Christians in Science: Robert Boyle
- Thursday, April 01, 2004
Often we read about people who overcome great adversity to achieve great things in life. Robert Boyle, the founder of modern chemistry, was born to one of the wealthiest families in all of England. His father sent him to live with a peasant family for his first four years of life so that Robert would not grow up spoiled. This, combined with his Christian beliefs, resulted in Boyle growing up to not only be a gifted scientist, but a very humble man always working to do good for his fellow humans. He is indeed an exceptional role model for any scientist to learn from
Robert Boyle: The Man
Robert Boyle was born in Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland on January 25, 1627. He was the 14th child in the very wealthy family of the Earl of Cork. Worried that his sons, being born with silver spoons in their mouths, might become spoiled, the Earl sent them to live with poor families so that they might understand the virtue of being humble. As a result Robert lived with an Irish peasant family from the age of six months to four years.
Upon his return, his father had Robert educated at home using hired tutors. The lead tutor inspired Robert to learn about science, especially some of the changes being brought into the field by Galileo. This inspiration would have a profound impact not only on the young man, but the entire world.
Robert continued his studies at Eton where he found that his teachers sought answers to scientific questions in the ancient books of Greek philosophers rather than through experimentation. Boyle rejected this method of education and moved on to Oxford. Although he did not attend school in Oxford, he joined a group of scientists that, like himself, believed in performing experiments to expand the horizons of science. He called this group "the invisible college". Through his own efforts at "the invisible college" he continued his education through independent research and experimentation. His studies included mechanics, chemistry and mathematics.
He made many significant scientific discoveries and achieved renowned status in the scientific and religious community. Upon his death in 1691, his will endowed a series of apologetic lectures and sermons, called the Boyle series, which still continue today.
Robert Boyle: The Scientist
It was at Oxford that Boyle met a man who would prove to be a brilliant assistant. His name was Robert Hooke. Together they invented a dramatically improved air pump that allowed them to perform new experiments and prove some of Galileo's statements. For example, using the pump to create a vacuum in a chamber, they showed that sound does not carry in a vacuum. There has to be some material, in this case air, for the sound to move through. They also proved Galileo's claim that without the resistance of air, a lump of lead and a feather would fall at the same speed.
Boyle was the first person to give a definition to what an element was (that is, the elements listed on the Periodic Chart used in chemistry). An element, by his definition, was a substance that could not be separated into simpler substances by chemical methods. His definition also meant that two or more substances could not be combined to create an element. This definition turned the world of chemistry on its head.
Chemistry was an interesting field of study in the 1600's. It was actually called Alchemy then and much of the work was done in secret. Why? The alchemists were interested in ways to make gold from cheaper metals. If they were successful, they didn't want others to know how they did it. From Boyle's definition of an element, gold, which is an element, could not be created from other elements. The alchemists were essentially headed down a dead end path. Robert was instrumental in convincing the alchemists to report their experiments quickly and clearly to help others learn of new discoveries and expand the field of study.
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