Priestley the open-sourcer

Word of a Sunday book review in the New York Times (January 23) floated around the office a few days ago. I was sure it would hit the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere, but didn’t.

The book? The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America by Steven Johnson. Its subject? Joseph Priestley: the discoverer of oxygen (disputed) and carbon dioxide and Unitarian minister. I noted this last point, and that we lived in the bounds of a denominational subdivision named for him.

What interested some of my peers is that the reviewer, Russell Shorto, found in Johnson’s work

One reason Johnson seems to have been drawn to Priestley is because of his style; Priestley was irrepressibly open, sharing his data and observations with whoever was willing to listen. This may have cost him some credit in discoveries, but to Johnson it makes Priestley the godfather of the open-source era. And this may be where Johnson’s genres blend together most fully. As a “compulsive sharer,” Joseph Priestley believed wholeheartedly in the free flow of information: in letting insights from science flow into the streams of faith and politics, in trusting in the human mind as the ultimate homeostatic system, able eventually to find its internal balance no matter how large the disruption.

Priestley knew disruptions in his own life, some violent. But not weak consolation if, at end, his approach opens doors to the mixed worlds of science, politics and devotion.

(Oh, that workplace is the Sunlight Foundation, and if you care about government transparency you should give us a look.)

2 Replies to “Priestley the open-sourcer”

  1. I have the vague feeling that Priestley is an uncomfortable figure for some UUs, particularly for those who insist on the Puritan origins of the Unitarian denomination in America. Whereas that connection in New England cannot be denied, it is also true that it is not the only source, and both Priestley’s Philadelphia connection, southern Unitarianism, and even the post-anglicanism of King’s Chapel, tend to be disregarded or diminished by some of our scholars. I do not know if that explains the absence of this book in the UU blogosphere (I don’t think that UU bloggers are all scholars, and it’s ok that they aren’t), but well, maybe Priestley is not the most popular historical Unitarian in the US.

  2. Perhaps. But also nowhere in the article was Priestley identified as a Unitarian, so I can’t blame anyone for not noting the article.

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