The Godly Scientist
BOYLE: Between God and Science. Michael Hunter. xiv + 366 pp. Yale University Press, 2009. $55.
A short entry in a single-volume encyclopedia will tell you the achievements for which Robert Boyle (1627–1691) is most commonly remembered. He discovered air pressure and formulated Boyle’s law, which shows that the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related to one another. He studied the workings of the barometer and designed an air pump to investigate the effects of a vacuum. He was a founding member of a group organized in 1660 to encourage and communicate scientific research; in 1662 it became the Royal Society of London. His most famous book, The Sceptical Chymist (1661), challenged the prevailing theories about chemical composition held by the alchemists of the time and by the followers of Aristotle’s natural philosophy.
Michael Hunter’s new biography will add greatly to readers’ knowledge of Boyle and may correct some misimpressions. It turns out, for example, that although Boyle developed the concept of what he called the “spring of the air,” he never wrote down his law in the algebraic form that is now familiar: pV = k, where p is the pressure of the system, V is the volume of the gas, and k is a constant. Much of the hands-on work with the air pump—and some of the crucial interpretation—was performed by Robert Hooke and others, whom Boyle employed as his assistants. And although Boyle was present at the first meeting of what became the Royal Society and had previously associated with some of its members in Oxford in the late 1650s, he did not attend with consistent regularity in the following years. He was more important as an inspiration for the leading ideas and values of the society than as an institutional organizer, which was a role he never assumed. And, despite his criticisms of alchemy in The Sceptical Chymist, Boyle was never disillusioned with the subject. In fact, it was the first experimental field to draw his attention, and he never ceased to be fascinated by the alchemists’ vision of transmuting base metals into gold and producing wonderful new medicines.
Hunter’s goal is to explain the complexities surrounding Boyle’s life and work, and thereby to tell the story of how he became the person he was. In the first paragraph of the book, Hunter notes that Boyle was the most eminent “scientist” of his day but explains that this word was not one Boyle could have applied to himself, because it was not coined until the 19th century. Boyle called himself a “naturalist,” an “experimental philosopher” and a “Christian virtuoso.” Three elements—experimental science, moral philosophy and Christian devotion—were essential to his self-formation. Hunter gives all of them their due weight, placing Boyle’s scientific accomplishments in a context of lifelong piety and serious moral concerns.
These aspects of Boyle’s identity have emerged more clearly in recent years as the result of a huge scholarly enterprise in which Hunter has been the driving force. Previously unpublished writings of Boyle have been rescued from the archives and put into print, multivolume editions of his works and correspondence have been compiled, and an extensive Web site (http://www.bbk. ac.uk/boyle/) reports the progress of Boyle studies. When the whole body of Boyle’s writings and the whole documentary record surrounding him is taken into account, it becomes impossible to fit him into the role of scientist as this would now be understood.
Consider, for example, his enthusiasm for what in the 17th century was called “chymistry.” Boyle first glimpsed the potential benefits to be derived from chemical investigations in the late 1640s, after he had completed his formal schooling and settled in Dorset on an estate acquired by his father, the Earl of Cork. Boyle arranged for chemical furnaces and vessels to be shipped to him there, inspired by the idea that medicines could be prepared in the laboratory to alleviate human suffering. A particularly important influence was exerted by the American chemist George Starkey, whom Boyle supported in his research into the possibility of metallic transmutation. For Boyle, the quest was justified in terms of a moral obligation to exploit the resources of nature for human benefit, but it led him far afield from topics recognized today as scientific. In the late 1670s, he again engaged in intense experimental work, leading to what he thought was success in making gold on at least one occasion. After Boyle’s death, Isaac Newton, who had his own obsessive interest in the subject, thought that Boyle might have left information among his papers about the secrets of transmutation. He was to be disappointed.
It is not possible, therefore, to understand all of Boyle’s activities in terms of the ideas that prevail in modern science. Hunter makes the case that a more fundamental theme in Boyle’s life was his personal piety and the associated preoccupation with leading a moral life. This concern preceded Boyle’s scientific work and it survived into his last days, when he was anticipating his own death and consulting with leading churchmen about matters that weighed on his conscience. In the course of his life, he studied scripture and religious doctrine intensely, and he supported the work of Protestant missionaries in America, Asia and his native Ireland. He justified his scientific interests by reference to this religious outlook, sometimes in a rather tortuous manner when it came to arcane matters like alchemy. In general at that time the study of nature was defended as the study of God’s works. Boyle was a pioneer in allying natural theology—the belief that God’s attributes could be discerned in the natural world—with empirical scientific inquiry. The marriage of Christian faith with experimental science was to hold firm long after Boyle’s time and was seriously challenged only in the 19th century.
This biography shows the centrality of Boyle’s religious faith to his work, but Hunter makes no grand claims for an underlying unity in his subject’s worldview. In fact, he rarely steps back to make larger interpretive claims at all, sticking rigorously to the documented facts of Boyle’s life and to the texts of his writings. Hunter’s basic argument is that Boyle was a more complicated individual than has been realized hitherto, which is no doubt true but scarcely distinguishes him from many other people. It is unfortunate that the book does not make a strong case for Boyle’s importance to readers who are not already convinced of it.
One reason for this is that Hunter seems to share one of his subject’s abiding characteristics, what Hunter calls his “scrupulosity.” Boyle was notorious for the convolutions and hesitations of his writings, for torturing his own conscience on subtle moral questions, and for his reluctance to endorse theoretical speculation that went beyond the certified facts. Hunter writes intriguingly about these personal qualities, which he clearly admires, but which he acknowledges had adverse effects on Boyle’s prose style. That style, Hunter declares, reflects the author’s sense of “the complexity of issues and a concomitant desire to multiply testimony in order to reinforce his case.” Stylistically, Hunter follows a similar path, citing evidence abundantly for the verifiable facts but scrupulously avoiding going beyond them into what he sees as the realm of speculation. The choice is responsible both for the strengths of this book and for its limitations.
There is little reason to doubt that Hunter has written what will be the first point of reference for future inquiries concerning Boyle. It covers every aspect of his life and work, with comprehensive citations of primary and secondary sources in the endnotes and in an extensive bibliographical essay. The very thorough index and the table of Boyle’s whereabouts at each stage of his life will increase the book’s value for specialists, who will surely come to regard it as indispensable. Some readers, however, may find themselves overwhelmed by the density of factual detail and will long for a few more interpretive—even speculative—remarks that would help make sense of Boyle’s career as a whole. It would be unfortunate if this led nonspecialist readers to overlook the merits of this authoritative study of a very significant figure in the history of science.
Jan Golinski is professor of history and humanities at the University of New Hampshire, where he currently serves as chair of the Department of History. His books include Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science (second edition, 2005) and British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment (2007), both published by the University of Chicago Press.