Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Robert Boyle - a gullible fool?

Was Robert Boyle (1627-91) a great scientist or a gullible fool (not because of his religious beliefs)? I did not know that his first biographer, Thomas Birch, destroyed all the papers that he thought may impact Boyle's reputation as a great scientist. Well, here is a review of a new biography, Boyle: Between God and Science, by Michael Hunter:

What on earth are we to make of Boyle? For the simple truth is that he was something of a prize fool. He was completely taken in by Valentine Greatrakes, who went around apparently curing the sick by stroking them. He spent much of his life trying to turn base metal into gold (he is claimed as a founder of modern chemistry, but rather he was, with Newton, the last of the magicians); indeed he seems to have thought he had succeeded, or at least he was close enough to success to think it prudent to campaign (successfully) for a change in the law, which threatened anyone making gold with the death penalty.

And so, of course, Boyle was the perfect target for the sophisticated con artist. A Frenchman called Georges Pierre persuaded Boyle that he (Pierre) was the agent of the Patriarch of Antioch, the head of a society of alchemists that had members in Italy, Poland and China. To become a member Boyle had to hand over his own alchemical secrets, and also valuable gifts - telescopes, microscopes, clocks, luxurious fabrics, large sums of money. In return, Pierre reported on the manufacture of a homunculus in a glass vial. Pierre told a good story - one meeting of his secret society had, he assured Boyle, been disrupted by disgruntled employees who had blown up the castle in which the society was meeting. And Pierre went to great lengths: he planted stories about the Patriarch of Antioch in Dutch and French newspapers on the off chance that Boyle would come across them. Unfortunately it turned out that when Pierre was supposed to be in Antioch, he was actually in Bayeux, having a jolly time with his mistress. And his wild stories had already acquired him the nickname in his hometown of Caen of 'honest Georges'.

And may be this will shed some light on Boyle's motivation:
Why did Boyle fall for Pierre? Because, Michael Hunter tells us, Pierre had an extraordinary understanding of Boyle's personality, in particular of his insatiable need for deference, admiration and sympathy. If Hunter's biography has a fault, it must be that he shows Boyle just a little too much deference himself. Was Boyle a great scientist? Perhaps, or perhaps not: his air-pump experiments were designed and performed by his employee, Robert Hooke, who was surely a greater scientist than Boyle. There is considerable dispute about who first formulated Boyle's Law, but the one thing that seems certain is that it wasn't Boyle. And alchemy, for goodness sake - you only have to remember Ben Jonson's play The Alchemist to know that for a century or so most sensible people had realised that it was a game in which con artists separated fools from their money. Yet Boyle's experience with Pierre did nothing to shake his faith.
Well...Boyle doesn't come off very good here. But the reviewer makes an interesting point the way modern historians of science treat alchemy and astrology and problems with approach:
The convention in modern history of science is that alchemy and astrology should be treated with respect, as if they were genuine sciences (although strangely, the most successful historians of science avoid writing histories of alchemy and astrology - Shapin, for example, has yet to write a book on Boyle's alchemy). But there were plenty of contemporaries who could tell the difference between sense and nonsense. Galileo, to take one example, was never confused (at least not after 1611, when he gave up astrology). He had friends who were astrologers and alchemists, and he let them get on with it and avoided discussing such subjects with them. He was constantly being presented with perpetual motion machines - he soon recognised that they all depended on harnessing changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure. So there is nothing anachronistic about saying that Boyle, unlike Galileo, was a gullible fool.
Oh..and we only happen to know about this Pierre episode by chance:
We would know even more about his foolishness (or, if you prefer, his esoteric learning) had his first biographer, Thomas Birch, not gone through the extensive archive Boyle left at his death and destroyed all the papers that he thought might detract from Boyle's reputation - we only know about the Pierre episode because Birch's assistant, Henry Miles, could not read French, so Pierre's letters to Boyle survived by chance. Since Birch, the scholarly world has been waiting for a proper biography of Boyle. Michael Hunter, who has been the leading figure in Boyle scholarship for many years, has now provided it - but readers will have to supply their own measure of scepticism and worldly wisdom, according to taste.
Read the full review here.


lkholland said...

What have you read of Valentine Greatrakes? Do your research.

Rational Vs Irrational said...

I am seriously surprised by ur posts. Though few of them always intrigue me, most of them are a curios minds awaiting of whts nxt on his list tht he connects to religion..few of ur articles are purely perceptional.

Salman Hameed said...

I am seriously surprised by ur posts. Though few of them always intrigue me, most of them are a curios minds awaiting of whts nxt on his list tht he connects to religion..few of ur articles are purely perceptional.

I don't exactly what you mean by "purely perceptional" here, but I'll take it as a compliment - especially if some of these posts comes as a surprise :) . But more seriously, this is indeed a relevant post from the history of science perspective, and as you can see from the book title, Robert Boyle has played an important role in the history of science & religion.

Rational Vs Irrational said...

Indeed, they come as surprise. Not because they are not related to religion but because their connection seems irrelevant (sorry, if i dont have a wider perspective as you). Indeed the struggle is thru out the civivlizations becoz the clash is not between God and human. I suppose its between Human, his Ego and his incapability to accept that there are things that are out of his control. But, there are. I hope you got the msg i m trying to convey.

AmElizabeth said...

i am a highschool student doing a report on Robert Boyle and i found your blog quite interesting. The thing i find most amazing of Boyle, gullible or not, is his humility. he tried to prove through his experiments and inventions that there is a God that does exist. im a christian,myself, and i think its cool that the science to which he contributed so fully were to him evidence of God's goodness and existence. his discoveries and his theories were contributes to the advancement of God's work.