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 Johnsonâ€™s genres blend together most fully. As a â€œcompulsive sharer,â€ 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.)