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The worship of God through popular science - on Joseph Priestley and the birth of the United States

Priestley was the first to discover the oxygen cycle in nature and the first to treat the Earth as a complete system

Joseph Priestley, from the Portrait Museum in London. Image whose copyright has expired
Joseph Priestley, from the Portrait Museum in London. Image whose copyright has expired

Two revolutions happened in different places on the globe more or less at the same time. One in France, the other in America. Despite the conceptual similarity between the revolutions, the French and the Americans founded their countries on two completely different foundations. The French had a very secular flavor to the revolution. The cardinals, archbishops and hashmans were undoubtedly some of the bad guys in the French story. A corrupt body that censors thoughts and torments people with constant feelings of guilt in order to make them submissive and obedient slaves.

The Americans, on the other hand, came from a different background and for them, religion is an important element of the nation. Although, there was no Protestant religious establishment that ruled the country, but there were certainly some Christian religious ideas at the base of the country that arose after the British War of Independence. It was a Christian religion whose principles are quite different from Protestant Christianity both today and then. It was a religion that saw freedom as a divine commandment. She saw in the republican system of government the will of God and in scientific progress the expression of his work. God wanted freedom of expression, free thought and challenging conventions. He wanted to expand the minds of all people. Enlightenment was the way for humans to worship this strange Christian god. It is not clear how many Americans believed in this stream of Christianity but what is clear is that almost all of the founding fathers of this nation did.

The most loyal representative of this concept was undoubtedly Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's broad education was so thorough and so multi-faceted that when Kennedy hosted the 42 Nobel Prize winners of 1968 in the Oval Office he said: "I think this is the most special gathering of human talent and knowledge ever in the White House - except perhaps when Thomas G. "Persson dined here alone". Thomas Jefferson was not the only one, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams were among the prominent fathers of the American nation who had an extensive background in science, philosophy, languages ​​and social sciences and also believed with all their hearts in God, in the correctness of the Bible as a basis for the moral life of an entire nation and religion in a sense the deep of the word. The fathers of the American nation had supremely religious values. So who started that strange religion of the founding fathers? Who is the source of all this burst of creativity?

Fieldhead England 1733. Younes Priestley, a wool and cloth manufacturer and Mary, a farmer's daughter are happily married and then their first son arrives - Joseph. Immediately after him in a quick chain come five more. The burden is too heavy for Mary and one year old Joseph is sent to live with his grandparents. He spends a few years with them, returns home for another year, and then Mary dies. Yunes remarries Hash Kel and young Joseph again finds himself outside the home at the age of six. It sounds like the wretchedness of life - where is the warm home, the loving father? But the truth is, little Joseph got a lot more attention and affection outside of the home where he was usually an only child than at home where no one really had time for him. Six-year-old Joseph was sent to his great aunt Sarah Keely, who and her husband John not only loved little Joseph very much but also gave him an excellent education. And here is the time to dwell a little on the education scheme in England in the 18th century. Well, it depends on what religion you belong to. Each religious stream had its own schools and the universities were all Protestant. If you didn't belong to one of the mainline Protestant churches, you couldn't get into university.
Unfortunately for him, or perhaps for Joseph's good. His adoptive parents were retiring. That is, those who did not believe in the mainstream of Christianity in England. There were quite a few of them and each one had one reason or another for disagreement with the official religious establishment and so from the beginning Joseph Priestley had no chance of being admitted to a university in England. Young Joseph showed an extraordinary talent and an equally extraordinary interest precisely in religion. His aunt, accordingly, sought for him an education that would give him a career as a clergyman of the Calvinist stream to which they belonged. At the age of 14, he already knew about Borin, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. After contracting tuberculosis at the age of 16, he abandoned the Calvinist faith (search for "predestination", I would also leave such a religion...) and in return lost the right to a career as a Calvinist clergyman.

