Hunter, Boyle: Between God and Science

By McNay, Margaret | Vitae Scholasticae, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Hunter, Boyle: Between God and Science


McNay, Margaret, Vitae Scholasticae


Michael Hunter. Boyle: Between God and Science. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-300-12381-4. 366 pages.

When Robert Boyle was born in 1627, the English Renaissance had crested; art, literature, intellectual life, and English society would, after the rich developments of the 16th century, never be the same. The 17th century, though, would also be a century of enormous intellectual development--it would be the century of science.

In the world into which Robert Boyle was born, Galileo, Descartes, Johannes Kepler, and William Harvey were preparing to publish the great works that would help to change how people studied, reasoned about, and understood the natural world. Francis Bacon had died the year before, and Robert Hooke and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek would be born a few years later. Isaac Newton would be born while the 15 year old Boyle was making his Grand Tour of Europe. We look back on these men and their works, and the 17th century, as marking, if I may be permitted the cliche, the dawn of modern science, in terms both of discoveries and of ways of thinking about the natural world.

Little wonder 17th century England has interested historians such as Michael Hunter. Director of the Robert Boyle Project at Birkbeck College, University of London, Hunter has devoted much of his academic life to editing Boyle's works, correspondence, and diaries, and to cataloguing the manuscripts, notebooks, drafts, letters, memoranda, and miscellaneous material bequeathed by Boyle to the Royal Society in London, of which he was a founder. For Boyle: Between God and Science, Hunter draws on this "vast resource" (1) of primary documents as well as on numerous secondary sources including earlier attempts at a Boyle biography. And he documents them meticulously. Of the book's 366 pages, almost a third comprise a bibliographical essay, end notes, and index. The book contains 46 plates, including several likenesses of Boyle, drawings of his famous vacuum pump and other pieces of equipment, figures from his notebooks, portraits of his contemporaries, and other illustrations which enrich the text and its content.

Readers will remember the name of the 'chymist' Robert Boyle from high school science classes where he was often touted as the Father of Chemistry; they may even remember Boyle's Law as one of several laws that describe the behaviour of gases. Boyle had observed that air has a "spring" to it--that it can be compressed, and that it exerts pressure. Boyle was not the first to describe a relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas, but--and this is the important point--he was the first to publish empirical evidence of the phenomenon. (The evidence appears to have been provided by the work of Boyle's assistant, Robert Hooke, but Boyle helped to ensure his own place in history by being the first to publish the findings.) Indeed, Boyle's contribution to the enormous development of science that took place in the 17th century lies not so much in his elucidation of the properties of air, or even in the entire corpus of his wide-ranging studies of colour, cold, hydrostatics, chemical analysis, and medicine; his contribution lies in his rigorous use of controlled experiments to study natural phenomena and in his meticulous documentation of those experiments. Bacon had written about the need for an inductive science; Boyle practiced it and published it.

Hunter is concerned not simply to know about Robert Boyle but to understand him, and therefore pays significant attention to major aspects of Boyle's life beyond his interest in experimentation, in particular his religious faith and his interest in moral philosophy. We learn that Boyle was a devoted Christian and that his interest in natural philosophy and experiment was developed as one way of, perhaps, proving the truth of the Gospels. Thus he stood, as the book's subtitle points out, "between God and science"--in a place where each was compatible with the other, and both essential to being. …

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