I've mentioned in passing here (and on Twitter) that I've been writing a new book this summer, and since I'm now several drafts into it, I figured it was about time I shared some more detailed news about the project. It's a another book in the vein of The Ghost Map -- an idea book wrapped around an historical narrative, and like Ghost Map, it has an organizing theme of how innovative ideas emerge and spread in a society, while integrating many different threads along the way: 18th-century London coffeehouse culture; the Adams-Jefferson letters; the origins of ecosystem science; the giant dragonflies of the Carboniferous Era; the impact of energy deposits on British political change; the discovery of the gulf stream; the Alien and Sedition acts; Jefferson's bible; the Lunar Society; mob violence; Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Ben Franklin's kite experiment.
The book is centered on the life of Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century British polymath who most people know as the discoverer of oxygen, though the story of that "discovery" is a very complicated one. What drew me to Priestley originally is another, less contested (and much less recognized) discovery: he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen, in 1771. So in a way Priestley lies at the very beginning of the ecosystems view of the world: the air we breathe is not some inevitable fact of life on earth, but something manufactured as part of a wider system by other organisms on the planet. But Priestley turns out to be bound up with the American Founding Fathers in all sorts of fascinating ways: he was best friends with Franklin for the last ten years or so that Franklin lived in London, and his writings on religion -- Priestley also helped establish the first Unitarian Church in England -- had the single most dramatic impact on Thomas Jefferson's eclectic Christianity. Priestley's radicalism ends up provoking the Birmingham Riots of 1791, which ultimately drive him to emigrate to America, where he becomes a central figure in the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the falling out -- and ultimate reconciliation -- between John Adams and Jefferson.
In a real sense, Priestley was a kind of lost Founding Father: a hugely important figure to Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson who is barely mentioned today in most accounts of the revolutionary generation. To give you some sense of his role: in the final correspondence between Adams and Jefferson, starting in 1812, Priestley is mentioned 52 times, while Franklin is mentioned five times, and Washington only three. And when you see the Founders through the lens of Priestley's life, it changes the way we think about the values of the revolutionary generation. (For one, it makes it clear how thoroughly integrated science was with their political worldviews.) So this is, in a sense, my version of the Founding Fathers genre: a Long Zoom history of that period, with chemistry, thermodynamics, information theory, neuroscience, and cultural history onstage along with the usual Great Men.
It's called The Invention Of Air, and it will arrive in bookstores the day after Christmas in the U.S. (You can already pre-order on Amazon.) I'm really excited about this book, and hope you all get a chance to read it.