture of sciences. And there's a lot of kind of productive - so, this is a book about politics and about American history and British history, but it's also about scientific discovery. And I think that there's a great opportunity for, kind of, dialogue between those different worlds.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Steven Johnson, author of the "Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America" on Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Let's see if we can get a few phone calls in here, because lots of - this is a very interesting topic. Priscilla in Cincinnati. Hi, Priscilla.

PRISCILLA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

PRISCILLA: I was interested in the idea - well, I have read Thomas Kuhn's "Scientific Revolution," and in that, he names Ben Franklin as the father of electricity. I mean, it's, like, there was a revolution because of the things that he wrote about electricity. But one of the things about this Age of Enlightenment, and Priestley in particular, until this Age of Enlightenment, people didn't experiment; they just had thoughts. Oh, well, we'll observe this, and you know, we'll say that that's the rule. And Aristotle was one of the proponents of most of that. I mean, so everybody believed what Aristotle did. But Priestly, by experimentation, is adding a whole new dimension to science. And the experimentation is what I wanted to point out is - you know, you don't just look and observe; you experiment.

Mr. JOHNSON: That's a great, great point. You know, part of what I do in the book is, kind of, celebrate this idea of amateurs dabbling in new fields and the fact that Priestley was able to do so many innovative things in different fields. And the truth is, it's hard to do that now, because you have to specialize because science has made so much progress over the preceding 200 years. But the - it was possible for people like Priestley and Franklin - who had no real training in this, because there's really nowhere to go to school for these things at that point - they were able to do it because there was a whole world of data out there that had not yet had the scientific method applied to it.

And so, somebody could be sitting there in their, you know, home kitchen and discover, you know, how oxygen was produced or isolate oxygen for the first time. It's a lot harder to do that in your home labs today for understandable and for good reasons. That's a sign of progress. But it's exactly that, that there had not been an experimental method and that kind of rigor really applied to the entire universe of phenomenon until, really, the, you know, 1600s and 1700s.

FLATOW: And then, America sort of followed Great Britain in terms of science. They were sort of on the coattails.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, and - that's exactly right. And Priestley ended up - an angry mob burns down his house, and he ends up emigrating and ends up dying in American Northumberland, Pennsylvania. And really, when he came over, it's important to remember another way in which it's important to the American tradition, is he was the first great scientist exile.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JOHNSON: He was the beginning of a long, venerable - one of the most laudable traditions in, you know, in American society of someone whose ideas had driven him out of his own country, and the one place he could think of to go was America.

FLATOW: Were his intellectual contemporaries still alive when he got here?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. Well, he arrived and was greeted. You know, he met with Washington and spent quite a bit of time with Adams and then had kind of a falling out with Adams and sided with Jefferson, really, in the feud between Adams and Jefferson, which set up the whole conversation that Adams and Jefferson had 15 years later. But he ended up living kind of remotely in rural Pennsylvania and was kind of isolated.

FLATOW: And we hear nothing about him in American history. Isn't that strange?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. It's - I hope that people will hear more about him.

FLATOW: I mean, here he was...

Mr. JOHNSON: He's such a great...

FLATOW: He shared all this ideas with, I should say, traded all these ideas with Franklin and Jefferson and everybody else. And he's just sort of a footnote to Americans, and he was - it's almost like Einstein coming over here in the '30s, and no one ever talked about him as American...

Mr. JOHNSON: Exactly right.

FLATOW: You know, or harboring any kind of American background. Well, thank you very much. You got a new book in the works? So, you have something knew that you're interested in?

Mr. JOHNSON: I'm starting to put it together, but right now, I'm just thinking about this one.

FLATOW: This is - and it is a great book. It's called "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America" by Steven Johnson, who's also author of "The Ghost Map." He's written lots of great books. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's my pleasure.

FLATOW: And have a Happy New Year.

Mr. JOHNSON: You, too.

FLATOW: And good luck to you on your next project. That's about all the time we have today. We've run out of time. Greg Smith composed our theme music. We had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. If you have comments or questions, please send them - you could write to us the old, classic way, yes, with a pen and paper, if you'd like. Science Friday, 4 West 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York, 10036. Also, surf over to our Web site at We're Twittering and blogging and podcasting and putting up a science videos. We've got our new science video pick of the week that Flora had put up there. Also, we'd like to welcome back WNYC FM right here in New York to our Science Friday family. It's nice to be heard again in the Big Apple. Have a great weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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