- Boyle: Between God and Science by Michael Hunter
In the seventeenth-century history of science, no figure has risen so remarkably as Robert Boyle. Thirty years ago, he was certainly significant, but the 1985 publication of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump and the subsequent luxuriant Boyle industry, which rivals those of Newton and Darwin, have turned him into a Leviathan of the scientific ‘revolution. Mr. Hunter and Edward B. Davis issued a new edition of Boyle’s works (fourteen volumes, 1999–2000) to replace the eighteenth-century one, followed by a new edition of Boyle’s correspondence (seven volumes, 2001) edited by Mr. Hunter with Antonio Clericuzio and Lawrence Principe. Clericuzio and Principe, among others, have significantly recast Boyle’s work on chemistry, while monographs, edited volumes, and editions have added new works and interpretations to the canon. The Boyle of 2012 is not the Boyle of 1980.
The time is ripe for a full biography of Boyle to replace Thomas Birch’s of 1744; the most recent biography, by R. E. W. Maddison, appeared in 1969. As the acknowledged dean of Boyle studies, Mr. Hunter does not disappoint. He resists the impulse to put in everything he knows about Boyle, and the result is highly readable and well illustrated. Accompanying the 250 pages of text, an extremely valuable fifty-page bibliographical essay reviews the relevant historiography. Another fifty pages of notes are in tiny type.
Boyle’s life—full of incident, activity, and publications—can too easily be reduced to a list of events, the individual drowning in details. Mr. Hunter’s Boyle is fully rounded; his unique character shines through. Boyle occasionally described himself as “melancholy” and even referred to episodes of “raving” in his youth. He never married, and later in his life he lived with his sister Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, in what Mr. Hunter describes as a “marriage of minds.” He does not speculate about Boyle’s sex life—or its apparent lack—noting only that an encounter with two amorous friars in Florence in the early 1640s is “the only sexual advance to which he is known to have been subjected.” Boyle rejected the “gown’d Sodomites.”
Mr. Hunter dates Boyle’s deep religious convictions to a conversion experience in Geneva in the fall of 1641. Recent scholarship has recognized religion’s central role in Boyle’s life. His first book-length publication was Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God (1659), and the reconciliation of religion and natural philosophy was a continuing theme. In addition, Mr. Hunter is a judicious and knowledgeable guide through recent scholarship on the critical importance of alchemy [End Page 272] to Boyle and the development of modern science.
He deftly details the social and intellectual influences that made Boyle one of the great men of science. Like many of his era, his formal education ended by the age of twelve, followed by a five-year Grand Tour with his brother and a tutor. He returned to England in 1644 and spent the next decade mainly at a family estate in Dorset, reading and writing. Boyle’s wealth and status as a younger son of the Earl of Cork allowed him the leisure to thus continue his education and largely ignore the Civil Wars that raged around him. What he called his “invisible college” of correspondents circulated books, letters, and ideas. Boyle filtered and distilled the knowledge of an extraordinary age to produce his own prodigious discoveries.
Even among historians of science—except of course for Boyle scholars—he is best known for the air pump he built with Robert Hooke in 1659 and detailed in New Experiments, Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring in the Air and its Effects (1660). It is one of the most remarkable books of a remarkable decade. Although much of Boyle’s science focused on the intersections of chemistry and physics, he also studied medicine and biology, and, as is true of much seventeenth-century science, he defies modern disciplinary boundaries. His General Heads for...