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The Air We Share: A Tale of the Birth of Modern Chemistry tells of Joseph Priestley’s ground-breaking experiments in the 1700’s, his discoveries of oxygen and photosynthesis, and the race to understand the nature of fire.
Joseph Priestley was a father of modern chemistry. He is most remembered as one of the discoverers of oxygen. (Carl Wilhelm Scheele in Sweden, is considered a co-discoverer.)
Priestley was a model of the Man of the Enlightenment. His passionate curiosity reached out in many directions. He founded progressive schools everywhere he lived, even going so far as to teach science to young people. He was a founder of Unitarianism and frequently in trouble with the authorities for championing the cause of religious freedom and equality. Never very secure financially he lived modestly and his warm, enthusiastic personality attracted support from wealthy and broad-minded members of the ruling class and the class of new industrial innovators in the north of England.
But it was his friendship with Benjamin Franklin that most nourished his growth as a scientist. It was for Franklin he wrote his first science book, “The History and Present State of Electricity” in 1767. He went on to publish thirteen more books and papers on science, most of them on the study of “airs” which was the term used for gases at the time. His other 134 publications were on a wide range of subjects including theology (he was a founder of Unitarianism), government (he was for democracy and opposed to the hereditary rule of kings and princes), education (he was a reformer with strikingly modern ideas; he advocated the education of women), legal theory, the ending of slavery, and history.
Though born in England he was an early supporter of the cause of American Independence. His unending defense of ideas of political freedom and government by the people finally made his position in his native land so perilous that he moved his family to America where he became friends with both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who mention him frequently in their trove of letters to one another after they had both retired from public life.
He died in February 1804 in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.
The play opens with Joseph Priestley coming on stage and, without speaking, using an air pump to fill a balloon full. Very full. He ties off the neck of the balloon and presents it to the audience. “What is air?” he asks. But without letting them answer he puts the balloon behind his back and lights a very large match, whose flame he presents to the audience. “What is fire?” he asks. He then brings air and fire together, producing a very loud POP, shattering the balloon and blowing out the flame. His life-long pursuit of answers to these questions is the story of the play.
He recounts a famous experiment in which an Italian doctor weighed everything solid or liquid that came into his body and every solid or liquid that left his body. How could it be that he lost weight every night far beyond the liquid and solid that left his body? It must have to do with the air, but how? He decides he must study air in every way he can.
He captures the gas that rises from a fermenting vat and discovers that it imparts a delightful quality to water. This is the invention of soda water.
He realizes that he has experimented with spiders, candles, and mice in sealed jars, but never asked how long it would take a plant to die. When he places a sprig of mint in a sealed jar with its little root sitting in water. It does not die, like a flame or an animal. In fact it puts out new leaves. If he starts the plant with a lighted candle in the jar, the candle burns out and cannot be relit. But after a few weeks that changes. The candle lights again. Somehow that plant has restored to the air the ability to support fire. This is the first known experiment demonstrating the role of plant life in maintaining what we now know as the carbon cycle replenishing the atmosphere with oxygen.
He is given a powerful burning lens that can heat many metals to the point where they burn. He collects the vapors of their burning and tests the properties. When he heats the ash that results from burning quicksilver (liquid metallic mercury) in the atmosphere an astonishing thing happens: If he heats it in a closed system, not open to the atmosphere, the ash turns back into liquid mercury and a gas is given off. He collects this gas and finds it has marvelous properties. A mouse sealed in a jar with this gas lives twice as long as in a jar full of ordinary air. A flame burns brighter. When he breathes some of this air himself he feels a marvelous lightness of spirit and clarity of thought. He has become the first or second person ever to isolate pure oxygen, and the first to breathe it. But he calls it dephlogisticated air, in keeping with the theory of fire that was then predominant.
Thus the audience follows Priestley’s wild experimental imagination through some of his major discoveries and learns along the way his ethical principle that scientists must be completely open, sharing their methods and their results with researchers everywhere. This brings him into conflict with the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who has far more expensive equipment than Priestley can afford but who is not above claiming the work of others as his own and who tells the results of his experiments but not how he obtained them. His conflict with Lavoisier dramatizes the two different attitudes to research: the open and the proprietary. He and Lavoisier tangle as to the basic mechanism of fire, each supporting a different theory.
The play concludes with Priestley increasingly preoccupied with politics and his writings in support of freedom, the end of monarchy, and the American Revolution.
At the very end, the audience learns who was right about the nature of fire.
The Air We Share was written and directed by Rick Foster and stage managed by Susannah Allatt Holland in 2010 and premiered by Thomas F. Maguire as Priestley on October 14, 2010 at Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora. It toured 6th, 7th, and 8th grades in Tuolumne county in the Fall-Winter 2010-2011 and Fall-Winter 2011-2012, and will be available again for booking in the Fall-Winter 2012-2013.
Priestly’s Story As a Teaching Tool
The following “letters” will help teachers integrate the performance into the curriculum.
- To the Sixth Grade Teachers
- To Students:
Feedback from Schools
The following items are a small example of the wonderful feedback following our performances.
- Belleview Elementary School Eagle
- Columbia Elementary School
- Tenaya Elementary School
- Twain Harte Middle School
Suitable for grades 6 and up as well as adults.
- Can be performed in theater, classroom, multi-purpose room, or gymnasium.
- Performer will supply wireless microphone and single speaker if necessary.
- Special lighting is not required.
- Set up time is thirty minutes.
Availability and Pricing
The Air We Share is available for booking every year from September through January.
Special California Central Valley, Mother Lode K-12 School Rates for performance and study guides
- $450 One performance at school
- $550 Two performances on same half day
San Francisco Bay Area K-12 School Rates
- $600 One or two performances in same school on same half day
- Note: For California schools beyond the Central Valley, Central Coast regions there will be a surcharge for travel.
- $600 One performance
- $800 Two performances, same day (including evening)
- $1000 Three performances, same day (including evening)
Museums and other venues
- $600-1500 Depending on size of auditorium, ticket pricing, etc.