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Gender and Boyle's Law of Gases

Elizabeth Potter

Publication Year: 2001

Gender and Boyle's Law of Gases

Elizabeth Potter

Re-examines the assumptions and experimental evidence behind Boyle's Law.

Boyle's Law, which describes the relation between the pressure and volume of a gas, was worked out by Robert Boyle in the mid-1600s. His experiments are still considered examples of good scientific work and continue to be studied along with their historical and intellectual contexts by philosophers, historians, and sociologists. Now there is controversy over whether Boyle's work was based only on experimental evidence or whether it was influenced by the politics and religious controversies of the time, including especially class and gender politics.

Elizabeth Potter argues that even good science is sometimes influenced by such issues, and she shows that the work leading to the Gas Law, while certainly based on physical evidence, was also shaped by class and gendered considerations. At issue were two descriptions of nature, each supporting radically different visions of class and gender arrangements. Boyle's Law rested on mechanistic principles, but Potter shows us an alternative law based on hylozooic principles (the belief that all matter is animated), whose adherents challenged social stability and the status quo in 17th-century England.

Elizabeth Potter, Alice Andrews Quigley Professor of Women's Studies at Mills College, is co-editor of Feminist Epistemologies and author of numerous articles on feminist epistemology and feminist philosophy of science.

Race, Gender, and Science
Anne Fausto-Sterling, general editor

June 2001
232 pages, 5 figs., 6 x 9, index
cloth 0-253-33916-2 $34.95 L /

Published by: Indiana University Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii

Audiences at colleges and universities all over the country were crucial to the making of this book, particularly those at Brown University, Duke University, Amherst College, Hamilton College, Haverford College, Stanford University, Swarthmore College, the University of California at Davis, and the University of California at San Francisco. ...

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pp. ix-xiii

Feminist scholars of science have worked to recover the lost contributions of women to science, to examine scientific theories of women’s nature, and to study the ways gender considerations have affected both the practice and the technical content of scientific theories, norms, and methods.1 One of the greatest challenges has been to ...

Part One: The Intersection of Gender and Science: Now We See It. Now We Don’t.

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pp. 1-2

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1. Now We See It

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pp. 3-21

In this chapter, we will see that Robert Boyle thought about gender; chapter 8 below includes detailed discussion of his writings about femininity. Here we will see that as he thought and wrote about proper experimental method and other important aspects of the new experimental science, he pictured women in a complex relationship to the scientist and to scientific work. ...

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2. Now We Don’t

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pp. 22-42

The production of Boyle’s Law in 1661 was closely tied up with several questions, as vexing as they were pressing, for natural philosophers in the early seventeenth century. To twentieth-century students of science, the most familiar of these is the debate over the possibility of a vacuum; most Aristotelians held that nature abhors a vacuum, ...

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Part Two: Boyle’s Work in Context>/strong>

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pp. 43-44

Sixteen-year-old Robert Boyle’s Grand Tour of Europe was cut short in 1642 by a letter from his father reporting that the Irish had rebelled and that he and three of Robert’s brothers were hard pressed to defend his extensive Irish holdings. Robert’s brother, Frank, then nineteen, hastened home to Ireland, but Robert returned to Geneva with their tutor; there ...

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3. Economics, Politics, and Religion: Stuart Conflicts with Parliament

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pp. 45-48

In 1641, the House of Commons enacted legislation that reveals the interests of many of the people who later felt it necessary to overthrow the king. Charles I had often dissolved Parliament when it passed legislation he disapproved of or when it failed to vote him the money he felt he needed. (Because of changes in the economy, bad ...

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4. Civil War Approaches

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pp. 49-52

Class politics became clearer as the Civil War approached. Royalists feared that the lower classes wanted social revolution (and as we shall see, many people certainly agitated for radical economic and political change). And many of the “middling sort” felt the need for political and economic reform. In chapter 6 we will take a brief look at the ...

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5. The Intersection of Class and Gender Politics

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pp. 53-60

In this chapter we will see the beginnings of a radical threat to the status quo that included both class and gender threats: the radicals threatened a redistribution of decision-making authority as well as a redistribution of wealth. And the activities of women during the Civil War posed a threat to decision-making authority not just in the ...

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6. The Boyle Family’s Religious and Class Politics

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pp. 61-65

By the time Boyle arrived in England in mid-1644, Charles had fought and won several battles against Parliamentary forces, but in July 1644 he lost the Battle of Marston Moor when the Scottish army joined the Northern Army and Cromwell’s Eastern Association. Cromwell’s troops were a marked contrast to the other Parliamentary ...

