The Three Models of Science in “The Invention of Air”

In The Invention of Air, three models of science are presented. Progressive history is the theory that as time and society progress forward, so would science. This method takes into account changes in internal and external forces, “…both greater and smaller than individual humans” (Steven Johnson, ch.1 pg. 46). Paradigm shift history is the theory that claims that scientific progress doesn’t move linearly, but rather with established rules in an established paradigm. This method has sets of facts related to one scientific topic, and once someone in the field comes along and discovers something that is more accurate than the old established rules, the old paradigm collapses and the new one replaces it. Lastly, ecosystem theory is the theory that takes into account everything when studying a particular subject. This could be anything from, “..the microbiology of bacteria, …,all the way out to the physics that explains how solar energy collides with the Earth’s atmosphere” (ch. 1, pg. 48). The progressive approach is linear, the paradigm approach is focused on internal changes rather than external, and the ecosystem approach takes everything into account.

Steven Johnson uses the paradigm approach when talking about Joseph Priestly’s discovery of oxygen. When Priestly first walked into the coffee house with the great thinkers of the time such as Ben Franklin and John Canton, there were already rules established and taken as fact in the paradigm of electricity and air. However, Priestly’s interaction with the Honest Whigs gave him adequate knowledge to tinker a bit and end up with new rules for the paradigm, especially with air. Another example of this would be when Galileo Galilei established that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. This broke the old paradigm and replaced it with a new one.

One thought on “The Three Models of Science in “The Invention of Air”

  1. Hi Madie, I thought your analysis was really well written. I also like how you cited evidence from the text. Although I did not write my post about paradigm shift, I agree that there are definitely elements of it present in the retelling. Some of the ideas I did not really notice before you pointed them out. However, I would argue that rather than undergoing a paradigm shift, Priestley created a new paradigm because there was not already one set for his experiments of oxygen. Priestleys interactions with the Honest Whigs could also possibly be categorized in the ecosystem theory because he was circulating his ideas with scientists in other disciplines.


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