Robert Boyle is the most influential Anglo-Irish scientist in history. He played a key role in the history of science by establishing the experimental method, on which all modern science is based (Mollan). Also, with his assistant Robert Hooke, he began pioneering experiments on the properties of gases, including those expressed in Boyle's law. He demonstrated the physical characteristics of air, showing that is is necessary in combustion, respiration, and sound transmission. He also wrote The Sceptical Chymist in 1661, in which he attacked Aristotle's theory of four elements. This was an essential part of the modern theory of chemical elements.
Robert was born into an affluent English aristocratic family and received a conventional gentleman's education (Clulee). In a brief autobiography of his early life, Robert paints himself as being different from the other children in his family. He says he was rather self-righteous, preferring to study rather than play or do other normal boyish activities. Robert wrote that he was very much his father’s favorite (Mollan). Robert’s parents believed that the best upbringing for young children, up to the time they began their education, could be provided away from their parents. Robert was sent away to be brought up in the country while his father continued to aim for higher political successes (Robert). After his mother died Robert returned from his stay with his country nurse and rejoined his family. He went to school, along with one of his older brothers, at Eton College in England in 1635 when he was 8 years old (Sargent, 23). Eton was becoming a fashionable place for important people to send their sons. During his time at Eton, Boyle’s education was going very well. His fellow students and the headmaster, John Harrison, considered him very popular. The two young Boyle brothers lived with Harrison (Pilkington, 31).
All went well until Harrison retired as the school’s headmaster. After that, Boyle seemed unable to fit in with the educational discipline the new headmaster brought to the school (Robert). Seeing his son’s progress slowing, Richard took his sons away from Eton in November of 1638. After he left Eton, Robert was tutored privately by someone his father hired. At the age of 12, he was sent on a grand tour of Europe. He traveled from Dieppe to Paris, then to Lyon and then to Geneva. While there he studied with a private tutor. Some of his studies included French, Latin, rhetoric, and religion. He also played tennis and fenced while there. But most importantly he began to study mathematics.
By May of 1642 Boyle and his tutor were in Marseilles waiting for money from Boyle’s father so that he could finally go home. The money did not arrive. Robert’s father was having trouble with a rebellion in Munster that was fully occupying his time and his money. His father simply sent Robert a letter explaining this to him (More, 50). Boyle returned to Geneva and lived mainly on his tutor, Marcombe’s earnings. Robert was still in Geneva when his father died in September of 1643. In the summer of 1644 he sold some jewelry and used the money to finance his trip to England (Robert). When Robert went back to England, he lived with his sister, Katherine, for four and a half months (More, 53). She was thirteen years older than he was. In March 1646, after he made a return trip to France to repay his debts to his tutor, he moved into his new home in Stalbridge. He remained there for six years.
In 1649 Boyle successfully set up a laboratory at his house in Stalbridge, and the experiments that this enabled him to carry out seem immediately to have fascinated him to an extent that transformed his career. Writings that he composed from the summer of 1649 onwards show enthusiasm for experimental knowledge that had earlier been missing and from which was to remain for the rest of his life. He showed a preoccupation with collecting data about 'effluvia' and other natural phenomena that foreshadows his later interest (Hunter).
The Royal Society still exists today as the oldest continuous scientific society in the world. It is still located in London and has more than a thousand active members (Boyle 8). The motto of the society is "Nullius in Verba", which means "nothing in words". In other words they are saying that all science should be experimentally based. In 1680, Robert was elected president of the Society but he declined it because of conflicts between the oath of the office and his religious beliefs (Blatchley). For Boyle, though, there was no conflict with religion and a mechanistic world, he once said:
...for him a God who could
create a mechanical universe-who could create matter in motion, obeying
certain laws out of which the universe
as we know it could come into being in an orderly fashion-was far more to be admired and worshipped than a God who created a universe
without scientific law (O'Conner).
Not only did Boyle's deep theism inform his outlook
in natural philosophy, as in life in general; in addition, it may be argued
that the obsessiveness which he showed in his pursuit of his goals grew
directly out of the religious imperatives which dominated his life (Hunter).
Boyle made important contributions to physics and chemistry and is best known for Boyle’s Law (sometimes called Mariotte’s Law) describing and idea gas. Boyle's Law states that, at constant temperature, the pressure of a gas varies inversely with its volume. This law appears in an appendix written in 1662 to his work New Experiments Physio-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects in 1660 (Hunter). This was a result of three years of experimenting with the air pump with the help of Robert Hooke who he employed as an assistant. Hooke had designed the pump and when Boyle used it he discovered a whole series of important facts. He showed that sound did not travel in a vacuum, proved that flame required air, as did life, and he investigated the elastic properties of air (Robert). The 1662 appendix did not only contain Boyle's law, it also contained a defense of Boyle's work with the vacuum. Many scientists had argued that a vacuum could not exist and claimed that Boyle's results obtained with the vacuum pump must be the result of some as yet undiscovered force (O'Conner).
Boyle's most famous book was The Sceptical Chemist (1661). In this book he sought to educate the 'chymists' in the need for a more philosophical approach in their study of nature (Hunter). He argued against Aristotle’s view of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. He said that matter was composed of corpuscles which themselves were differently built up of different configurations of primary particles (Hunter). He took many ideas from Descartes, but in one respect he fundamentally disagreed with him. Boyle’s ideas that the primary particles moved freely in fluids, less freely in solids, followed Descartes. However Descartes did not believe in a vacuum, instead he believed in an all-pervading ether. Boyle had conducted many experiments, which led him to believe that a vacuum could exist and, having found no experimental evidence of ether, rejected that idea. He did follow Descartes’ overall belief that the world was basically a complex system governed by a small number of simple mathematical laws (Robert).
He also wrote Experiments and considerations touching colours in 1664 but this was not so successful. Boyle was prepared to acknowledge that Hooke’s work of 1665 was superior and he completely acknowledged that Newton’s ideas from 1672 should replace his own.
Later in his life, after he started to gain some popularity, he wrote many other books. Some of these included Experiments, Notes & etc. about the Mechanical Origin or Production of Divers Particular Qualities (1675) and Experiments and Considerations about the Porosity of Bodies (1684) and his Experimenta & Observationes Physicae (1691) were some of these. In addition, in the 1670s, Boyle published a variety of shorter more controversial treatises, including such more speculative writings as his Of the Systematical or Cosmical Qualities of Things (1671), while the 1680s saw the publication of a number of medical works by him, including his Memoirs to the Corpuscular Philosophy (1685) and his Medicina Hydrostatica (1690). These works drew to a significant extent on work that he had done earlier, some of it while still at Oxford.
Also, during the last two decades of his life he
wrote on philosophical and theological topics. Some of these he had
started in the 1660s but had put aside. These include his Excellency
of Theology, Compar'd with Natural Philosophy (1674) and also his important
Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Reciev'd Notion of Nature (1686).
The latter was one of a number of works published in the final decade of
his life in which Boyle presented his mature reflections on major theological
and philosophical issues. More of these include Things above Reason
(1681) and the Christian Virtuoso (1690) (Hunter). Boyle wrote up
until his death on December 31, 1691 in London (Westfall).
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MTU. 25 October, 2001.
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2001. University of London.
21 October, 2001. http://www.bbk.ac.uk/Boyle/
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More, Louis Trenchard. The Life and Works of The Honorable Robert Boyle.
Oxford University Press, 1944.
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2000. University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
22 October, 2001. http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Boyle.html.
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Hobbes, Boyle and the
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27 October, 2001.