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The seventeenth-century scientist Robert Boyle is probably most widely familiar today as the originator of the principle known as Boyle's Law (that the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to the pressure exerted upon it, where the temperature remains constant), and as the inventor of the air-pump, which made it possible for experimenters to create a vacuum at will. Beyond that, however, he remains a rather shadowy figure, whose precise contributions to science remain rather ill-defined and obscure beside such luminaries as Galileo, Newton or Kepler. This is partly because posterity has not always been fair to Boyle, allowing others -- notably Newton -- to overshadow him; partly because of his own somewhat reticent and cautious character; and partly because his significance was perhaps more to do with process than with outcomes. Boyle was an experimenter above all, in an age when experiment was coming into its own as the defining process of science, and it often seems that for him the act of experiment was as important as any results that emerged. He was often equivocal and insecure in drawing conclusions, but he was always confident (and contented) testing his theories in the laboratory.
With the appearance of Michael Hunter's Boyle: Between God and Science we have a superb scholarly biography of Robert Boyle that successfully sheds new light on this obscure luminary of science. Recent years have seen an upsurge in academic work on Boyle, with Professor Hunter, as director of the Robert Boyle project at Birkbeck College London, taking a leading role. The excellent bibliographical essay at the end of Boyle: Between God and Science -- itself a major contribution to Boyle scholarship -- gives some sense of how things have moved on since the last full-length biographical study of Robert Boyle, R. E. W. Maddison's The Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle, F.R.S., appeared in 1969, and of how necessary this new biography has become as our view of Boyle has changed.
Hunter's assessment of Robert Boyle's significance is carefully balanced: he describes Boyle as 'one of the key figures in the "scientific revolution" of the seventeenth century', who 'played a central role in the reformation of knowledge about the natural world and man's place in it which occurred at that time and which has formed the basis of scientific developments ever since' (p. 1). For Hunter, the importance of Boyle to science thus lies in his approach to scientific investigation as much as in any results he may have achieved: he was an experimentalist, a devotee of observation and deduction, but also a system-builder who saw practice without theory as mere dabbling. Finally, he was a religious believer with a profound Christian faith, and his religious outlook was fundamental to all he did.
'For Boyle', argues Hunter, 'science and theology were truly complementary' (p. 254), which makes this book's subtitle rather anomalous: there was no 'between' God and science for Boyle. His religion was an intrinsic part of his approach to natural philosophy. In pursuing what later generations call 'science' Boyle was investigating God's creation, a universe shaped by and imbued with divine purpose. His 'corpuscularian' philosophy developed in large part from his efforts to reconcile a mechanistic model of the universe open to the scrutiny of natural philosophy with a conception of creation that left room for the divine -- for a spiritual reality with which only revealed religion could engage. Boyle espoused a mechanistic view of the universe but crucially, while he believed that there was matter, he rejected any suggestion that matter was all there was, even if matter was all the natural philosopher could study. Just as he struggled to engage with the divine purpose in his own life, with constant prayer, reflection and meditation upon his relationship with God and the condition of his soul, so he strove to make sense of God's purposes as they were revealed through the visible workings of the universe.
This religious character to Boyle's life and work was strengthened by his family background. Family was clearly an important influence on Boyle throughout his life. He never married (indeed, by his own account he died a virgin) and so never established a family independent of the one in which he had been brought up. Hunter demonstrates the importance of his domineering father, the Earl of Cork, who died while Robert Boyle was young but exercised an influence on him that was lifelong, and traces his relationships with his brothers and sisters (incidentally, a family tree would have been a very useful addition to the supporting information contained in this book; in the absence of one, it is very easy to lose track of what seem at times to be dozens of Boyle siblings). In particular Boyle's relationship with his sister Katherine, Lady Ranelagh, in whose house he lived after 1668, was clearly a vital one for him both intellectually and emotionally. The importance of the wealth and status of Boyle's family -- both recent creations: his father was essentially a colonial freebooter who made good in Tudor-Stuart Ireland -- in enabling a life devoted to scientific study is made clear throughout, as is the 'presumption of innate superiority (p. 27) which seems to have characterized Boyle's dealings with others, contributing to an air of austere aloofness.
Michael Hunter is a scholar's scholar, and appears to have set his face resolutely against any stylistic or narrative device smacking of 'popular' history: this is a somewhat austere biography, written in a low-key, and sometimes distinctly flat, prose style. This has led some reviewers to see it as dull, a colourless account, a biography that refuses to come to life. Similarly, Hunter's wariness of indulging in speculation or appearing to go beyond what the evidence substantiates can give, to a superficial reader, the impression that this is a book without arguments of its own. This is a misleading impression. On such issues as Boyle's religion, his interests in alchemy and medicine (not excluding various forms of quackery), his anti-Aristotelianism, his role in the Royal Society (which Hunter sees as more important as an influence upon Boyle than as something he himself influenced), his relations with peers and collaborators (notably Robert Hooke, whom Hunter neatly and convincingly puts in his place), and the relationship of his own personal character with his work, Hunter has new insights to offer and important things to say. Boyle: Between God and Science is to be welcomed as both a fine work of scholarship and a timely effort to draw together the new insights of recent research and integrate them into an accessible single-volume study. This is a book to which serious scholars of Boyle and his times will return again and again.
© 2010 Ralph Harrington
Ralph Harrington, Ph.D. is a historian who has researched, lectured and published on medical history and the history of trauma, among other topics. His web site is at http://harringtonmiscellany.wordpress.com/