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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > May-June 2002 > Bookshelf Detail


Boyle's Influences

Debra Rolison

Gender and Boyle's Law of Gases. Elizabeth Potter. xiv + 210 pp. Indiana University Press, 2001. $18.95

Does gender affect the ways and means of physical science? How can either a feminist or a male-centered context influence a physical fact or a physical law? Isn't a melting point a melting point?

Well, yes—if an experimental observation made with care using calibrated instruments is repeatable, it is what it is. But scientists generate data because they formulate questions, design and perform experiments, and then interpret the results within a more general framework. Because each scientist is a product of his or her time, these questions and interpretations can be shaped both by value-neutral influences (deemed to produce "good," unbiased science) and contextual influences (traditionally deemed to produce "bad," biased science).

What can gender possibly have to do with Boyle's law of gases (p1v1/t1 = p2v2/t2, inexplicably misrendered in the text as p1v1t1 = p2v2t2 and k = pvt)? According to tradition, nothing. The transmitted view (as Rom Harré states in Great Scientific Experiments) is that "the law emerged from the measurements."

But not so fast. In Gender and Boyle's Law of Gases, Elizabeth Potter presents a convincing argument that Robert Boyle (1629–1691) devised and interpreted his experiments with gases as a means of countering two major contextual influences: an England in the midst of civil chaos (women petitioning Parliament for social and political equality, the beheading of Charles I, the establishment of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate and the Restoration of the monarchy); and the contentiousness of European science, which was struggling with competing dogmas (Aristotelian versus Cartesian) in order to explain the physical universe.

Boyle published not only on science, but also on religion, politics and gender. The new science he envisioned required a new form of masculinity—one embodied by the chaste man, modest and humble in his scientific approach—which in turn demanded a traditional form of femininity. Boyle, whose English family was prominent in the Irish peerage, never married and relied upon his married sister, Lady Katherine Ranelagh, for many infrastructural needs. He was hypochondriacal and according to his own writings had a lifelong interest in and fear of magical forces. Boyle's concern with keeping women chaste in order to keep his ideal male scientist (himself?) chaste leads to Potter's laugh-out-loud summary of Boyle's ideal: "Manly chastity and modesty are qualities of the person engaged in the highest calling; womanly chastity and modesty are qualities of the person who keeps out of his way."

Boyle, as a 17th-century scientist, was versed in the mechanical, or corpuscular, metaphysics of Descartes and in Aristotelian natural philosophy, which taught that an active force fills all matter (hylozoism) so that matter finds its natural place and works to thwart creation of a vacuum. Boyle also studied the animistic, natural-magic version of hylozoism espoused by Paracelsus, Jan Baptista van Helmont and contemporaries, which invoked Nature as a "World Spirit" that infused all matter and guided the universe. Most modern scientists will need a scorecard during Potter's discussion to keep track of the various metaphysical offshoots and adherents of the two natural philosophies contending to become the dominant worldview (we know which one lost). These worldviews had ideological consequences; the hylozoic variants were coupled to the reformers, sectarians and radicals in England who were agitating for policies and freedoms we now take for granted, such as suffrage without being a landed property owner.

Boyle believed, as did many of the scientists of his era, that one glorified God by understanding his creation—the physical world. For Boyle, the mechanistic philosophy was truer to God than the hylozoic one, because no interceding agent (that is, Nature) was necessary. He positioned his arguments for a corpuscular interpretation of his experiments with compressed and rarefied airs as a direct counterpoise to the hylozoic interpretation of the same data. And two of his motivations for doing so were highly contextual: the animistic force behind hylozoism, and the civil strife associated with radical adherents of that philosophy. Potter compares Boyle's writings on the data that led to his Law with those of a hylozoic scientist (Franciscus Linus) and shows that the two interpretations were nearly equal in their ability to explain the experimental results on the basis of measurements made before thermometers had been invented and when "air pumps" were leaky.

Potter points out that Boyle fixed the fight in two ways: He cast his arguments against Linus (rather than Helmont, who was the stronger natural philosopher, experimentalist and hylozoist), and he asserted that hylozoism was unintelligible (because it required a World Spirit). In that Boyle, the "Apostle of the Scientific Revolution," required a good scientific hypothesis to be intelligible and simple (and to explain known observables and predict new ones), he predefined Linus's arguments as incorrect, thereby negating even internally consistent hylozoic reasoning.

The good news is that Boyle's Law of Gases held with the advent of improved instrumentation and experiments of even greater probative design—despite the evidence that his deductions and interpretations were grounded in reasoning that was contextual as well as value-neutral. The interesting news is that politics, society, philosophy, religion, science and gender all influenced Boyle in his scientific how (his choice of experiments) and why (the way he interpreted his results)—and yet, ironically, enduring science was done. Science was and remains a human endeavor with all the power, promise and influences thereunto—even gender.—Debra Rolison, Advanced Electrochemical Materials, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C.


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