"The Sceptical Chymist"
By Gabriel Blanchard
We often, rightly, admire the intellectual gifts of great authors; yet there is a moral quality the sciences especially can't go on without ...
Inhabitants of seventeenth-century Europe had the great bad luck of living in interesting times. The Thirty Years’ War (waged from 1618 to 1648) proved to be not only one of the deadliest in history, but to be accompanied by both widespread famine and an outbreak of of bubonic plague. The realms of the British Isles, held in personal union* by the Stuarts, successfully kept out of the Thirty Years’ War—only to plunge into a series of civil wars driven by both religious and political causes, which lasted nearly twenty years even without counting the ensuing succession crisis. It hardly sounds like a conducive atmosphere for scholarship! Yet this was the century of countless founders of the sciences: Blaise Pascal, Sir Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, Margaret Cavendish, Christiaan Huygens, and the Jesuit polymath and absolute weirdo Athanasius Kircher,** to name just six. Modern astronomy, biology, and physics, though as yet in their infancy, were growing by leaps and bounds. One tradition known to the ancients and the medievals was about to experience dramatic changes—even its name would change!—thanks to an Anglo-Irish earl’s younger son, Robert Boyle, whose career began with an interest in alchemy.
Alchemy was a familiar practice dating back to the depths of antiquity. (There are also Indian and Oriental traditions of alchemy, developed independently of the Western form). We often think of alchemy as the attempt to make gold, obtain eternal life and youth, or both. The stated aim of alchemy was to make the Philosopher’s Stone (a little more familiar to the layman nowadays, thanks to the Harry Potter franchise); according to alchemical texts, could produce both gold and the elixir of life, which bestowed immortality. Al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain) had been at the forefront of medieval alchemy;† Muslim and Christian alchemists alike mostly agreed that both the professed goal and the material procedures of their craft as allegories for pursuing virtue and wisdom. Gold and immortality, which do not decay, were symbols of the spiritual treasure and vitality the magnum opus or “great work” of alchemy conferred.
However, by the seventeenth century, a sense of curiosity about the strictly physical, non-symbolic facts was becoming more the rule among scholars than it had been; and given that alchemists were toying with this stuff and that, subjecting their materials to all sorts of different processes, they were fairly likely to discover things even merely by accident (certain vessels we use to this day in laboratories were either invented or perfected by Maria the Hebrew, a third-century alchemist from Egypt); this set alchemy up as an exemplary field to witness the transition between ancient-medieval wisdom traditions to the beginnings of modern sciences. The rudiments of the scientific method, though familiar in principle to past luminaries like Avicenna or Robert Grosseteste, were presented in a more explicit form in Francis Bacon‘s Novum Organum. The scientific method could now be a tool for creating and sorting theories. (The “center of gravity” also shifted for those who took an interest in the sciences—or as they would have said then, natural philosophy—from Spain and Portugal to Germany, the Low Countries, and the British Isles.)
Boyle personally discovered or articulated a number of scientific principles while pursuing alchemy (or chymic as it was called, a term used indiscriminately for what we’d now identify as chemistry proper; Boyle’s first book, published ). One of the most famous is, fittingly, Boyle’s law, which states that, all else being equal, the pressure exerted by a given quantity of gas is inversely proportional to the volume that contains it; in plainer language, if you pump a hermetically-sealed hatbox full of a gallon of gas (as one does), that hatbox will be much higher in internal air pressure than you would find if you pumped that gallon of gas into, say, a hermetically-sealed blue whale. This discovery may not sound particularly exciting, but it was crucial to establishing the laws of thermodynamics, on which nearly every scientific discipline less abstract than pure mathematics depends.
As he pursued his studies, he naturally became acquainted with others who shared his interests. An informal group took shape; they referred to themselves as “the Invisible College.” In 1663, the Invisible College became decidedly visible: it was transfigured into the Royal Society, which continues to this day, and remains one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world.
Boyle was also a deeply religious man, though he ran counter to many normal religious trends of his day. For one thing, this was a period of great foment in Anglicanism. Everyone was discussing whether the doctrine, structure, and ritual of the Church of England ought to move back toward Catholicism (as in Louis XIV’s France), or imitate the Lutheran approach (taken by many petty states in the Holy Roman Empire), or pursue yet further reforms and align with Calvinism (as the Scottish Kirk had done). Boyle showed no interest in the question, and indeed seems to have actively avoided it: he endowed a series of lectures in defense of Christianity (now called the Boyle Lectures), but on the condition that divisions among Christians must never be mentioned. Or again, he shared the common Protestant belief that the Bible should be as widely available as possible, helping fund translation work extensively. His countrymen apparently had no objection when this meant the lands and languages under the dominance of the East India Company, but some eyebrows did leap like the high hills when Boyle also sponsored an Irish-language Bible, given that the Irish tongue was associated with poverty, poor education, rebellion, and Catholicism.
But the quality that makes Boyle stand out from his peers, and suited him so well to be a foundational scientist in such a foundational age, is a trait that must surely have irritated everyone he knew: pedantry. Or, to use a less-unkind name, precision. He thought with a rigor that is rare among people of any discipline, making sharp distinctions among what one is logically compelled to accept, what can be regarded as plausible if unproven, and what one can only reserve judgment about. Moreover, he not only recognized these distinctions: he observed them in his public endorsements of ideas (even refusing to promote his own ideas through means he thought gave him an unduly exalted voice). And he urged others to do the same, rather than setting any idea up as if it were a discovery or a fact before obtaining adequate reason to believe it. He showed a similar instinct with interpreting experimental results, insisting on multiple iterations of an experiment and on treating any individual piece of data as provisional. This exacting truthfulness and caution set the best possible example for scientific endeavors in the future. Here, too, we must again recall that understanding the right thing to do is only one step on the way to doing it; a maxim that our Anglo-Irish alchemist would probably appreciate.
*Personal union is an unusual relationship between two countries. It’s not uncommon for the same individual to be the heir of multiple crowns: this is why James VI of Scotland (whose grandmother was a Tudor princess) also became James I of England. However, the two nations are not normally fused into one just because they have the same monarch, or not for generations—especially if they employ differing rules of succession. In that case, the union exists only in the person of the monarch, hence the name. (England, Ireland, and Scotland did not become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland until 1800; before then, British monarchs held multiple kingdoms in personal union—which is why the Union Jack at the time of the American Revolution looks slightly off to us.)
**Kircher was undoubtedly brilliant, but some of his theories were dubious. Creating a map of Atlantis was, at the time, a fairly normal thing to do; however, he had not (as he said) successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs, few scholars accept that Confucius was actually Moses, and even fewer believe that the armadillo is a hybrid of the turtle and the porcupine.
†The word alchemy came into Arabic, and thus picked up the tell-tale prefix al-, from the Greek term χημεία (chēmeia), which means “the craft of alloying metals.”
Gabriel Blanchard (to date the author of no confirmed scientific discoveries) is a freelance writer and CLT’s editor-at-large. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out some of our other author profiles, like this one on the Roman historian Titus Livy, this one on the English Metaphysical poet John Donne, or this one on the French antifascist essayist Albert Camus. And be sure to take a listen to our podcast, Anchored, where CLT founder Jeremy Tate invites scholars, teachers, activists, and artists from all over the country to discuss education and culture.
Published on 6th March, 2023. Page image from Splendor Solis (“The Splendor of the Sun”), an alchemical text of the sixteenth century.