Born in the modern day Republic of Ireland as the fourteenth child of the richest man in what was then part of Great Britain, Boyle enjoyed all the privileges of an aristocratic education. Schooled at Eton and then privately, he continued his studies as he undertook a long European tour from 1639 to 1644. Eventually he returned to an inherited estate in Dorset, England, largely avoiding the worst excesses of the Civil War. Here he began his scientific studies. In 1656 he moved to Oxford where, with the philosopher John Locke, and the architect Christopher Wren, he fonned the Experimental Philosophy Club. He also met Robert Hooke, who became his assistant and the two formed a productive partnership. It was together with Hooke that Boyle began making the discoveries for which he became famous.
Chief amongst these was the expression of what is now known as Boyle’s Law (also independently discovered by the French scientist Edme Mariotte) which established a direct relationship between air pressure and volumes of gas. By using mercury to trap some air in the short end of a ‘J’ shaped test tube, Boyle was able to observe the effect on its volume by adding more mercury. What he found was this: if he doubled the mass of mercury (in effect, doubling the pressure), the volume of the air in the end halved; if he tripled it, the volume of air reduced to a third, and so on. As long as the mass and temperature of the gas were constant, his law concluded that the pressure and volume were inversely proportional.
THE VACCUUM PUMP
This experiment was the culmination of a series of other tests involving air and its effects. They had begun shortly after Boyle had moved to Oxford and progressed rapidly when Robert Hooke had constructed an air pump upon his request. The pump was able to create the best man-made vacuum to date and through experiments involving bells, animals and candles, Boyle was able to draw a number of important conclusions. He found that sound could not travel through a vacuum and required air in order to do so. Air was required for respiration and combustion, and not all of the air was used up during breathing and burning processes. In addition, he proved Galileo’s proposal that all matter fell at equal speed in a vacuum.
THE SCEPTICAL CHEMIST
In 1661, Boyle published The Sceptical Chemist which criticized the Aristotelian view of a universe composed of only four elements (earth, water, air and fire), plus aether in wider space. The text helped pave the way to our current view of the elements. Although he did not describe elements exactly as we understand them today, he believed that matter consisted at root of ‘primitive and simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies’ which could combine with other elements to form an infinite number of compounds. This was an extension of his support for early atomic theory, believing in what he described as tiny ‘corpuscle&. In spite of an interpretation which does not entirely correspond with the modern view, his importance was in promoting an area of thought which would influence the later breakthroughs of Antoine Lavoisier (1743-93) and Joseph Priestley (1733—1804) in the development of theories related to chemical elements.
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