Skip to main content

Joseph Priestley in Calne – Norman Beale ***

Of all the well-known names in the history of science, Joseph Priestley is probably amongst the least well served in terms of popular biography. There is a chunky, detailed academic biography, but very little for the general reader about the man who discovered oxygen.
This slim volume fills in a considerable amount of the story in a dry but readable fashion. Author Norman Beale, a retired GP who has made a study of Priestley and his work, concentrates particularly on Priestley’s time in the Wiltshire town of Calne, when his most significant discoveries were made at the nearby Bowood House, home of Priestley’s sponsor the Marquis of Lansdowne. The book does cover the rest of his life, before and after Calne, but in brief form, where there is much more detail for the period that Beale highlights.
The book gives us a detailed and insightful feel for Priestley’s life and work in the period. I would have preferred a little more of the science and perhaps a touch less of the domestic detail, but we get a good feel for Priestley and the way he thought. Although it is self-published, the book is well produced on glossy paper and has been well edited – it hasn’t the sloppy feel of some self-publications.
Just occasionally I found the author’s approach a little over-fussy, or oddly worded. Speaking of a house Priestley rented in Calne he comments ‘This property is always supposed to have been that which is now 19, The Green, so-called “Priestley House.”‘ This sounds rather archaic, and it’s not quite clear from this whether or not Beale really believes this is the right house. Later on, in the chapter where Priestley makes his key discovery, we read: ‘Priestley did not discover oxygen. Since the one thing that most people can tell you about Priestley is that he did discover oxygen, this apparent nonsense needs careful explanation,’ (Author’s italics.) This is pedantry, pure and simple. It’s like saying Newton didn’t invent calculus, or Herschel didn’t discover Uranus, since neither of them called the thing they invented/discovered by those names. The fact that Priestley called oyxgen ‘dephlogisticated air’ doesn’t mean he didn’t discover it.
However, these are small niggles in what is generally an informative and enjoyable book. At 79 pages plus notes it won’t take long to read, but is well worth taking the time over. If you visit Bowood House in Wiltshire (where you can see Priestley’s laboratory), you can pick up a copy of the book there, as an alternative to Amazon.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under