The British physicist and chemist Robert Boyle was an important intellectual of his time and is credited as being one of the founders of modern chemistry. He is also credited with defining the theory known as “Boyle’s Law” for which he remains most famous.
This states that if the volume of a gas becomes less, the pressure will increase proportionally. Explaining all gases were made of tiny particles, Boyle attempted to build a universal ‘corpuscular theory’ of chemistry. He was able to give meaning to the concept of “elements” as well as giving us the litmus test.
Initially educated at Eton and then sent to Geneva to be tutored privately, Boyle travelled extensively throughout Europe at the very tender age of 12, before settling down to private tutorage in Geneva. His studies included French, Latin, rhetoric, religion and most importantly, the study of mathematics.
He returned from Europe with a thirst for scientific knowledge and a conviction that there was still much to be explained about nature that could be broken down into a simple set of mathematical rule that explained a mechanistic theory of matter.
In 1660, with 11 other prominent people, Boyle founded the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.
During the middle of the 1600’s Boyle made an important move to Oxford. He hired an assistant, an Englishman called Robert Hooke. With Hooke’s mechanical talents acting as a foil to Boyle’s own researches into air (the properties of gases), they produced the vacuum chamber or air-pump.
Boyle and Hooke were pioneers of their time. Instead of declaring their discovery and using Aristotelian rules of logic and philosophy to argue or substantiate their claims, they insisted on making direct observations from nature and recording a conclusion from what they had seen.
Boyles law: PV=k, where k is constant and the temperature is constant
Boyle was one of the first prominent scientists to perform controlled experiments. He published his work as a reference for others, detailing procedure, the type of apparatus he used and the observations he derived from the experiment. His works were diverse and became a lifelong commitment. He covered many topics ranging from philosophy, medicine and religion, He also wrote The Sceptical Chymist in 1661, in which he attacked Aristotle’s theory of four elements. This was an essential part of the modern theory of chemical elements.
The statement that “at constant temperature, the pressure of a gas varies inversely with its volume” has become known universally as Boyles Law, it appears in an appendix written in 1662 to his work New Experiments Physio-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects in 1660. The three years of experimentation with Robert Hooke produced the vacuum pump, designed by Hooke and used by Boyle to discover facts such as: sound did not travel in a vacuum, that flame required air, also investigating its elastic properties.
Many scientists at the time did not believe that a vacuum could exist so Boyle was also constrained to provide a defense of his work with the vacuum within the 1662 appendix. Descartes for example believed in the existence of an “all-pervading ether” and although Boyle discounted this theory from a lack of scientific evidence he did agree that “the world was basically a complex system governed by a small number of simple mathematical laws”
Boyle was a pioneer in his field and was prepared to accept that his work acted as a catalyst of thought for others. He completely acknowledged that Newton’s ideas from 1672 should replace his own.
Robert Boyle will always be known as the Irish chemist who found out that air has weight and who was instrumental in defining chemical elements and chemical reactions as a clear separation from alchemy.