January 8th, 2009

The Invention of Air

Generating some excitement at P'unk Ave this week is Steven Johnson's new book, The Invention of Air. From the cover: It is the story of Joseph Priestley—scientist and theologian, protégé of Benjamin Franklin, friend of Thomas Jefferson—an eighteenth-century radical thinker who played pivotal roles in the invention of ecosystem science, the discovery of oxygen, the founding of the Unitarian Church, and the intellectual development of the United States. I am in the middle of it right now and it feels very apropos in light of the energy that has been galvanizing the Philadelphia tech community over the last few years.

Here is a passage from the book that I especially liked: You can tell the history of the world through the lives of individuals, or groups of individuals, and part of that explanation is no doubt true. But you can also tell that story with the humans in a supporting role, not the lead. You can tell it as the story of flows of energy: growing, subsiding, being captured, being released. Think of those flows as a vast, surging ocean, and the individual human lives of history crowded on a sailboat in that turbulent water. The humans can still steer their vessel, and exploit the waves and wind that happen to be pushing in the direction they wish to go. But the humans are largely subservient to the conditions set by those oceanic forces. When I read articles like this latest one in the Philadelphia Weekly, I enjoy putting things in the perspective of a similar long zoom view. In this quote, Johnson attempts to illuminate a facet of the entirety of human history, but why can't we look at more local developments in the same light? No doubt the causes and effects of these conditions are more complicated, and at a much different scale, than something as huge the planet’s carbon cycle. But so much has come from so many serendipitous relationships between people and organizations, connections that only seem to be explainable when you step back to look at these larger flows of energy behind them.

If this is the same kind of energy that helped thinkers like Priestley and Franklin contribute so much to society, then what will we be able to do with it?

Steven Johnson will be speaking at the Franklin Institute tomorrow, January 9, at 7pm. Hope to see you there.
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