Alberti, Leone Battista
Baif, Lazare de
Baliani, Giovanni Battista
Benedetti, Giovanni Battista
Borelli, Giovanni Alfonso
Cicero, M. Tullius
Foscarini, Paolo Antonio
Guevara, Giovanni di
Jordanus de Nemore
Marci of Kronland, Johannes Marcus
Monantheuil, Henri de
Monte, Guidobaldo del
Schreck, Johann Terrenz
Stelliola, Niccolò Antonio
Wolff, Christian von
born on 25.1.1627 at Lismore Castle (Lismore Province) Ireland, died on 31.12.1691 in London, natural philosopher, physicist, chemist
Boyle was descended from one of the richest families in Britain. He was the youngest son (the 14th child and the seventh son) of Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork, and his second wife Catherine, daughter of Sir Geoffrey Fenton, the “principal secretary of state” for Ireland. Boyle’s mother died when he was three years old, and after he had received private instruction at home, he went to Eton at the age of eight, where he attracted attention for his talent and zest for learning. He left England in October 1638 with his brother Francis and set out via Paris and Lyon on an educational trip to Geneva, where they stayed for 21 months. At this time Boyle also began the intensive study of religious issues, which interested him greatly his entire life. He spent the winter of 1641/1642 in Florence, where he read Galileo Galilei’s Dialogo. His brother returned to Ireland in 1642 due to political unrest there, whilst Robert Boyle again took up residence in Geneva to continue his studies. In 1644 he returned to England and took up residence in Stalbridge (Dorset), a country seat of his family, where he began writing ethical and religious treatises. He set up a laboratory there in 1649 in order to be able to perform his first physical and chemical experiments. From this time on he adopted the view that the experiment is the most important means of recognizing and understanding the processes of nature. He spent the years 1652 – 1654 travelling to Ireland and on the Continent, where he met with M. Mersenne, B. Pascal and B. Spinoza. At this time he was involved in lively scientific exchange with Samuel Hartlib, Frederick Clodius, George Starkey (Eirenaeus Philalethes) and Sir Kenelm Digby. These men introduced him to the works of J.B. van Helmont, which had a major influence on Robert Boyle’s scientific thought, as did the works of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, which he subjected to thorough study.
When he returned to England in June 1654, he settled in Oxford, where he remained until 1668. Here he met regularly for scientific discussions with such personalities as J. Wallis, Christopher Wren and J. Wilkins and enjoyed an extraordinarily productive phase during which he wrote many of his best-known scientific works. One of the assistants in his Oxford laboratory was R. Hooke, with whom he built his famous air pump in 1659 and repeated the famous experiments by Otto von Guericke (which he had learned of in G. Schott’s Mechanica hydraulico-pneumatica, Frankfurt 1657). Here he was able to acquire a great deal of new knowledge about the elasticity, compressibility and the weight of air; in particular he recognized the necessity of air for the propagation of sound. He described his results in the book New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, published in 1660. In the second edition of the New Experiments published in 1662, Boyle describes the law named after him and presumed by his pupil R. Towneley during experiments they performed together, that at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely proportional to each other. Not until 1676 was this law ultimately confirmed, however, by Mariotte in Paris. It was chiefly the study of Pascal’s writings that provided the inspiration for many of Boyle’s hydrostatic experiments, in which he discovered the laws of hydrostatic equilibrium and many important characteristics of osmotic pressure (Hydrostatical Paradoxes 1666). His intense study of the phenomenon of colour culminated in his book The Experimental History of Colours of the year 1663.
