By Emily Foss
Midway through the first chapter of The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson outlines three models to explain how advancements in science arise throughout history and explores the prime movers behind them. He begins with the progressive model which asserts that scientific discovery behaves like a conveyor belt moving steadily upward, building upon the contributions of our predecessors. In his writings, Joseph Priestly constructs a metaphor comparing scientific understanding to a mountain, the apex of which still remains shrouded in mist, unknown to us. According to this model, an advancement in science cannot be contributed solely to the “great man” who brought it about, “because the creation and spread of new ideas are shaped by forces both greater and smaller than individual humans” (Johnson, 46). The forces that propel this model forward include class struggles, dialectics, technological innovations and the evolution of capital.
The second model is the Kuhnian or “paradigm shift” model which states that scientific progress does not occur linearly but rather within very specific paradigms that over time become disrupted by new anomalous data. When this occurs, “revolutionary science” must be performed in order to reinvent the rules, causing the old paradigm to collapse. This model relies on empirical study, but is bound by the facts and conventions of the current paradigm. It neglects external changes such as those in politics, society or technology.
Lastly, there is the ecosystem theory which considers the interplay of the many different branches of scientific study and how they all coalesce into a layered, “long zoom” view. This model emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary exchanging of ideas and claims that no one person or field is isolated from or exists outside the ecosystem.
Johnson uses all three models to some extent to illustrate Priestley’s discovery of oxygen but the one I find most compelling is the ecosystem theory. Johnson portrays his subject as somewhat of a renaissance man of science whose interests span a broad range of topics. By a happy accident, Priestly ends up taking residence near the brewery where the fermentation vats and their “mephitic” air spurn him onto the path to discovery – up the mountain, shall we say. Johnson ponders whether or not Priestly would have ever gone on to achieve what he did without this twist of fate.
Priestly also corresponded regularly with men of myriad disciplines and interests when he frequented the intellectual breeding grounds that were English coffeehouses in the mid-eighteenth century. No man is an island, and without the encouragement and zeal of his contemporaries, the work of Priestly and countless others would likely have been stunted or at worst, utterly thwarted.
A modern-day analogue to coffeehouse culture can be found in the World Wide Web where anyone with access to a computer can deep-dive into any topic that piques their interest, share their ideas with like-minded individuals, accessing a network that facilitates progress and connectedness.
I have well exceeded the word count at this point, but I’d like to close with one quote I found particularly interesting: “Humans made the steam engine, but the steam engine ended up remaking humanity in ways the original inventors never anticipated.”