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25th Feb 2020 @ 8 min read
Robert Boyle was an Anglo-Irish chemist and a pioneer of the modern chemistry. He was conferred the title of the first modern chemist. He is widely known for his work on the behavior of gases, which is often seen in chemistry textbooks as Boyle's law.
Besides being a scientific investigator, Boyle was a devout Christian; he strongly believed in the Bible. His religious beliefs are well noticeable from his theological writings.
Robert Boyle was born to Richard Boyle and Catherine Fenton Boyle on 25 January 1627 at Lismore Castle, Ireland.
Richard Boyle (1566–1643) was the first Earl of Cork, also known as the Great Earl of Cork. He was a wealthy politician and a prominent figure in the history of Ireland. He also served a Lord Treasurer of the Kingdom of Ireland. From Catherine Fenton Boyle, his second wife and the daughter of Sir Geoffrey Fenton, he had fourteen to fifteen children; Robert Boyle was one of them.
Richard Boyle fostered out his sons to local Irish country families for almost the first five years of their lives. Consequently, Boyle was fluent in Irish. In early age, Boyle was tutored in Latin, Greek, and French. His mother passed away in his childhood. After deceased of his mother, he along with his brothers was admitted to Eton College in England, where he studied French and Latin. He was nine at then. Later, his father decided to send Boyle to the Grand tour for further studies as a part of his aristocratic education. At the age of fourteen, he and his brother Francis traveled to Europe with their tutor Isaac Marcombes. In Geneva, Boyle had encountered several religious thoughts and experiences.
The two brothers and Marcombes moved to Florence, Italy, leaving Switzerland in September 1941. In Florence, Boyle spent the winter of the same year studying the works of Galileo Galilei. Francis had to return home because of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 while Robert continued his studies. The Battle of Liscarroll was fought in July 1642 after the Irish Rebellion, in which Lewis Boyle, a brother of Robert Boyle, was killed.
Robert Boyle returned to England in mid-1644; he was seventeen years old at that time. He got reunited with his elder sister Katherine Jones. She played the role of motherly character in his future life. Both brother and sister had often exchanged the scientific ideas and assisted in each other.
Boyle took the residence in the manor of Stalbridge in Dorset in the same year. The manor was inherited from his father, who had died at Youghal in September 1643. The Stalbridge house was built by the second Earl of Castlehaven in 1618 and was the fifth-largest house in Dorset. He also was inherited several estates in County Limerick in Ireland.
He continued his career as a writer. His work of interest was ethical and theological oriented. He would spend a great deal of time in moral philosophy. In 1946, he wrote to his beloved sister, “My Ethics go very slowly on.”
Over a period of time, his interest in scientific research grew intensely, particularly from 1649. He started conducting several scientific experiments and soon set up a laboratory at his home. From 1649 to 1654, he made a number of contacts with other natural philosophers of his time. This group came to known as Invisible College. The community consisted of like-minded thinkers. They often exchanged ideas and discussed them face-to-face. The topics of discussion were usually limited to alchemy, chemistry, and mineralogy. Apart from Boyle's group, there were other active communities developed based on their fields of interest. The aim of the group was to acquired knowledge through experiments.
Boyle made lengthy visits to his hereditary properties in the early 1950s. In 1954, he moved to Oxford leaving Ireland to seek the latest development. Katherine, his sister, was also at Oxford, and she was finding a suitable residence for his brother to live. At Oxford, he got associated with notable natural philosophers, physicians, mathematicians and theologists like John Wilkins, Jonathan Goddard, Thomas Millington, Laurence Rooke, and Christopher Wren. The group became known as the Oxford Philosophical Club.
In 1657, Boyle with his assistant Robert Hooke, who was also a natural philosopher and polymath, set forward to improve the Otto von Guericke's air pump. He completed this assignment in 1659. They carried out a series of experiments on the behavior of air pressure and vacuum. And the results were published in 1660 in the publication: New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects.
Boyle and Hooke studied the physical properties of air and its importance in respiration and combustion. In his 1662 publication, A Defence of the Doctrine Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air, he stated the pressure of air is inversely proportional to its volume. This pressure-volume relationship is called Boyle's law. He experimented with an air column and different weights of mercury and observed the volume of the air decreases with weights. A similar relation was proposed by Henry Power in 1661.
In 1663, the Royal Society of The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was founded by Boyle and other natural philosophers. On 28 November 1660, King Charles II granted a royal charter to it.
He made a wish list of 24 inventions to achieve:
Boyle was a leading supporter of corpuscularism, a physical theory that says all matter to be composed of minute particles. In his work The Sceptical Chymist (1661), firmly rejected the Aristotelian ideas that the matter is made up of earth, water, air, and fire. He extended his support for corpuscularism further in his work The Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666). The believers of the corpuscularistic nature of matter were usually alchemists, and they believed in the transmutation of one element to another, especially gold. Boyle was an alchemist, and the other notable alchemist of his time was Sir Isaac Newton.
Besides the chemistry and alchemy, he had spent a significant amount of time in theology. As a pious Anglican, he supported spread and championed the religious activities. From a young age, he wrote religious content. He also tried to explain the existence of god with the help of natural philosophy. One of his work Some Physico-Theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection (1675) in which he delineated the resurrection of the body through scientific experiments. Boyle is considered as a monogenist, the belief that all humans had a common antecedent. He defended the Christian religion against atheists, pagans, Jews, Muslims, and others whom he considered infidels. His work The Christian Virtuoso (1690) describes his views and the understanding of Christianity as a scientist.
He left Oxford in 1668 and visited London to his elder sister Katherine. Both brother and sister spent plenty of their lives together. They looked after each other. Over a period of time, he became less active due to his deteriorating health. He died on 31st December 1691 by paralysis and was buried in the cemetery of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
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