Robert Boyle

Boyle was born in Ireland.Among the many contenders for the title of “Father of Modern Chemistry” is Robert Boyle (January 25, 1627 – December 30, 1691). Boyle was the first prominent scientist to perform controlled experiments and to publish his work with elaborate details concerning procedure, apparatus and observations. He assembled what we would today call a “research group”, developed a key piece of apparatus – the vacuum pump, was instrumental in founding the Royal Society, and deserves at least partial credit for the famous gas law which bears his name. As the youngest of fourteen children of the wealthiest man in the British Isles, Boyle’s opportunities were almost unlimited. However, while still in adolescence, he chose the pseudonym Philaretus (Lover of Truth) and a life of scientific inquiry seemed almost inevitable. He was educated in the finest possible manner of this day, first studying at Eton and later travelling the Continent with a tutor and his older brother Francis. He learned philosophy, religion, languages, mathematics, and – perhaps most significantly – the new physics of Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo. The physical scientists and their new theories concerning air and vacuum, the movement of planets, and the circulation of blood were to sway his thinking much more than the alchemists.

Although his research clearly has its roots in the alchemical tradition, Boyle is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist, and therefore one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method.He is best known for Boyle’s law, which describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system. Among his works, The Sceptical Chymist is seen as a cornerstone book in the field of chemistry.

Boyle published copiously on topics ranging across several fields of science, philosophy, and theology. His first major scientific report, The Spring and Weight of the Air, was published in 1660 and described experiments using a new vacuum pump of his design. Previous pumps, invented by von Guericke (of Magdeburg hemisphere fame), required the strenuous efforts of two men and provided dubious results. Boyle’s pump could be operated easily and efficiently by one man. With it Boyle demonstrated that the sound of a bell in the receiver (a thirty quart vacuum chamber) faded as the air was removed, proving that air was necessary for the transmission of sound. In further experiments, he also proved that air was necessary for life and for a candle flame. Boyle felt that his experiments confirmed a mechanical view of nature as opposed to the Aristotelian, non-empirical approach to science. Today we are so accustomed to empirical science that we have difficulty understanding how one could attempt scientific work using only logic. Boyle’s empiricism established him as a founder of the modern scientific method and his arguments were so persuasive as to win many important converts, most notably Isaac Newton.The second edition of The Spring and Weight of the Air, published in 1662, contained the pressure – volume inverse relationship which is familiar to every chemistry student as Boyle’s Law. In performing the experiments which led to this generalization, Boyle used mercury in a J-tube and made measurements of the volume of the trapped gas at pressures both higher and lower than normal atmospheric pressure. There is some controversy in naming the relationship after Boyle since much of the work was actually performed by his assistant Robert Hooke, however, the experimental concept originated with Boyle. Furthermore, Boyle was dedicated to the idea of experimental proof of theories while Hooke felt that theories should appeal to reason.Boyle’s best known contribution to scientific knowledge is the 1661 publication of The Sceptical Chymist in which he discusses the idea of an element. Aristotelian science held that elements were not just the simplest of all substances but were also necessary ingredients of all bodies, i.e., if water is an element then all bodies must contain at least a small amount of water. Boyle’s idea of an element was somewhat vague and certainly not “modern” in the 20th century sense. But he presented persuasive experimental evidence that most of the commonly accepted elements (fire, water, salt, mercury, etc) did not meet both of the Aristotelian criteria.In The Sceptical Chymist , Boyle makes a clear break with the alchemists’ tradition of secrecy with his conviction and insistence on publishing in great experimental detail. It is noteworthy that Boyle was among the first to publish the details of his work, including unsuccessful experiments, but Boyle was never able to abandon the beliefs of alchemy. He believed in transmutation of the elements and in 1676, he reported to the Royal Society on his attempts to change quicksilver into gold. He believed that he was near success in this endeavor.

In 1654, Boyle had joined a small group of the most influential English scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and physicians who had been meeting weekly in London and in Oxford since 1645. In 1662 the group was chartered as the Royal Society which exists today as the oldest continuous scientific society in the world. The motto of this prestigious organization, “Nullius in Verba” means “nothing in words”, i.e., all science should be experimentally based. In 1680, Robert Boyle was elected president of the Royal Society, but declined the honor because the required oath violated his religious principles.The first use of the term “chemical analysis” is attributed to Boyle who used it in the same sense that we understand it today. He performed assays on gold and silver, tested for copper with ammonia, tested for salt in water with silver nitrate, and devised a thirty item test for mineral water analysis. In addition, he observed that all acids turned a particular vegetable indicator from blue to red and all alkalis turned the indicator green. He found that some substances did not change the color of the indicator and concluded that these were neutral. He thus provided an operational method of classifying substances.Boyle never married and from the age of 41 lived with his sister Katherine, Lady Ranelagh. He was a shy man with deep religious convictions. He had been a pious youth spending some years in the care of the village parson, Mr. W. Douch. Then at the age of 13, during a violent thunderstorm, he experienced a religious conversion not unlike that of St. Paul. Although an ardent defender of the Anglican Church, he was tolerant of the religious views of others and in later years became particularly sympathetic to the Dissenters. He was offered a position in the clergy but felt a stronger commitment to science. He saw no conflict between the two. He wrote widely on religious themes and gave financial support to his his friend Edward Pococke to translate the New Testament into Malayan. He left a large portion of his considerable estate to charitable organizations.

Robert Boyle died in London on December 30, 1691. He was buried in the Church of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields next to his sister. Later the church was demolished and no record was made as to where his remains were moved.Typically, Robert Boyle is remembered solely for Boyle’s Law. It is clear that he contributed much more to the development of modern chemical thought. Robert Boyle has been deservedly called “a Mighty Chemist”.

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