Saturday, December 20, 2008

Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is the author of the national bestsellers Everything Bad Is Good for You and Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, as well as Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate.

From a Q & A at his publisher's website about The Invention of Air, his latest book:

Why did you decide to write a book about Joseph Priestley, who is today such a relatively little-known figure?

What's the fun in writing about someone everyone already knows about? I think there's something exciting about taking historical figures who should be better know, and telling their story in a way that hopefully shows their importance to modern readers. That's exactly what I tried to do with John Snow in The Ghost Map—take a relatively obscure event and make the case for why it was one of the turning points in modern civilization. There's a comparable argument here with Priestley: not only was he a brilliant and influential scientist and intellectual, but he's a missing link between some of the most famous names in American history, a kind of "lost" founding father.

What connection did he have to America's Founders? How did he get to know Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson intimately?

Priestley got to know Franklin first, because of course Franklin lived in London for many years of his life. (In fact, had the conflict that led to the Revolutionary War not broken out, it's entirely likely that Franklin would have remained in London for the rest of his life.) They were both part of an informal club of scientists and political thinkers—Franklin dubbed it the "Club of Honest Whigs"—that met that the London Coffeehouse once every two weeks. He met Adams during the 1780s when he was Ambassador to England, and they had a somewhat volatile relationship the next decade after Priestley emigrated to America. Priestley didn't meet Jefferson until he moved to America, but the two men had a wonderful correspondence in the final years of Priestley's life.
Read the complete Q & A.

Visit Steven Johnson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue