Boyle: Between God and Science by Michael Hunter - review by David Wootton

David Wootton

The Credulous Chemist

Boyle: Between God and Science


Yale University Press 366pp £25

Robert Boyle (1627–91) was, at least by reputation, the greatest scientist in the period between the condemnation of Galileo and the triumph of Newton. A founder member of the Royal Society, he did a great deal to win respect for the new experimental science and the mechanical philosophy. His early experiments with a vacuum pump (published in 1660) became famous as a refutation of Aristotelian physics (which denied the possibility of a vacuum), and led to the formulation of Boyle's Law relating the volume and pressure of gases. These achievements were accompanied by a commitment to religion that was even more important to him than science. He was much concerned with the propagation of the Gospel in foreign lands and foreign languages (including Gaelic), and paid for a translation of Grotius's De veritate into Arabic (surely a futile undertaking if ever there was one). At his death Boyle left a bequest to fund an annual series of lectures defending the truths of religion against atheism. He clearly hoped that scientific methods would provide indisputable confirmation for religious truths: the existence of life after death, for example, was to be confirmed by investigation of the mysterious drummer of Tedworth, a poltergeist.

Born the seventh son of the Lord High Treasurer of Ireland, Boyle was always wealthy, and never needed to make his way in the world. He never married – indeed he died, by his own testimony, a virgin. For much of his life he lived with his sister,

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