Robert Boyle (1626–1691), the ‘father of modern chemistry’, was a prominent scientist of the 17th century, from Ireland. He devoted his life to exploring the mysteries of nature and its lawmaker. In the words of Gilbert Burnet, “Boyle, like several other scientists of his era, directed all their enquiries into Nature to the Honour of its great Maker…”
He was also one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific methods. Being inspired by the works of Francis Bacon and Galileo, Boyle showed keen interest in experimental philosophy. Unlike most scientists of the day, Boyle emphasized experiment over reason and also published his experimental results along with the experimental procedure and the various apparatus used. These very approaches made a very high impact on the practice of science.
Boyle built his own laboratory, equipped it, and hired assistants. His most capable assistant was Robert Hooke and together they built a vacuum chamber air pump, which was an improvement on Otto von Guericke’s design. This apparatus was of vital importance in many of Boyle’s experiments related to air. Some of the most important experiments established the necessity of air for combustion, for animal breathing, and for the transmission of sound. In 1662, Boyle published an experimental gas law describing the inverse relationship between the volume of a gas and its pressure enshrined in science textbooks as Boyle’s law. His works in chemistry contributed to the understanding of phosphorus, acids and bases, salts, precipitates, and chemical elements. His publications included New Experiments Physio-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects (1660) and Some Considerations Touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy(1663). Among his works, The Sceptical Chymist (1661) is seen as a cornerstone book in the field of chemistry.
A study of Boyle’s life and works reveals that he was not just an experimental scientist but also a devoted theologian. He believed in the harmony between science and religious scriptures. According to him, the study of science could expand the realization of God’s glories, and any conflict between science and religion were either due to a mistake in science or an incorrect interpretation of the scriptures. He believed the attributes of God and His greatness could be seen through the scientific study of nature and in the vastness of creation. He states,
“… the vastness, beauty, orderliness, of the heavenly bodies, the excellent structure of animals and plants, and the other phenomena of nature justly induce an intelligent and unprejudiced observer to conclude a supremely powerful, just, and good author.”
His works such as Style of the Scriptures, Occasional Reflections, Ethics, and Some Motives and Incentives to the Love of God and Discourse of Things above Reason (1681) tells us about his faith in religion apart from his love of science. In his will, Boyle endowed a series of lectures that came to be known as the Boyle Lectures. To this day, the “Boyle Lectures” are held annually in London; this is a forum where prominent academicians discuss the existence of God.
Reflecting on Boyle’s life and teachings can definitely inspire the inquisitive minds in the search for truth to seriously consider the great harmony between science and spirituality.