ROBERT BOYLE, THE FATHER OF CHEMISTRY
Robert Boyle (1627-1691), ‘The Father of Chemistry’, was the most influential scientist ever born in Ireland. His influence on chemistry has been likened to that of Copernicus (1473-1543) on cosmology, who proposed that the sun and not the earth lies at the centre of the solar system. Apart from chemistry Boyle made many other contributions to science.
Robert Boyle was born in Lismore, Co. Waterford, the youngest son of Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, and his second wife Katherine Fenton. Richard accumulated a great fortune in Ireland and enjoyed a high social standing. Robert displayed a quiet scholarly disposition and was his father’s favourite son.
After early education at home, Robert was sent for a while to Eton College in England. Then at the age of 11 he was sent, with a tutor, on a grand tour of Europe which lasted for 6 years. Apart from conventional studies on the tour, Robert was also exposed to some vulgar ways of the world. For example, he attracted the amorous attentions of a couple of Friars, but he staunchly resisted the ‘preposterous courtship’ of those ‘gowned sodomites’.
During his tour of Europe, the young Boyle experienced an awesome thunderstorm which had the effect of a religious conversion experience. Boyle thought he was going to die and felt very ill-prepared to meet his Maker. Surviving the storm, he resolved to keep his spiritual side well serviced so that he would not be caught unawares again.
Modern chemistry developed out of medieval alchemy.
Alchemy was a pseudoscientific practice that sought a method (by varying
the proportions of the 3 controlling elements) of changing base metals
into gold, an elixir to prolong life indefinitely, a panacea to cure all
ills, and a solvent capable of dissolving anything. Alchemy was still
practiced in Boyle’s time and he himself studied the art. He was
quite prepared to believe that ‘cosmical qualities’ transcended
pure mechanical laws in the universe. However, he sharply differentiated
his scientific experimentation and theorising from his alchemical work.
Boyle was very religious. His major preoccupation was the relationship between God’s power, the created realm and man’s perception of it, and he was very hostile to views of nature that he saw as detracting from an appreciation of God’s power in his creation. His principal target in this respect was the Aristotelian worldview so prevalent in his day. Boyle used his experiments to demonstrate that mechanical explanations of the world are better than the traditional qualitative explanations associated with the ideas of Aristotle.
In his book The Sceptical Chymist, Boyle attacked Aristotle’s and Paracelsus’s theories. He proposed that elements are basically composed of ‘corpuscles’ of various sorts and sizes capable of organising themselves into groups and that each group constitutes a chemical substance. He clearly distinguished between mixtures and compounds and showed that a compound can have very different properties from those of its constituents. This prefigured the atomic theory of matter. Boyle declared that the proper object of chemistry was analysis of composition and, indeed, he coined the term analysis itself. He was also the first chemist to collect a sample of gas.
Robert Boyle was friendly with Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton worked intensively on alchemical investigations, but he kept this work secret. Newton had something of a paranoid personality and was secretive about most of his activities. He tried unsuccessfully to infect Boyle with this paranoia. Boyle, the wealthy aristocrat, had an easy self confidence lacking in the self-made Newton.
In his will Boyle endowed a series of Boyle Lectures, which still continue, ‘for proving the Christian Religion against notorious Infidels’. He rarely dedicated any of his many books to others. Interestingly, his last work, Free Discourse Against Swearing, published posthumously, was dedicated to his brother, the Second Earl of Cork.
(This article first appeared in The Irish Times, March 8, 2001.)