Oh well, if not a clergyman then a merchant. So Joseph decided. As a trader what do you need to know? French, Italian and German, and if it's about trading, then of course you need to learn the most popular languages ​​among traders in Europe, which are Chaldean, Syrian and Arabic, and most importantly, playing the flute. All this took him a year. Now he was ready to be a merchant. The trouble is that whoever taught him these languages ​​also opened a window for him to philosophy, logic, natural sciences, mathematics and political science. Joseph simply fell in love with the wide and new world that opened at his feet and a career as a merchant did not deepen this world. Young Joseph - now already 17 years old - decided to go to university.

Since no recognized university would accept him, he went to one of the retreating universities that sprung up as a response to the old universities of the ruling Protestant stream. There he met other people and exchanged ideas on every subject in the world with anyone who agreed to talk with him. These universities were perhaps the reason why England would dominate science for the next century and several years. In which all censorship on thoughts and ideas was removed, innovation was not a dirty word on the one hand and traditional knowledge served as a basis for growth on the other. It was the most fruitful place for creativity in Europe and for his friend Joseph Priestley - heaven on earth.

Priestley left university with unorthodox views on religion. He became a rational exegete - one who tries to interpret the Holy Scriptures in a way that is compatible with logic and scientific investigation. This will remain his ambition until the end of his life. He also saw the progress of human society as an evolution towards redemption. He did not believe in Jesus who would come a third time and redeem all good Christians at once. He believed in a slow process of redemption to which each generation contributes a little through scientific and social progress. No Christian community would accept him with such views - he found himself to the left of all the most left-wing currents of Christianity at that time. In the absence of sheep to graze, he opened a school. The main reason people agreed to send their children to the deranged Priestley's school is the tuition fees. Priestley advocated free education.

Like the paradise he was introduced to at university, Priestley encouraged his students to be curious, ask questions and exchange ideas. He was not content with teaching scriptures. He did not teach Latin and Greek but English and English grammar, he added lessons in nature and geography, mathematics and history.

At the age of 30 he began teaching languages ​​at the Academy in Warrington. Here too he continued his educational method and was faithful to the breadth of his own education, believed in the freedom to teach different things, encouraged his students to ask questions and be curious. He developed the studies of grammar, political science, economics, history and more 100 years before the introduction of these subjects into the educational programs in England. In 1766 in Athens of the 18th century - namely Warrington, Priestley meets Benjamin Franklin. Priestley, who had never been involved in science before, but was involved in teaching intensively, begins to write, with Franklin's encouragement, a book reviewing the progress of achievements in the field of electricity. Priestley's purpose was religious. dissemination of knowledge. Advancement of human society. doing God's will. He takes out a book that is not suitable for the general public because it is too deep and difficult to read. He simplifies the language of the book and the descriptions of the experiments, adds accurate illustrations from his pen and the result is the first ever popular science book. In the book, the famous picture of a man flying a kite during a lightning storm is drawn - under the explanation of Franklin's famous experiment. To be honest - the visual publication of this experiment came from Priestley's book.
In 1767 Priestley ran into financial difficulties and went to lead a church in Leeds. Did you think Firastli was off the map of religious currents? It turns out that she was getting closer to him. Although he is considered an exception in the church, he is still tolerated. Joseph Priestley is one of the founders of the Unitarian movement in Christianity. This stream was a consequence of his rational investigations into religion. He reached far-reaching conclusions - for example, that Jesus was a man and not the Son of God. But it turns out that in his community in Leeds it didn't bother anyone. Priestley was a good guy and that's what mattered to them. You can guess that Priestley put his entire educational ideology into the Unitarianism, and you can guess that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams all purged your religious education of the Unitarianism, and I won't deny it.

