The man who turned chemistry into a science
Robert Boyle (1627–1691)
For centuries up to the 1600s, alchemy played a strong part in the scientific thinking of many. Alchemists were the medieval forerunners of today’s chemists, but most of their time was taken up trying to turn base metals such as lead into gold, or in attempting to produce an ‘elixir of life’ which would keep them perpetually youthful. But the beliefs of the alchemists were about to be shaken.
Robert Boyle was born in 1627, at Lismore Castle in Ireland, the fourteenth child of Sir Richard, the wealthy Earl of Cork, and Lady Boyle. His parents provided young Robert with the best education available in seventeenth century England. He attended Eton—the college founded by King Henry VI almost 200 years earlier—and also had private tutors. Sir Richard encouraged his son to continue his education in Europe. So Robert was sent off to mainland Europe, destined for school in Geneva.
Robert did well in Europe. He had access to resources not available to students in England, and his knowledge broadened noticeably. He had a fondness for languages, mastering six, and found his interests also leaning greatly towards science.
Cherished meeting with Galileo
The 16 year-old saw the world around him as a marvellous creation of God. His attentive and alert mind was constantly striving to know more about the Creator and the mechanics of His world. In Italy, Robert had the privilege of meeting the aged and ailing astronomer Galileo, who paved the way to a better understanding of the universe. This meeting was something Robert cherished, and it provided a great impetus to the young man to try now to discover even more about God’s world.
As his budding interest in science began to flower, Robert encountered heavy disappointments. He had enormous difficulty overcoming the mental barriers set up in people’s minds by the alchemists. Most alchemists were interested only in performing scientific ‘magic’ to increase their wealth and prestige. They gave little time to anyone who tried to down-play the great importance of their selfish objectives.
Boyle realized that if anything were to be done about improving science, he would have to start doing something about it himself. While only 18, he helped to found the Philosophical College in London (later to become the Royal Society of London). He specialized in chemistry, and maintained a belief in the necessity of objective observation in research.
He returned home to Ireland at the age of 25 and took up the study of anatomy. Two years later he travelled to Oxford, established a laboratory, and headed a small scientific society there.
Working to overcome problems
In the ensuing years his active mind pondered a vast number of scientific puzzles, such as the problems of elasticity and pressure, and problems associated with gas pressure and volume. He worked with the brilliant physicist Robert Hooke, who, like himself, was a Bible-believing Christian; and together they invented the forerunner of the modern air-pump. While experimenting with air, Boyle began to promote his atomic theory, which is the foundation for our modern understanding of matter.
Few scientists at this time understood Boyle’s ideas about atoms. Although some of the strange ideas held by the alchemists had been accepted almost without question, Boyle’s atomic theory was regarded with ridicule by some.
But his explanation finally convinced people. He explained that because air can be compressed there must be space between the atoms in the air. As liquids and solids don’t compress much, their atoms must be closer together than the atoms of air. When others began to think about Boyle’s idea, they began to see its logic, and eventually came to accept it.
It was about this time also that Boyle proposed an idea that has become perhaps his most notable contribution to science. He formulated a law which describes the behaviour of gases under pressure. This is now known as Boyle’s Law. Stated simply, Boyle’s Law is that the volume of a given quantity of gas varies inversely with the pressure when the temperature is constant.
Boyle’s services to science were already becoming valuable, and he stands out as one of the principal originators of the ‘experimental method’.
But more was to come from this great mind.
In 1661, at the age of 34, Boyle published The Skeptical Chymist. In this book he overturned Aristotle’s conception of the four elements (the belief that everything was composed of earth, air, fire and water) and replaced it with the modern idea of an element—namely that an element is a substance that cannot be separated into simpler components by chemical methods. The Skeptical Chymist is recognized as the foundation-stone of modern chemistry.
Needed to study Scripture
Boyle was a devout Christian and an enthusiastic student of the Bible. In fact, he felt a great need to study the Scriptures in their original languages to gain greater understanding of them. He even paid for and supervised the translation and publication of the Bible in Gaelic.
In the year before his death in 1691, Boyle published an important work he called The Christian Virtuoso. In this book he explained that the study and dominion of nature is a duty given to man by God. His basis for this was the command given in Genesis 1:28, where God the Creator blessed the first man and woman and told them to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the Earth and subdue it, and to rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.
In his lectures and many writings, Robert Boyle showed that science and faith in God can exist side by side. He praised his Creator for all the scientific discoveries he had made, and urged others to do likewise. He recognized that the universe works in accordance with the laws of nature which God established for its order and control. As a powerful Christian apologist, he established in his will provision for the Boyle Lectures for the defence of Christianity. He strongly supported missionary work, and gave great support to societies which promoted the Gospel.
Modern chemistry owes enormous gratitude to the work and writings of Robert Boyle—a creation scientist whose love of God’s truth led him to overcome the chief errors of alchemical theory which were hindering the development of truly scientific chemistry.