Angels and Demons

As Steve Johnson quoted, scientist Joseph Priestley, in the Invention of Air, “The English hierarchy if there be anything unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble at an air pump, or an electrical machine” (XVI). As we break down this quote, there is one government mentioned, a weak constitution, and the reason to tremble at scientific innovation. During the period in which Priestly lived, political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant had inspired an Enlightened Era. This era encouraged scientific revolution and thought as well as a distancing from the church and state (which before the Enlightenment were the same) for these advances. As a result, political revolutions in France and America sparked unrest, as they countries developed into areas suitable for scientific research (136). The British Crown saw these advances as threatening to their way of life. Their constitution could be threatened by science, so they saw scientists, such as Priestley who had differing views on god, wrote pro-democratic texts and was in all senses a progressive at the time as a threat. Mobs confronted Priestly and ultimately, he had to flee England for the US (181).

In the 18th century governments and religions did fear scientific innovation (air pumps and electrical machines) because it brought about progress and change to political, social, religious and scientific fields. The normative question remains though, should governments still fear scientific change today? Johnson points out there are few scientific-politicians today, other than Al Gore, and there are many scientific issues that have political and social ramifications that need a voice (149, 229). Like in the movie, Angels and Demons, religion, politics and science clash on some crucial issues such as antimatter research, global warming, stem cell research, neuroscience, and the list goes on (229).  Johnson’s work and narrative on Priestly helps to shed some light on understanding science-political and science-religion issues we face today.

1 thought on “Angels and Demons”

  1. Great summary! I agree with you that much of the reason the British crown feared scientific innovation and specifically Priestley was because his advances in both sciences and politics threatened the laws established during the time. Not only that but Priestley also encouraged freedom of thinking and believed that only after all perspectives have been brought out could the “truth” be seen. Priestley’s ideals limited the British ruler’s ability to control and limit information and gave rise to multiple variables that were unpredictable and uncontrollable to the British crown. Back then religion and political powers were also closely connected and many of Priestley’s writings directly contradicted with the teachings of both political and religious text.
    While I think certain political structures today have more reason to fear science than others, I agree the government has multiple reasons to fear science as much as they rely on science for political influence.

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