Boyle: Between God and Science

Patricia Fara looks at a comprehensive account of Robert Boyle, the 17th-century natural philosopher

Author: Michael Hunter
Publisher: Yale University Press
Reviewed by: Patricia Fara
Price (RRP): £25

 Who invented Boyle’s Law? Skimming over rival contenders, Michael Hunter plumps for the obvious answer in Boyle, his celebration of the 17th-century Irish chemist and religious philosopher. Having dedicated his academic career to Robert Boyle, Hunter has now provided a comprehensive account of Boyle’s life that incorporates all the latest research yet retains his status as a lone discoverer. 

For Hunter, Boyle is a heroic pioneer, albeit one tortured by inner spiritual conflicts. Yet this is no conventional work straitjacketing him into an anachronistic role as The Father of Modern Chemistry. Boyle was uninterested in the mathematical relationships that form the basis of modern science, and would have been dismayed to see God’s creation summed up in equations. Scientific symbols are absent from Hunter’s biography, which has more information about theology and alchemy than the corpuscular theories Boyle outlined in The Sceptical Chymist (1661), now his most famous book.

Instead of looking back from the perspective of the present, Hunter meticulously investigates every scrap of evidence to present Boyle as the inheritor of what had happened before him. That is, after all, how everybody experiences life. Born in 1627, only 15 years before Isaac Newton, Boyle was reared on an educational diet of an Earth-centred universe and a medical system based on Aristotle’s theory of humours. Hunter’s plentiful illustrations suggest that Boyle was a fashionably thin and melancholic scholar rather than an active experimenter capable of grappling with the valves of an air-pump. During the experiments on gases that ensured the survival of his name, Boyle relied in particular on the ingenious Robert Hooke, although here he is portrayed as Boyle’s assistant rather than collaborator. 

Hunter encourages psychological studies of a man whose stutter and overbearing father seem to make him an ideal candidate. Boyle was at first more concerned to explore his soul than the workings of the universe. He was in his twenties before he fell in love with experimenting, telling Katherine, his sister, that the delights of his laboratory acted on him like an aphrodisiac. By then, he had sworn himself to celibacy, and his closest emotional support remained Katherine, with whom he lived in London for over two decades, dying less than a week after her.

The key to Hunter’s Boyle is not his science, but his religion. So devout that he paused every time he mentioned the name of God, Boyle turned from contemplating the human soul to studying the physical world as he attempted to stem the rising tide of atheism he perceived about him. For information about nature, Boyle’s contemporaries often referred to a long Latin poem by Lucretius describing a philosophy based on chance encounters of moving atoms. Such materialist approaches were anathema to Boyle, who chastised himself for being so seduced by his growing experimental prowess that he risked forgetting his major goal of glorifying God.

According to Hunter’s exhaustive analysis, Boyle deserves to be remembered not for a Gas Law linking pressure and volume, but for imbuing the 18th century with a Boylean spirit. 

In his will, Boyle endowed annual sermons defending Christianity against an assorted bunch of “notorious Infidels” such as “Jews and Mohametans”. Delivered by a range of academics and divines, these Boyle Lectures were published and became instrumental in convincing British people that the theories of natural philosophy were compatible with biblical versions of creation. Ironically, one of Boyle’s longer-lasting legacies was the demarcation between science and religion. By insisting that historical conclusions should be based on facts rather than preconceptions, he voiced the equivalent of Newton’s renowned dictum, “I feign no Hypotheses”.  

Dr Patricia Fara’s latest book is Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009). 

 
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