Robert Boyle

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Portrait of Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom.

Portrait of Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom.

Robert Boyle was born at Lismore Castle in 1627. The youngest son of Richard Boyle, the ‘Great Earl’ of Cork, he was to become a follower of the ‘new experimental philosophy’ and the greatest advocate of experimental science. Boyle was one of the most important thinkers of the age known as the scientific revolution, ranking alongside Galileo, Descartes and Newton. In his own words, Robert Boyle

‘… was born the fourteenth child of his father (of which five women and four men do yet survive) in the year 1626–7, upon St Paul’s conversion day, at a country house of his father’s called Lismore, then one of the noblest seats and greatest ornaments of the province of Munster, in which it stood, but now so ruined by the sad fate of war, that it serves only for an instance and a lecture of the instability of that happiness, that is built upon the uncertain possession of such fleeting goods, as itself was’.

He was fortunate that his father was (the infamous)

‘… Richard Boyle, earl of Corke, who, by God’s blessing on his prosperous industry, from very inconsiderate beginnings, built so plentiful and so eminent a fortune, that his prosperity has found many admirers, but few parallels’.
(Robert Boyle, An account of Philaretus in his minority)

This meant that he received a good education, largely from tutors (he only went to school for four years and never attended university), and had enough income to fund his scientific explorations. He was initially attracted to alchemy, but his book The sceptical chymist (1661) helped set chemistry on course to become the scientific discipline we know today, earning him the title of the ‘Father of Chemistry’. Working in Oxford with his assistant Robert Hooke, he undertook his famous air pump experiments, exploring air pressure and vacuums. Boyle promoted the primacy of experimental evidence and the Mechanical Philosophy, and most of his voluminous scientific output described careful experimentation supporting the Mechanical Philosophy. He opposed the Aristotelian world-view. In his 1666 book Origin of forms and qualities, he argues that forms and qualities can be explained by ‘corpuscles’, rather similar to our modern view.

Boyle was deeply religious and felt that science revealed the glories of God’s creation; he also felt that science should be pursued to satisfy innate curiosity and to serve humanity. His fame was somewhat dimmed by proximity to the younger Isaac Newton, but modern scholarship is re-establishing him as one of the most important figures in the history of science.


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