Science & People

Robert Boyle | Biography, quotes, accomplishments, and books

For Robert Boyle, the experiments were always at the center of his life. He discovered the potential of scientific research first while living in the mansion inherited from his father, Richard Boyle, the First Cork Count in Stalbridge, Dorset, and decided to devote his life to science. He enjoyed the privileged care and education offered to him until that time. He traveled to Europe and wrote on morality. He lived at the house in Pall Mall, London with his famous sister, Lady Ranelagh, from 1688 until his death in 1691. Boyle continued his experimental essays almost daily, and these experiments had always been at the heart of his life,

Who is Robert Boyle?

But most important of all was the experiments he carried out while living in Oxford between 1655-1668. At that time, he made his famous series of experiments, which was the subject of his first scientific book, New Experiments Physico-Mechanical: Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects, published in 1660. Using an air pump or an essential part of the apparatus designed by his then assistant Robert Hooke, the vacuum chamber, Boyle opened up new horizons with this book, to determine the characteristics and functions of air, including his role in breathing. In the sequel published in 1662, he created the first draft of the famous law (Boyle’s law) carrying his name—that vacuums can exist in nature and the pressure of air is in inverse proportion to its volume.

Boyle continued to publish more books until his death and presented his groundbreaking experimental studies about the nature of color, cold, and countless other subjects. Boyle, above all, was engaged in chemical experiments that were based on the procedures used to analyze and manipulate the chemicals used by the practical chemists of his day.

Robert Boyle was an unprecedented pioneer in designing and setting up controlled experiments while carefully recording them. Also, his deep reflection on the nature of experimental investigation led him to create an experimental philosophy. His success in this field is the most significant factor of his importance in the field of science. His exemplary personality was a more relevant reason for being supported by the newly founded Royal Society, which he was one of the first members.

Particle philosophy and challenges

The cover of the second edition of Robert Boyle’s New Experiments, dated 1660.
The cover of the second edition of Boyle’s New Experiments, dated 1660.

Boyle’s experiments have also served a further purpose than the main facts they have brought to light, and have been used to prove the correctness of the mechanical philosophy, which defends the view that everything in the world can be explained by the interaction of matter and motion. In his own words: “Nor can we conceive any principles more primary than matter and motion.“

Actually, Boyle did not create this doctrine: his pioneers were thinkers like Pierre Gassendi and Rene Descartes. But at least by providing experimental evidence, he has done more than anyone else to transform the idea from a masterful hypothesis to doctrine with some plausible experimental basis. One of the most important experiments done by him was the redintegration of salt-petre (potassium nitrate mineral) from its components, as explained in Certain Physiological Essays in 1661.

His work The Origin of Forms and Qualities from 1666-1667 was equally important. He demonstrated that the explanatory principles of the theory of matter inherited from Aristotle, considered valid for centuries, were at worst meaningless and at best unnecessary. In fact, all the phenomena could be better explained by the mechanical or (in his preferred terms) “particle” hypothesis.

Robert Boyle and alchemy

Robert Boyle used this tool to do the experiments mentioned in New Experiments Physico-Mechanical.
Robert Boyle used this tool to do the experiments mentioned in New Experiments Physico-Mechanical.

In this way, Robert Boyle offered a more refined version of mechanical philosophy than his predecessors. He did not only evaluate the size, shape, and motion of the particles of the matter, but also the distinctive features of the objects they created. His thoughts on such subjects had a significant impact on both Isaac Newton and John Locke. Robert Boyle was sure that the mechanical explanations should be used wherever possible, but his mechanical philosophy was not too simplified. He did not see any problem in admitting that there were “subordinate causes” such as the idea of “flexibility” in the air, under the “most general causes of things.” He was also open to the idea that “corpuscles” of matter could be in chemical qualities (not purely mechanical), even the universe could have “cosmic qualities” transcending the purely mechanical laws. He also took the idea of transforming basic metals into gold, and making strong medicines by processing chemicals.

In his book The Sceptical Chymist from 1661, he clearly expressed his respect for the “true masters”, even though his views were criticized by the inferior alchemists that Boyle found as flawed as Aristotle’s ideas. He tried to learn about the alchemy mysteries for the most part of his life, believing that they could contribute to understanding the functioning of the Earth. He even conducted public alchemy researches and published several of them.

Boyle’s philosophy of nature and religion

In addition to his contributions to understanding the nature of matter, Boyle was deeply interested in every aspect of the natural world; crafted a highly effective “systematic science” perspective. One of his most popular books named Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy published in two parts in 1663 and 1671, follows the influential example of Francis Bacon from the beginning of the century and states that scientific knowledge can be applied on agricultural to industrial and maritime initiatives and therefore, in every aspect of human life.

Robert Boyle believed that science may ignore its true potential if it only tries to teach man the flow of nature but not how to rule it. The book particularly emphasized the value of scientific findings in the pharmaceutical field. Boyle was closely interested in improving health, and even wrote a controversial thesis in which he criticized standard treatment practices of his time. However, in the end he did not publish it because of his desire to avoid provoking the medical profession. His publications in this field were concerned with the use of specific weight to detect tricks in drugs.

Boyle’s writings on the epistemology of science and the relationship between science and religion are also substantial. In addition to his writings on the experiments, he thought intensely on issues such as the proper relationship between reason and experience, and the degree of relative certainty that can be expected in different forms of information. In the second issue, Boyle was trying to show the limits of the human mind in the face of “all-knowing” God. In order to understand Boyle, it is necessary to take into account that he was deeply under the influence of theism in his works throughout his life.

Seeking divine power

The cover page of Robert Boyle’s 1661 The Sceptical Chymist which contains dialogues on various topics. Boyle criticized many chemists for their practical engagements and called them to make a “philosophical explanation” of their experiments.
The cover page of Boyle’s 1661 The Sceptical Chymist which contains dialogues on various topics. Boyle criticized many chemists for their practical engagements and called them to make a “philosophical explanation” of their experiments.

Boyle’s most popular book is a study of worship rather than scientific work. Today we know more about his spiritual life, which helped a lot to explain his ambitious character. He would spend hours studying his conscience, his experimental work can be seen as the reflection of this heart-searching in the natural world. Under his desire to understand nature, there was a conviction that we would be one step closer to understanding God. In fact, Boyle’s sense of the divine potential of science explains his transition to the experimentation around the 1650s.

To some extent, Boyle was concerned with the evidence of a supernatural realm that was beyond the mechanical realm and could neutralize the materialist view. He gave no credibility for any thought states that the Earth is created by the coincidental interaction of matter without an intelligent designer in the image of God. He battled this view in his work Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature. To understand Robert Boyle, we have to place his science in the context of his ideas as a whole.

Robert Boyle quotes

  • “God would not have made the universe as it is unless He intended us to understand it.”
  • “… even when we find not what we seek, we find something as well worth seeking as what we missed.”
  • “God [is] the author of the universe, and the free establisher of the laws of motion.”
  • “From a knowledge of His work, we shall know Him.”“Nature always looks out for the preservation of the universe.”
  • “As the moon, though darkened with spots, gives us a much greater light than the stars that sewn all-luminous, so do the Scriptures afford more light than the brightest human authors. In them the ignorant may learn all requisite knowledge, and the most knowing may learn to discern their ignorance.”
  • “There is no less invention in aptly applying a thought found in a book, than in being the first author of the thought."