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7. More Class and Gender Politics

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pp. 66-76

In this chapter, we take a brief look at the extraordinary series of radical debates and activities that preceded the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. The “lower orders” in the army and the streets proposed many revolutionary social arrangements and women played an important part, writing petitions, gathering signatures, and demonstrating ...

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8. Boyle’s Gender Politics

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pp. 77-84

Many of the essays Boyle wrote during the late 1640s express strong opinions concerning the proper role of women; they show us that he was eager to reinforce a femininity more consonant with bourgeois ideals than with traditional, aristocratic ones or with upstart, sectarian ones. Thus, many of his letters excoriating Corisca strike at the ...

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9. Boyle’s Background Reading

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pp. 85-97

This chapter introduces the different intellectual traditions Boyle studied, including work in the natural-magic tradition, the new mechanical philosophy, and the Aristotelian tradition. Thus, we find that Boyle was well read in the hylozoic tradition and aware of its association with radical as well as reformist social and political movements. ...

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10. Boyle’s Hermeticism, Magic, and Active Principles

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pp. 98-108

Investigation reveals that Boyle had a strong interest in and some anxiety about magic and that he was not as thorough-going a mechanist as, say, Descartes. Peter Rattansi argues that Boyle was typical of many English virtuosi of the time in his eclectic approach to the study of natural philosophy. For example, William Petty, a member of the Hartlib circle ...

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11. Hermeticism, Hylozoism, and Radical Politics

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pp. 109-115

Peter Rattansi and others have argued that early on in his life Boyle was committed to Hermeticism, but that he switched to the mechanical philosophy in the mid-1650s because he wished to distance himself from the radicals whose political projects rested upon Hermetic foundations.1 This claim is the subject of much controversy. ...

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12. Boyle’s Concern over the Sectaries

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pp. 116-123

Boyle agreed with the sectaries that “the right, and the skill to govern, are two very distinct things: nor does the one confer the other.” There certainly are rulers whose “power is unguided by prudence,” but Boyle was not sympathetic with the democratic political aspirations of “the vulgar.” There must needs be a ruler and he must be obeyed ...

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13. Boyle’s Objections to Hylozoism

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pp. 124-129

In this chapter, we will see that Boyle’s objections to animism and a World Spirit were an important part of his objection to hylozoic research programs. As we have seen, A Free Enquiry has the effect of showing that the vulgar hylozoic philosophy gives more aid and comfort to enthusiasts than does the corpuscular philosophy. But, according ...

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14. Experimental Support for the Corpuscular Philosophy

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pp. 130-147

The traditional view has been that experimental data alone led Boyle to pursue a mechanistic research program. (And even updated versions of the view have made no mention of Boyle’s deep interest in and debt to Hermeticism or the political dangers facing such an interest, and have not connected these dangers to Boyle’s own objection ...

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15. Boyle’s Law of Gases

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pp. 148-150

The J-tube experiments, in the course of which Boyle produced Boyle’s Law, were performed to show that Linus’s funicular hypothesis was “needless.” Linus admitted that the air has some weight and spring, but not that it has enough to act as a counterweight to 29 inches of mercury. Boyle performed a series of experiments to show ...

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16. The Production of an Alternative Law

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pp. 151-154

In this chapter, we will see that the experimental data support the production of another scienti

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17. Methodological Considerations

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pp. 155-160

In this chapter, we examine a number of the considerations advanced by Boyle to support the claim that his corpuscular hypothesis was superior to Linus’s funicular hypothesis. Summarizing his objections to Linus’s hypothesis, Boyle says that it is partly precarious, partly unintelligible, partly insufficient, and ...

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18. “The Data Alone Proved Boyle’s Hypothesis”

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pp. 161-170

In this chapter, we will examine important recent scholarship arguing that although science is social in many important senses, Boyle chose to pursue the mechanical philosophy and produced the law named for him using only a method based on experimental and observational evidence, and that he was not influenced by social and political ...

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19. Good Science

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pp. 172-1179

For many people, there is something deeply wrong with a book that says science is not always value-free. “Everyone knows” that good science is value-free and that if values influence scientific work, the result is bad science. So this book must be wrong about Boyle. Since his work was good, he cannot have let his religious and political views ...

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pp. 180-186

We have found that Robert Boyle was interested in gender issues in the mid- to late 1640s, the time of his early reading and thinking about the many physical theories competing for attention. As women took up the pen to petition and took to the streets to protest, Boyle was writing essays, letters, and a romance describing an ideal ...


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pp. 187-202


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pp. 203-210

E-ISBN-13: 9780253108463
E-ISBN-10: 0253108462
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253339164

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 5 figures, 1 index
Publication Year: 2001