Robert Boyle is considered both the founder of modern chemistry and the greatest English scientist to live during the first thirty years of the existence of the Royal Society. He was not only a chemist and a physicist as we know him to be, but also an avid theologian, a philanthropist, an essayist, and a beginner in medicine. Born in Lismore, Ireland to Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork, and Katherine Fenton, his second wife, Boyle was the youngest son in a family of fourteen.
However, he was not shortchanged of anything. After private tutoring at home for eight years, Robert Boyle was sent to Eton College where he studied for four years. At the age of twelve, Boyle traveled to the Continent, as it was referred to at the time.
There he found a private tutor by the name of Marcombes in Geneva. While traveling between Italy, France, and England, Boyle was being tutored in the polite arts, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and science.
As the years went by, Boyle became more and more interested in medicine. His curiosity in this field led him to chemistry. At first, Boyle was mainly interested in the facet of chemistry that dealt with the preparation of drugs, but soon he became genuinely interested in the subject and started to study it in great detail. His studies led him to Oxford where he joined such scientists as John Wilkins and John Wallis, and together in 1660, they founded the Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Science.
From this point onwards, Boyle seriously undertook the reformation of science. For centuries scientists had been explaining the unknown with the simple explanation that god made it that way. Though Boyle did not argue with this, he did believe that there was a scientific explanation for god’s doings. Boyle’s point of view can be seen by his dealings with the elements.
At this time it was thought that an element was not only the simplest body to which something could be broken down but also a necessary component of all bodies. Meaning that if oil was an element, it would not be able to be broken down, and it would be found in everything.
Boyle did not accept this theory, whether it referred to the earth, air, fire, and water of the Aristotelians, the salt, sulfur, and mercury of the Paracelsans, or the phlegm, oil, spirit, acid, and alkali of later chemists. He did not believe that these elements were truly fundamental in their nature.
Boyle thought that the only things common in all bodies were corpuscles, atom-like structures that were created by God and that now occupy all void space. He began to perform experiments, concentrating on the color changes that took place in reactions. He started to devise a system of classification based on the properties of substances. By showing that acids turned the blue syrup of violets red, Boyle claimed that all acids react in the same manner with violet syrup and those that did were not acids. Similarly, he showed that all alkalies turned the syrup of violets green.
Observing that the blue opalescence of the yellow solution of lignum nephriticum was destroyed when the solution was acidified and could be restored by the addition of alkali, Boyle used this experiment to test the strength of acids and alkalies.
His system, therefore, consisted of three categories: acids, alkalies, and those substances that are neither acids nor alkalies. However, he purposefully avoided any investigation of corpuscles. Boyle continued his work on acids and alkalies. He devised tests for the identification of copper by the blue of its solutions, for silver by its ability to form silver chloride, with its blackening over time, and for sulfur and many other mineral acids by their distinctive reactions.
Therefore, knowing that it was not actually Boyle who discovered his law, but Towneley and Power who did in 1662 and then Hooke who confirmed it soon thereafter, it can be said that this was Boyle’s greatest achievement.
His achievement is the conversion of scientific thought from one in which the spirits and the heavens were kept in mind at all times, to one based on experimentation and the use of deduction, not assumption. It cannot be stressed strongly enough what this did for science in general.
Boyle’s work sparked the beginning of a new era, one in which careful experimentation was the justification for a hypothesis, and thus he is accordingly bestowed with the honor of being the founder of modern chemistry.
Boyle also did extensive work with the air pump, proving such things as the impossibility for sound to be present in a vacuum, the necessity of air for fire and life, and the permanent elasticity of air. Also using the air pump, Boyle discovered that “fixed air” was present in all vegetables. Through other experimental methods, mainly the use of steel filings and strong mineral acid, he also found hydrogen. Yet his greatest achievement, apart from his influence on scientific thought, were his writings.
Boyle wrote about the connections of God with the physical universe. He wrote numerous books on religious subjects, not all of which were related to science, but the most influential being so. At his death in the December of 1691, Boyle left a sum of money for the foundation of the Boyle lectures, a group of sermons that were intended for the disputation of atheism. Robert Boyle opened the way for future scientists, changing their methods of experimentation, though, and outlook on chemistry as a whole, forever.
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