Today is the birthday of Robert Boyle, a famous chemist and founder member of the Royal Society. He was born on this day in 1627 in County Waterford, Ireland. He was the fourteenth child, and seventh son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. So he was born in a huge castle, Lismore Castle, which his father had bought from Sir Walter Raleigh. But Robert, like his brothers before him, was fostered out to a local Irish family so that he could learn the language. The idea was that the boys would be able to act as translators for their English-speaking father.
He spent three years at Eton before taking off, along with a tutor and an elder brother, on a six year Grand Tour of Europe. He visited France, Switzerland and Italy. He visited Florence shortly before Galileo died. He became a firm believer in Christianity when, in December 1640, he was awakened by such a tremendous thunderstorm that he believed the Day of Judgement was at hand. He remained devout for the rest of his life and his later experiments in no way compromised his religion. He firmly believed that God wanted us to properly understand the way the world worked. Why else would he have made it so complicated? Whilst Robert was away his father died, leaving him a large country house in Dorset and estates in Ireland. So he never really needed to worry about money. But when he arrived in England in 1644, the country was in the middle of a Civil War. Boyle did a pretty good job of steering clear and was careful not to appear to be on either one side or the other.
Some time in 1646/7 he became passionately interested in science and built himself a laboratory. Like many scientifically-minded people of his day, he was hoping to find the Philosophers Stone. A substance which would transmute lead into gold and hopefully confer on its creator, the gift of eternal life. He failed at this, which is no surprise, but he does seem to have been a little disappointed. But he was undeterred and began to visit London to meet with other like-minded people. Around 1655 he moved to Oxford. Although he was never officially part of the university, he met plenty of people who were, including Robert Hooke who would help him build some of his most important experiments.
In 1657, they began to experiment with vacuums, using the equipment pictured above. It looks terrifically complex, but what it is, is a large glass container that they could put things inside and then pump all the air out to see what happened to them. They put a bell inside and used a magnet from the outside to move the bell and make it ring. As they pumped out the air, they observed that the sound of the bell became more and more faint. They had discovered that sound cannot travel through a vacuum, yet magnetic forces can, or else they would not have been able to make the bell move. Also, the experiment showed them that light could travel through a vacuum, because they could still see the bell inside. They found that a lit candle went out when they removed the air, proving that a vacuum will not support combustion. Boyle made a further guess that it was only a small part of the air that allowed the flame to burn. No one was yet able to separate the different gases in the air but, over a hundred years later he would be proved right.
In 1660, following the Restoration of the Monarchy, he was one of a group of individuals who formed the nucleus of the Royal Society with the support of King Charles II. They dedicated themselves to revealing nature’s secrets through experiment and their motto was, and still is, ‘Nullus in Verba’ which means: ‘take nobody’s word for it’. If they couldn’t prove something for themselves, they couldn’t believe it was true. Boyle was instrumental in detaching science from alchemy. Alchemists were notoriously secretive about their methods, whereas Boyle insisted that his experiments must be shared so that anyone could repeat them. He published all the methods of his experiments and the results. He also realised that experiments and their results must be repeatable, just to make sure what they concluded was really right. This is the absolute bedrock of modern scientific investigations and we have Boyle to thank for it. He also realised that there was as much to be learned from a failed experiment as a successful one.
Boyle has a scientific law named after him which states that the volume of a gas will decrease, in a predictable way, in inverse proportion to the amount of pressure put upon it. This may sound obvious, but it wasn’t at the time. If you couldn’t compress a gas, the size of the propane bottles I use to run my gas cooker would be unfeasibly large. He also rejected Aristotle’s idea that everything was made up of earth, air, fire and water. He believed that some substances were elements, while others were compounds, made up from those elements. This was, for him, just a theory as there were no experiments to identify which was which. He also believed that everything was made up of tiny particles suspended in a void. What we would call atoms. His alchemical roots meant that he firmly believed that one element could be transmuted into another, such as lead into gold, he just didn’t know how to do it. This is not entirely untrue as, in 1919, Ernest Rutherford successfully transformed nitrogen into oxygen.
Robert Boyle was able to spend his whole life pursuing his scientific curiosities because, being wealthy, he had no need to earn a living or to find a patron. But he still thought of plenty of things that he hoped science would be able to give us in the future. In fact, he wrote a list. It reveals just how widely his thoughts ranged. Many of his hopes have now become reality. It’s a great list:
1. The Prolongation of Life.
2. The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour’d as in youth.
3. The Art of Flying.
4. The Art of Continuing long under water, and exercising functions freely there.
5. The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
6. The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
7. The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions.
8. The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
9. The Acceleration of the Production of things out of Seed.
10. The Transmutation of Metalls.
11. The makeing of Glass Malleable.
12. The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
13. The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums.
14. The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
15. The making Armor light and extremely hard.
16. The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
17. The use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to watches.
18. Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc.
19. A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
20. Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
21. Pleasing Dreams and physicall Exercises exemplify’d by the Egyptian Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French Author.
22. Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
23. A perpetuall Light.
24. Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.