Saturday, January 01, 2011

Multi-disciplinarity and The Birth Of America

Back in July I read an interesting book entitled The Science of Liberty by Timothy Ferris. I posted on how the birth of modern science developed within the same mindset and intellectual framework as the first modern democracy, the United States. In fact, this book argues the U.S. would not have formed had it not been for the birth of modern science. Building off that theme, a second book, Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and The Birth of America, examines the life and work of Joseph Priestley, and his deep friendships with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and his influence on those two Founding Fathers as well as John Adams.

Priestley began as one of the leading and first modern chemists, whose main contemporary scientific rival was Antoine Lavoisier. Priestley had numerous discoveries, including providing key evidence for the existence of oxygen and its role in combustion and life itself, but what was new for me was his deep friendship with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin and Priestley met and corresponded with each other about science for many years prior to the American Revolution, and influenced each other greatly as far as the development of experiments, analysis and interpretation of data. Their letters show how they were onto the conceptual understanding of the cycling of oxygen and carbon dioxide for all of life, and how ecosystems work in terms of the flow and transformation of different energy types from one to another. These concepts were decades ahead of their time.

However, as Franklin became embedded in politics and the Revolution, the time he had to commit to science was limited at best. It was Priestley who kept him updated on scientific progress, and Franklin's influence on Priestley began to turn Priestley's attention more towards politics. In addition to the politics, Priestley also began writing about religion. His attention and publication of his views on Christianity, most notably History of Corruptions of Christianity, where he argues against the more mystical aspects within the Bible (dismissing the Trinity, miracles, and contradictory concepts in doctrine), actually led to riots among Christians and a mob that burned his house, lab, and called for his death. Priestley ended up in exile, and moved to America. It did not take long before he met and befriended Thomas Jefferson. Even before becoming friends with Jefferson, he knew and befriended John Adams when Adams was Vice President.

Priestley was a deep thinking man who believed in complete openness and sharing of information and data with as many people as possible. He wrote everything down, in exhaustive detail, especially with his experimental procedures and data. Had he the technology, he likely would have developed the Internet. Why was he this way? Priestley and Franklin agreed in their correspondence that by publishing everything in the sciences allowed them to "excite the attentions of the ingenius." Great ideas develop by people brainstorming and sharing thoughts. If one person is on a path but cannot quite see the answer, someone else might, and that is good for progress. This mindset is at the heart and soul of all modern science disciplines, as well as academia in general. This is what 'connectivity' and the Internet is all about, or at least the Internet provides the appropriate platform for sharing and exciting the attentions of the ingenius. Check out my post from another of Johnson's books about how ideas form.

Providing information to the masses is a necessity for democracy. Priestley's preaching and practice of sharing information was a key influence on the development of the vision of Franklin, Jefferson and Adams as they were helping invent America. Priestley also resisted just having a single focus. The practice of the day was for science, religion, philosophy, politics, and other fields of study from overlapping. Priestley helped break this mold, as he was a firm believer in multidisciplinary approaches to topics. He and Franklin in particular discussed this concept, as if they were forming the modern field of complex systems. Having and using a multi-disciplinary mindset allowed some of our Founding Fathers to be great visionaries that were needed to make the American experiment to work. In fact, after Priestley died and Jefferson and Adams began their decade-long, legendary exchange of letters up until they died (on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence), whose name appeared more frequently than Franklin's, Washington's or Madison's? It was Priestley.

The key players who gave birth to America were geniuses. They were scientists at heart, and this mindset and experience were key to the development of the American concept. But they were also willing to share ideas, try new things, and collaborate to solve major, complex, and multi-disciplinary problems. And the big three of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson had a common thread of Joseph Priestley to help guide them over decades worth of time. He showed how science, religion and politics were inter-related and all had to be 'on the table' simultaneously when developing new ideas. It is a fascinating story, involving fascinating individuals. These are the same themes and issues we talk about today, whether it involves current problems the nation and world face, as well as with reforming our education system as we try to prepare kids for the 21st century. These men from the 18th and early 19th centuries have much to teach us still, and I think they deserve their say!

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