But I'm ahead of the curve. The year is 1767. The United States does not yet exist, Priestley moves to Leeds as mentioned, and the first thing he does is go to the local brewery. He just wants to experiment there with different types of air. Before I explain what the hell a priest does with experiments in the air, I will mention only one short anecdote: in 1782, Johann Jacob Schwepps registered a patent for the production of bubbling water. This patent makes him very rich. Priestley had discovered Schwepps' patent more than ten years before, but his only interest was to share the knowledge with others, so he did not register a patent but wrote to his friends that he found that if you put a bowl of water over a barrel of sparkling beer, the water bubbles and has a pleasant taste. Such was Priestley - and such was Schwepps. I wonder how many people know Priestley today. The name Shweps is a bit hard to miss...

In any case, what did Priestley - the theologian, the historian, the political scientist, the priest - do in a brewery?

At that time there were many scientists studying combustion. The researchers asked what combustion actually is, why substances ignite and what causes them to go out in the end (the accepted theory was that every substance that burns has something called "phlogiston" and when the phlogiston runs out, the combustion ends). Priestley came up with the idea of ​​testing the combustion of a candle in a closed vessel.

When the candle burned in the open air - it burned until its end. When the candle burned in a relatively small closed vessel, it burned for a short time and went out. At the time, the air in which a candle could not burn was called "spoiled air" (the rooms were then lit by candles and lighting candles for a long time in a closed room caused the candles to go out and a feeling of suffocation in the room). Priestley put a mouse into the vessel in which the extinguished candle was - and the mouse died.
Priestley knew that plants are also living creatures that need air, so he expected that when he introduced a plant into the spoiled air, the plant would also harvest or at least stop growing. To his surprise he discovered that the plant he put in the vessel with the "spoiled" air continued to grow for several months.

He repeated the experiment with a slight modification. This time he went ahead and put a branch of a plant in a vessel. A few weeks later he performed the candle experiment with the same vessel. The candle did not go out immediately. Not even after a short time. The candle burned until the end. Priestley expected that following the "correction" of the air, not only plants would continue to grow in it, but also animals. He continued and put a mouse in the vessel: "The plant continued to grow in several new vessels. Then I found that this air does not cause the candle I burned in it to burn. It also did not cause any discomfort to the mouse that I put inside it... I was honored to discover by chance a method of improving air that was spoiled by burning candles. I discovered at least one of the factors that nature activates to improve the air - aka the plants."

Priestley was happy about his surprising discoveries but was not satisfied with them. He repeated his experiments many times with minor changes: he replaced the peppermint plants with other plants, instead of a wax candle he burned other flammable materials, the air was air emitted from his mirrors, air that burned a candle, air that accumulated over swamps and rotten pits, and air from the brewery. In all cases he got the same results. almost.

"In December, at the end of 1771, I repeated some of the experiments related to air purification. The results I received did not always correspond to the expectations I had therefore I postponed my conclusions about the effectiveness of the plants as air purifiers.

What Priestley missed here was December, in the winter the plants grew less because of the lack of sunlight. And indeed, when many years later they measure the atmospheric oxygen on the island of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, they will see the differences in the "breath of the world" between winter and summer - the atmospheric oxygen in winter is less due to the lack of plant growth.

Priestley believed that the phenomenon he discovered was not accidental. The animals "spoil" the air and cannot use it for a long time. If a mouse is imprisoned in a closed glass container, even without a candle to consume the oxygen in the combustion process, the mouse will eventually die. Since creatures continue to exist in the wider world, it is likely that there is a mechanism in the world that purifies the air and makes it suitable for breathing again. This mechanism is the plants. Do you hear the "boom"?? This is nothing less than an earthquake on a global scale. Why am I excited you ask? Because Joseph Priestley is the first biologist who treated the whole world as a closed and complete system. He understood that the world "breathes" as one and only system, just as well he could hypothesize the carbon cycle in nature or the radiation dispersal mechanism. By strict logical standards, Priestley's conclusion is unfounded at all. And what if there is an infinite amount of "good air" around the world? And what if this amount is finite and one day we will all suffocate? Priestley's religion commanded him to seek harmony, to seek beauty, to glorify God's name with beautiful and elegant theories. And his was the most beautiful of them all.

