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Who Was Robert Boyle?
Robert Boyle was a famous chemist of the 17th century. Born in Ireland in 1627, he traveled to Europe as a young man and then moved to England as an adult. Boyle didn't actually begin his adult life as a chemist - he was profoundly religious and originally wanted to be a writer on ethics and virtue. But, in the 1640s, his focus took a dramatic turn.
Boyle set up a private laboratory at his house and took an enthusiastic interest in chemical experimentations and the idea of atoms. About 15 years later, he moved to Oxford to work with a group of natural philosophers, where he worked with other scientists, including his assistant Robert Hooke. In 1660, he became one of 11 founding members of the Royal Society, an experimental group based in London that still exists today. He died in 1691, at the age of 64.
As a scientist, Boyle valued experimentation and empirical observation. This put him at odds with Aristotelianism, the prevailing theory of the day. Aristotelianism is named after the Greek philosopher Aristotle, although it's dubious how faithfully Aristotle's thought was actually followed by 17th century Aristotelians.
In Boyle's day, Aristotelian thinkers put a strong emphasis on theory and abstract reasoning rather than empirically demonstrable facts. In learning about the natural world, theory often came first, and then facts were fit to the theory instead of the other way around. Today, this seems like it shouldn't even be called science, but at the time, it was the way discoveries were made.
Boyle completely rejected that approach. Rather than coming up with an abstract theory and then doing experiments to get the results he wanted, Boyle started with rigorous experimental work and careful observation of the results. In his scientific books, he provided detailed descriptions of his experiments, hoping that other people would repeat them and confirm his findings.
Boyle was not particularly concerned about theories and systems, and in fact ,he never came up with his own unified theory of chemistry, preferring to only draw the conclusions that were justified from his empirical observations. Boyle wrote constantly about science, philosophy, and theology for his entire life. He didn't see these subjects as separate - in Boyle's view, science was the study of the natural world that God created.
Boyle is known for his insistence on mechanical explanations for natural phenomena. He rejected Aristotelian theories based on ideas like the four elements (earth, water, fire, and air). Instead, he thought that everything was made of 'certain primitive and simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies...not being made of any other bodies, or of one another' - or in other words, atoms.
Boyle didn't use the term atomism because in the 17th century, atomism was associated with atheism, and Boyle saw no conflict between his scientific and religious beliefs. Rather than refer to atoms and atomism, he preferred to use the terms corpuscules and corpuscularianism, both derived from the Latin word corpus, meaning body. But whatever word he used, Boyle's corpuscules were basically the same thing that we call 'atoms': the smallest possible particles of matter. Boyle explained his experimental results by referring to the motion or alteration of corpuscules.
Boyle even believed that corpuscules could be transformed into other types of corpuscules. This led him to a belief in alchemy, the science of transmuting other metals into gold. Alchemy has since been completely debunked - it's not actually possible to turn lead or anything else into gold. But Boyle continued to believe in it until the end of his life.
During Boyle's years at Oxford, he worked with philosopher and researcher Robert Hooke to invent a new kind of vacuum pump. This device removes all the air from a glass bulb, which let Boyle do experiments to see how things behave in a vacuum. For example, he used his vacuum pump to prove that sound is not transmitted in a vacuum.
Boyle's Law is also named after Boyle. This law describes the behavior of a gas under pressure. It states that when a gas is compressed, the volume of the gas decreases proportionally as the pressure increases, and vice versa. Boyle initially did his experiments only with plain atmospheric air, but today we know that Boyle's Law is applicable to any gas.
Robert Boyle was a 17th century chemist, philosopher, and theological writer famous for his invention of Boyle's Law and his vacuum pump. Boyle rejected the Aristotelian emphasis on logic and theory in favor of experimental research and empirical evidence. He essentially supported the idea of atoms, but called them corpuscules instead to avoid the associations between atomism and atheism.
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