It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Thursday, February 25, 2010


We have all been here before.

Excerpts from Steven Johnson's remarkable The Invention of Air, a biography of the seminal chemist and founder of the Unitarian Church, Joseph Priestley.

To Priestley, ever the optimist, the controversies of the 1780s seemed like an indisputable sign of progress, both personal and societal. His ideas on religion and politics had reached the level of influence that his natural philosophy had attained during the Leeds years a decade before. ... Yet almost all the core elements from this period of Priestly's life - the coal deposits, the new factory system, the empowered dissenting churches, the revolutions abroad - conspired to produce a kind of dialectical monster that would rise up to take its vengeance on everything that Priestley and his coterie stood for. This was the "Church and King" movement a reactionary and of largely working class men, incited by the conservatrive elites, hostile to change in all its diverse forms ... [Priestley] was the ultimate nemesis for the mobs of Church and King.
Church and King in Birmingham would not fully break free until July of 1791, when the newly formed Constitutional Society - which numbered Priestley among its members - announced plans for a dinner on Bastille Day, welcoming any "friend to freedom" to join them ... A succession of leaflets, handbills, and newspaper adverts rolled in over the next week, inciting tempers on all sides. The most incendiary was a veritable call to arms: "Whatever the modern republicans may imagine, or the regicidal propounders of the rights of men design, let us convince them that there is enough loyalty in the majority of the inhabitants of this country to support and defend their king". ... The Constitutional Society itself took out an advertisement ... reaffirming its belief in the three estates of King, Lords and Commons, without backing down entirely from their support of the French revolt. ... These last minute gestures proved futile.

... The hotel proprietor ... suggested ... they carry on with the dinner, but leave early, before the inevitable trouble started. ... The discovery that they had missed their regicidal foes appeared to pique the mob's anger.

... Within a matter of hours [Priestley's home was burned to the ground]... the library where Priestly had performed magic lantern shows for the Lunar children, the drawing room where Mary and Joseph had played their backgammon, thousands of manuscript pages documenting decades of Priestley's investigations, the laboratory he had lovingly built for himself, along with that unique collection of tools that his Birmingham friends had crafted for him over the years. All of it had been lost to the fire.

... At the King's request three troops of Dragoons had arrived on the 17th to subdue the riot. (Many thought the response time was suspiciously slow.)

... The King's order to send the Dragoons had included this withering remark: "I cannot but feel better pleased that Priestley is the sufferer for the doctrines he and his party have instilled, and that the people see them in their true light." The Times even ran an entirely scurrilous report of the dinner, which falsely placed Priestley at the event, and quoted him raising his glass to "The King's head on a platter."

[At an advanced age, when crossing the ocean was not easy Priestley immigrated to the US, but found to his astonishment that his troubles have followed him, as he became known as a critic of President Adams, who had signed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts into law.]

... The situation was about to get much worse. Unbeknownst to Priestley, a few weeks before the Alien and Sedition Acts passed, a packet of letters headed for Priestley was captured on board a Danish frigate and leaked to the British press. ... The correspondence addressed Priestley as a committed supporter of the French, and spoke rhapsodically of France's plan to invade England and complete its project of bringing the glories of liberty to all Europe. ... It was entirely a one-sided conversation, but the undeniable impression on reading the letters was that Stone believed he was writing to a friend whose primary allegiances were to the Directoire Executif in Paris above all else.

... William Cobbett published the letters in their entirety, accompanied by scathing editorial commentary and a banner headline "PRIESTLEY COMPLETELY DETECTED". The copy included a direct challenge to Adams: "If this discovery passes unnoticed by the government, it will operate as the greatest encouragement that its enemies have ever received"

Emphasis added. The whole book is great, by the way, and not in the Bill Gates sense of greatness (the lesser greatness that applies to Microsoft products).

Priestley never really got his laboratory rebuilt in America, of course.

Some aspects of the story seem oddly familiar, don't they?

Portrait of Joseph Priestley ca 1794 by Ellen Sharples (1769 - 1849) via Wikipedia


Vinny Burgoo said...

Priestley was a millenarian and a phlogistonist. That is, he longed for the end of the world and his science was wrong. Are you sure you want to foster such comparisons?

(You might enjoy Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men. A cracking read - and she spelled his name right.)

Barb said...

Thought you'd find this NPR story interesting: "Belief in Climtae Change Hinges on Worldview" --

Michael Tobis said...

Vinny, you can't help yourself, can you? Your definition of millenarianism no more applies to Priestly than did his contemporaries' innuendo that he wanted to kill the king.

As for phlogiston, yes, it's interesting how stubborn people can be, and that's certainly another lesson of the story. But the mob was not incited by the oligarchs on account of the weakness of his science, but rather on account of his temerity in attempting to do science at all.

Michael Tobis said...

The name does look better with an 'e' in it, doesn't it? Fixed. Thanks.

Marion Delgado said...

Michael, you should mention, if you haven't already, An Enemy of the People. It's fiction, but if I moved to Norway and wrote it today, I think everyone who saw it would assume I was doing a parable about the climate debate.

The best part is, its didactic speeches by the protagonist are almost John Galt-like, so even libertarians can enjoy it.

As for Priestley - Newton believed far more absurd things than he did. And Priestley than we do.

However, thanks to the Teabagger science movement, it's possible our descendents will be back somewhere around where Newton was, or earlier - astrology, numerology, and yes, phlogiston may all make a comeback.

dhogaza said...

"However, thanks to the Teabagger science movement, it's possible our descendents will be back somewhere around where Newton was, or earlier - astrology, numerology, and yes, phlogiston may all make a comeback."

Did someone just say astrology?

Read this resolution passed by the House in South Dakota two days ago

(1) That global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact;"

Just out of the creationists handbook ... but the best part ...

"(2) That there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect [sic] world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative..."

Not only astrological influences on climate, but infrared medical imaging influences on climate should be taught to the children in public schools in South Dakota.

No, it's not the Onion. If only it were ...

gravityloss said...

In a world where the Onion is more accurate than many news agencies - even when it doesn't try to be! (Well many news agencies can't be blamed for trying too much either.)