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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > March-April 2001 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

Opera Omnia of an Omniscribe

Mordechai Feingold

The Works of Robert Boyle. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis (eds.). 14 volumes. Pickering & Chatto, 1999–2000. $1,950.

In his 1744 preface to the complete works of Robert Boyle, Thomas Birch, the editor, had little difficulty justifying the publication of five massive folio volumes by an author who had been dead more than 50 years: "The general reasons for collecting into one body the works of the honourable Robert Boyle," he told his readers, "are as obvious, as the excellence of the several parts of them is universally acknowledged." Birch's confidence was undoubtedly warranted. Boyle's writings informed the research of 18th-century chemists, physicists and physicians, and his efforts to harmonize science with religion had lost little of their original potency and appeal. But even a quarter of a millennium later, when it is no longer defensible to claim that Boyle is intrinsically relevant to current science, he remains as enshrined as ever in the pantheon of science as the "father of modern chemistry." This iconic image among scientists is matched by his near-mythical status among historians, philosophers and sociologists, who embrace Boyle as the embodiment of experimental science—indeed as the person who single-handedly mandated the etiquette for the execution and presentation of scientific results.

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For all concerned, then, Boyle is eminently deserving of the opera omnia—the ultimate tribute of posterity. And the publication of a new edition of his works, to be followed next year by an edition of his correspondence, is cause for celebration. Birch's edition, which was reprinted in 1772, sought to include all of Boyle's works, but the editorial policy was to reprint the latest printing, the assumption being that it represented Boyle's final say on any given topic. This may or may not have been the case. What is certain is that such a policy precluded any appreciation of Boyle's initial formulations, the evolution of his ideas and the manner in which he responded to criticism. Nor did Birch avail himself of the massive body of Boyle's papers—except when writing Boyle's biography—or offer much annotation or commentary.

Things are quite different with the superb new edition produced by Michael Hunter and Edward Davis. It is an attractive, well-produced, user-friendly set. The editors have exercised meticulous care in collating the various editions of the 40 or so books Boyle published during his lifetime and in offering helpful yet nonintrusive explanatory notes, cross-references to Boyle's other writings (both published and unpublished), and clear translations of all non-English texts. In addition, the introductions to each work provide highly relevant discussions of the circumstances of publication. Most important, in contrast to Birch's edition, which included only the published works, the edition of Hunter and Davis devotes two full volumes to sections discarded from or added to various printed works and to envisaged but incomplete treatises. The reconstruction of both published and unpublished works was no easy task, not least because Boyle's morbid fear of literary theft made him compose on separate sheets that were deliberately kept apart. One can only admire the uncanny ability of the editors to recognize the relatedness of seemingly loose pages to a particular project.

The new edition will contribute greatly to our understanding of Boyle. The youngest son of the unscrupulous and immensely wealthy Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, Robert exhibited an early taste for learning. Science, however, was not his first passion. During the 1640s he believed he had a calling as a moralist and a literary writer, and volume 13 includes several of his unpublished compositions in these genres, including the recently discovered original version of The Martyrdom of Theodora. Only around 1650, and especially after his move to Oxford, where he came into contact with the Oxford Philosophical Club, did Boyle devote himself fully to scientific studies. His compulsive writing habits were instantly transferred to that domain and, again, several of his early unpublished compositions are included in the present edition.

His first scientific publication, the epochal New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects, appeared in 1660 and immediately established Boyle's reputation as one of the foremost natural philosophers of the day. The book publicized the capability of a revolutionary new scientific instrument, the air pump, to create, for the first time, conditions that do not occur naturally on earth in order to investigate the properties of air and the behavior of natural bodies. Two years later a further installment appeared, with responses to the criticisms of Thomas Hobbes and Francis Line, and with a formulation of "Boyle's law," which demonstrates that there is an inverse relationship between the volume and pressure of gases when temperature is constant.

For nearly four decades Boyle continued to publish at an astounding rate and on an equally astounding range of subjects. Best known, of course, are those works that helped establish modern chemistry and bring to a wider audience Boyle's formulation of his corpuscular theory of matter. These included The Sceptical Chymist and Certain Physiological Essays (both published in 1661) and Origine of Formes and Qualities (1666). But Boyle also made seminal contributions to pneumatics, hydrostatics, optics, mineralogy, physiology and medicine—even as he churned out a steady stream of works bolstering Christianity and defending the mechanical philosophy against the charges of irreligion increasingly leveled against it.

But what makes Boyle an even larger figure than is conjured up by the sum of his undeniably considerable "positive" contributions to science is the use made of his elevated social status to ensconce his vision of the conduct of science on the one hand and to enhance the public perception of science on the other. This latter contribution has been little studied, for it eludes easy measurement. Nevertheless, it is clear that some of the honor and dignity bestowed on Boyle as befitting the son of a nobleman rubbed off on his colleagues at the Royal Society and that this has had considerable implications for the place of science in English society ever since.

Boyle's vision of scientific conduct has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly attention. Well-known are Boyle's reticence to advance theories, which is virtually unparalleled (except perhaps by Sir Francis Bacon), and his advocacy of rigorous and careful experimental inquiry. The English empiricist tradition in science and philosophy owes its inception to his reputation as a consummate experimentalist, which was enhanced by the "Honourable" preceding his name. Closely related to this issue is the wholesale adoption, both in England and beyond, of Boyle's distinct blueprint for the proper execution, communication and validation of experimental results, which with some modifications informs scientific practice to this day. Indeed, so ingrained was Boyle's legacy that when Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz castigated Sir Isaac Newton in 1716 for advancing such a "fanciful" theory as universal gravitation, he invoked the previous doyen of English science: "In the time of Mr Boyle," he wrote to Samuel Clarke, "nobody would have ventured to publish such chimerical notions."

Editing is often a thankless endeavor, so it is doubly important to commend Hunter and Davis for managing the amazing feat of producing such a fine edition within a single decade and for furnishing scholars with an indispensable permanent resource for any future study of Boyle and his role in a crucial period in the history of modern science.

 

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