Christians in Science: Robert Boyle
- 2004 1 Apr
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.
Through experimentation, Boyle discovered the element phosphorus and some rather interesting properties. First, it glowed in the dark. Second, when heated with friction it would catch on fire. He soaked a piece of paper in a phosphorus solution and dipped a splinter of wood in sulfur. When he rubbed the stick across the paper it burst into flames creating the world's first match!
Robert wrote a book called "The Skeptical Chemist" that recorded his experiments in an easy to understand format. He never tried to impress or dazzle people with overly technical or hard to understand language. He was interested in providing people with information they could use, study and learn from.
Robert Boyle: The Christian
There are a couple of different accounts of Boyle becoming a Christian. One says that at the age of 13, Robert was awakened by a loud thunderstorm. The storm frightened him tremendously. It was then that he dedicated his life to serving Christ. A second account says that while witnessing a lightning storm he realized the awesome power of God, and understood and accepted Him. The result from either account was that from then forward he used his time, talents and treasures for the next 50 years to walk the Christian walk.
Boyle believed that the universe was well ordered and illustrated God's design. Further, he believed that it was part of his Christian service to work and seek God's purpose in science and nature. To Robert, the universe worked like a great clock set into motion by the Great Designer. It is said that after reading one of Boyle's books a friend noted, "You make the study of nature seem so simple." To this he replied, "God would not have made the universe as it is unless He intended us to understand it."
Boyle was said to be very humble. When he performed good works for others he tried to hide so others did not know it had been him. After the great fire of London in 1666, Boyle worked to make sure the victims received food, clothing and shelter. Few knew that it was him who had helped.
Robert supported many religious endeavors including the missions of John Eliot to the Algonquin Indians in Massachusetts, and the translation of the New Testament into Irish and Turkish.
In 1690 he documented his theological views in writings called "The Christian Virtuoso." These writings sought to show that the study of nature was a religious duty. He also wrote tracts on topics including divine love, ethics, the evil of swearing and the style of Scripture.
Chemistry has fundamental applications to many different fields of study. An interest in chemistry can provide a career path as a chemist, a chemical engineer, a bio-chemist, a biologist or a medical career. Studying chemistry will ultimately require on" experiments. As Robert Boyle showed, you have to do experiments to learn more! Chemistry also requires good writing skills. You have to be able to document your work in a scientific manner so that others can understand what you did, what the goal of your experiment was, whether or not you achieved what you set out to do and what the final results were. Through my work as an electrical engineer, I have had to use chemistry much more than I ever thought I would while I was taking chemistry courses in college. It's a good foundational subject for your education!
A Chemistry Resource
Two friends of mine, Dr. Joe Calkins and Dr. Bob Salerno, have been writing some interesting software. Several years ago they wrote a program called "MoluCAD" for the National Institutes of Health. This program lets you model molecules in 3D on a computer. They now offer educational pricing on it. You can download a demo copy to try it out and if you like it you can purchase it for the student price of $19.95. Go to http://www.kinematics.com/molucad/index.htm to learn more. I have a copy of it and will be using it in conjunction with my oldest son's chemistry class next year. It's good for a high school based chemistry class with much more capability for college classes. I would recommend downloading the free trial version first.
A Cool Thing to Try!
If you want, there is a lot of fascinating information available on the various elements on the Periodic Chart. You can go on the Internet or use a book called the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics to learn more about each element. There is a wealth of information including the history behind the discovery of each element, what they are used for and why the elements are labeled like they are (Lead, for example, has the chemical symbol Pb from the Latin word plumbum, meaning Lead). Here is a site you might want to start with: http://www.chemicalelements.com/index.html.
About the Authors
Ray & Gale Lawson have been homeschooling their 3 children since 1995. Ray holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Virginia Military Institute and works for Washington Group International in Aiken, SC. Gale holds a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of South Carolina and has been "full time mom and teacher" since the birth of their first child. They are members of Breezy Hill Baptist Church in Graniteville, SC and are active in Breezy Hill's homeschool ministry. Questions, comments and suggestions can be emailed to Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org or Gale at email@example.com
This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr '04 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine as part of a continuing series on "Profiles in Christianity & Science." For more information, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com.