5 years later he repeated the experiments but unfortunately got conflicting results. The plants purified the air in part and some did not survive. Priestley, as a decent researcher reported both the failures and the successes. But unable to explain the failures, he lost confidence in his results and stopped stating that the air is purified by the plants.

Antoine Lavoisier developed Priestley's work into a comprehensive and beautiful theory that culminated in the formulation of the law of conservation of matter.

And what about Priestley? Priestley supported the French Revolution and the conservative mob in Britain pounced on his lab and smashed it to pieces. The state of affairs forced him to flee to the United States of America. He died in 1804 - the founding grandfather of the American nation.

The above transcript is part of an episode of the "Biocast" podcast. On our website you can listen to this episode and other episodes dealing with interesting historical figures

9 תגובות

  1. Kennedy could not host the 1968 Nobel Prize winners in the Oval Office because he was assassinated in 1963. Other than that, an interesting article. Thanks.

  2. An Israeli example of "science" which is in hindsight an American religious technology. This is typical religious American culture….

    Life sciences rationally, not religiously
    To be a free people in our country....

    "Latest News" April 19 2013 Sarit Rosenblum: "Dietary? It's genetic!"

    Weakness-addiction, or genetics?

    It is enough to recite the ridiculous concept of the religious American trade union "American Association for the Advancement of Science"
    According to the American religious concept, it is the genetics cart that pushes the cultural horses and not the cultural horses that pull the genetics cart, contrary to what we learned from Pavlov and Darwin.

    The time has come to develop a science free from religious concepts as dictated starting in the 1920s by the religious American culture....

    Genetics is a consequence/result of culture and not the cause of culture. Genetic changes are continuous updates of the genome, which is a creature created by the genes for their function, when the updates are by the genes that are the basic creatures of life.

    Science in the US is simply very limited because its culture is religious-technological, a culture that rejects rational scientific understanding.

    Dov Henis

  3. Aryeh Seter - sorry for the mistake. you're absolutely right.
    Michael Rothschild, thanks for the response. It is very heartwarming and encouraging.

  4. The first place where I satiated my thirst for knowledge in my childhood was an encyclopedia "Maayan".
    I don't know how many of the site's readers have yet gotten to know her.
    It was not an encyclopedia in the contemporary sense of the word. It did not have an index and in general it was difficult to find the material you were looking for.
    What she had were stories.
    Stories about scientists and people in general, mythological stories and stories about nature.
    I would read it serially not knowing what I would discover and I was never disappointed.
    Today it is hard to find books of this type, but the articles by Rafi Arzi, Ran Levy andRoey Tsezana on the history of science and philosophy bring back to me the same wonderful childhood taste.

  5. Great article and sorry for the pettiness - Mauna Loa is not an island, but a mountain on the "Big Island" of Hawaii.

  6. Hello Avishi.
    I wrote several comments and none of them appear for some reason. Now I lost the link to the article.
    In principle, the differences in oxygen levels in oceans and lakes can be clearly seen. In winter there is very little production of oxygen by plants (phytoplankton) and the respiration of the upper water inhabitants continues therefore the oxygen levels in the upper water decrease.
    In the oceans this manifests itself in a transition from above saturation (that is, the water contains more oxygen than the solubility of oxygen in the water allows) to subsaturation.
    In the air you can clearly see the increase in CO2 concentration in winter compared to summer.
    I will send links to the articles soon.

  7. A little unrelated to the article, which by the way is very interesting, thank you very much,
    Can you please see evidence that the oxygen in the atmosphere changes between the seasons? Or at least to the order of magnitude?
    From what I learned, even if we cut down all the forests in the world today, the amount of oxygen is so great that we can manage for a few hundred years. (I am not talking about other damages, and of course I am aware that not all plants in the world are part of a forest)

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