Joseph Priestly and his inventions

This piece in NPR with an excerpt from THE INVENTION OF AIR: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America by Steven Johnson caught my eye:

Author Steven Johnson’s new book, The Invention of Air, is, on the one hand, a supple examination of the man largely credited with the discovery of oxygen. On the other, it’s a subtle reminder of the intellectual glories of bygone days when great thinkers mastered numerous fields, not merely one.

If the excerpt is any indication, it looks like a non-stop read:

The first sign of a waterspout forming is a dark stain on the surface of the sea, like a circle of black ink. Within a matter of minutes, if atmospheric conditions are right, a spiral of light and dark streaks begins to spin around the circle. Soon a ring of spray rises up into the air, water molecules propelled aloft by the accelerating winds at its periphery. And then the spout surges to life, a whirling line drawn from sea to sky, sustained by rotational winds that have been measured at up to 150 miles per hour.

Unlike land-based tornados, waterspouts often form in fair weather: a vortex of wind, capable of destroying small vessels, that appears, literally, out of the blue. While it is not nearly as dangerous as a traditional tornado, the waterspout was long a figure of fear and wonder in mariner tales of life on the open sea. In the first century B.C., Lucretius described “a kind of column [that] lets down from the sky into the sea, around which the waters boil, stirred up by the heavy blast of the winds, and if any ships are caught in that tumult, they are tossed about and come into great peril.” Sailors would pour vinegar into the sea and pound on drums to frighten off the spirits that they imagined lurking in the spout. They had good reason to be mystified by these apparitions. The upward pull of the vortex is strong enough to suck fish, frogs, or jellyfish out of the water and carry them into the clouds, sometimes depositing them miles from their original location. Scientists now believe that apocryphal-sounding stories of fish and frogs raining from the sky were actually cases where waterspouts gulped up a menagerie of creatures straight out of the water, and then deposited them on the heads of bewildered humans when the spout crossed over onto land and dissipated.

A waterspout sighting is a meteorological rarity, even in the tropical waters where spouts are most often seen. Ships in the colder waters of the North Atlantic, particularly during early spring, almost never encounter them. So it was more than a little surprising that, on one extraordinary day in the spring of 1794, the hundred-odd passengers en route to New York aboard the merchant ship Samson caught sight of four distinct waterspouts simultaneously drifting their way across the sea.

Most passengers onboard the Samson would have viewed the looming spouts not as statistical anomalies but as sinister omens, if not outright threats. No doubt some passengers aboard the Samson ran below decks in fear at the first sighting, while others stared in wonder at the four spouts. But we can say with some confidence that one passenger aboard the Samson rushed to the deck at the first hint of a waterspout sighting, and stood transfixed, observing the spray patterns and cloud formations. It is easy to imagine him borrowing the captain’s telescope and peering into the vortex, estimating wind velocity, perhaps jotting down notes as he watched. He would have known that the lively scientific debate over spouts—started in part by his old friend Benjamin Franklin—revolved around whether spouts descended from clouds, as tornados do, or whether they propelled themselves upward from the ocean surface. The idea of witnessing four waterspouts on a North Atlantic voyage would not have been a sign of foreboding or an imminent threat for him. It would have been a stroke of extraordinary good luck.

Take a look!


One Response to “Joseph Priestly and his inventions”

  1. On the conditions that are propitious to scientific innovation « Entertaining Research Says:

    […] note in the New Yorker on Steven Johnson’s book on Joseph Priestly, The invention of air (an excerpt from which I liked and linked to earlier here, in this blog), has this nice sentence, which makes me want to read the book all the more: Johnson also offers a […]

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