His great interest in the Bible and his deep piety induced him to learn Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean and Syrian. He maintained a lively correspondence about theological problems with the leading theologians and Orientalists of his day, Hyde, Pococke and Clarke. Thanks to his large fortune he was also able to support numerous theological research pursuits. For instance, he sponsored the printing of the Indian, Irish and Welsh Bibles (1685 – 1686), after he had already made possible the Turkish New Testament and the Malay translation of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles (1677). During his entire life, he not only made available significant financial means for the propagation of the Christian faith, but also provided significant funding for numerous scientific research projects. In 1668 Boyle settled in London, where he spent the rest of his life as a private scholar in the house of his sister Catherine, Lady Ranelagh. Here too he maintained a laboratory and met with a wide circle of friends from the fields of science, from which the Royal Society later emerged, whose founding members also included Boyle. In London he wrote a new book almost every year and received many visitors with whom he discussed scientific problems and even performed experiments. He was offered the presidency of the Royal Society in 1680, but refused; he also declined a bishopric. Boyle, who was infirm his entire life and suffered from poor vision, died at the age of 64 after a short illness, which was apparently exacerbated by his sorrow about the death of his sister a few days previously. Today Boyle’s extensive estate is the property of the Royal Society, where the “Boyle Lectures”, which he founded to deal with and resist atheism based on the results of the natural sciences, are still held today.
Boyle advocated a natural-science research that subordinated itself to the Christian faith. On the one hand, his scientific work is still quite closely bound to conventional, metaphysically influenced natural philosophy, but on the other it is already determined by the new thinking so influenced by natural science and rationality. For him the experiment is the centre of the scientific process of knowledge, whereas he was quite reserved about comprehensive scientific theories. Because he returned to the intensive study of chemistry time and again, ascribing to it an especially prominent role in the investigation of nature, Boyle is justifiably regarded as one of the fathers of modern natural scientific chemistry. As a result of his confrontation with the alchemistic and Aristotelian tradition about the structure of matter, Boyle became one of the most important advocates of corpuscular philosophy and championed that special form of atomism which presumed the existence of a uniform, primary matter of which atoms consist, which in turn make up the bodies in nature. In Certain Physiological Essays of 1661 and in The Sceptical Chymist of 1662 he describes this atomism in detail and introduces his concept of the element (chemically unmixed bodies) to natural science. However, this concept does not describe the modern concept of elements in chemistry, as is frequently claimed; rather, his concept of elements is better suited to describe the contemporary conceptions of the time, including the transmutation of metals. Because Boyle rejected the theory of the “Tria Prima” (the three elements sulphur, mercury and sal) advocated by the Paracelsians, it was long believed that he rejected alchemy in general, but works released posthumously show clearly that he was not only strongly influenced by alchemy, but also advocated a number of its theories. In his tract The Origine of Formes and Qualities of 1666, Boyle differentiates between primary and secondary qualities and traces all characteristics of physical bodies back to the structure of the underlying combinations of particles and their movements. Due to the atomism he advocated he was convinced of the possibility of the transmutation of metals; in the same tract he also reports that he successfully transformed gold into silver using a special solvent he called “menstruum peracutum”. He also believed in transmutation using the philosophers’ stone (“lapis philosophorum”) and tried his entire life to illuminate the secret of this stone. In his Dialogue on Transmutation, published anonymously in 1678 with the title A Degradation of Gold by an Anti-Elixir, he reveals himself to be convinced of the possibility of transmutation. Guided by this view, in 1689 he supported the successful repeal of a law against multiplication (the production of gold using the philosophers’ stone) passed in England in 1404. Boyle corresponded with numerous alchemists all over Europe, among whom he enjoyed great recognition due to the many experiments he has performed.
Boyle conducted extensive correspondence with Spinoza about the role of the experiment in science, especially about the extent to which it could be ascribed a confirming or falsifying meaning in the framework of natural science. In his book A Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature of 1686, he abandons the concept of nature influenced by Aristotelism (as “natura naturans”) and replaces it with the concept of “mechanismus cosmicus”. In The Christian Virtuoso of the year 1690 he vigorously defends the mechanistic and corpuscular theory of life he represents against the reproach of atheism, using teleological arguments that are also directed against deism, and shows how he believes that faith and science are not only reconcilable, but actually mutually dependent and complementary. In his last major philosophical tract, A Disquisition about the Final Cause of Natural Things of 1688, he takes the view that it is not the task and objective of experimental research to find final causes, even if such final causes may be of importance for the processes of nature.