21 February 2011

The Invention of Air

It isn't often that I wind up able to talk about a book, science, a scientist, and my genealogy in the same post, but Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air manages that feat.

The book is a pleasure to read.  Johnson's linchpin is Joseph Priestley's life and science.  I'd always thought of him as an English scientist, which turns out to be only partly true.  He finished his life in the USA, corresponding particularly with Thomas Jefferson both in revolutionary and post revolutionary days.  The Jefferson connection (and before that, Franklin) make for some interesting reading and historical insight outside of science as well as inside.

In his writing on Priestley's science, Johnson captures some of my themes about scientists being people, having lives, and those having some influence on what work they do and how they do it.   Also nice to see was that Johnson did not take the oversimple telling of 'good guy / bad guy' for Priestley's advancing the phlogiston theory and holding on to it longer than most.

To back up, as not everybody already knows, Joseph Priestley was one of the major chemists of the 1700s, most known perhaps for 'discovering' oxygen, but also (and Johnson makes a good case that this was the more significant) that plants release oxygen and consume carbon dioxide.  His approach to his research, though, was not the stereotypical one step leading to the next with some ultimate conclusion drawing ever closer.  It was more the 'try many things and see a) what happens or b) what works'.  And he then was active in describing how it is he did his experiments, as often the method itself was the important aspect of the work.

If you know a young scientist, I'll suggest you get this for them as well and not just yourself.

The genealogy I'll put below the fold.  For here, it suffices that I'm not a descendant of Priestley's.

As I got late in to the book, I found that when Priestley came to the USA, he moved to Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.  This is about 100 miles, as the crow flies, outside Philadelphia.  Being that far away from an intellectual center, Johnson noted, greatly slowed Priestley's communications and discussions.  Which, given how Priestley worked, was a great barrier.  His reason for being so inconveniently far away was the Yellow Fever and Smallpox that were rife in Philadelphia.

At that time (call it 1800, he arrived before and died after, and shows up in the 1800 census) I have several ancestors in Pennsylvania.  One particular family is Peter White and Elizabeth Brittain, who lived in what was then Northumberland County (now Columbia).  As I make it by Google earth, about 20 miles from Priestley's location in Pilot township.

Elizabeth's father, Zeboeth Brittain (or Zeboath) died in 1790, in Northampton county -- about 50 miles outside Philadelphia -- of smallpox.  I'd have thought 50 miles was enough to be safe, but Priestley had some fair reason to be even farther away.

Alas, no prospect that Peter and Elizabeth, or Peter's father John, who also lived in Northumberland, ever met up with Priestley.  Peter and John were farmers.  John was about Priestley's age.  But 20 miles in 1800 was a 2 day trip, possibly more then due to the roads versus mountains problem (i.e. roads tended not to cross mountains, and Priestley and the Whites were in different valleys).

Still, I find it helpful to think about the notable figures, such as Priestley, versus ancestry.  Saying that he was contemporary with my 5 times great grandfather (John White/Johann Weisz) helps bring things in to a perspective better than observing that 1800 was 210 years ago.


Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Joseph Priestley House
Northumberland, Pennsylvania, USA

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Oh, and Priestley has two 'e's.

Robert Grumbine said...

A belated thanks (the correction went up fairly quickly) for the correction, and the address. I'll have to visit the Priestley house one of these days.