Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Sceptical Chymist - Here We Go Round The Sceptical Bush So Early In The Morning

With this publication Robert Boyle establishes the foundations of Modern Chemistry, and gets us away from the "Elements" being Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. As they were tied to four of the five regular polyhedra, said polyhedra would retreat back into Mathematics where Leonhard Euler would use them to give birth to topology less than a century later.


The Sceptical Chymist: or Chymico-Physical Doubts & Paradoxes,
Touching the Spagyrist's Principles commonly called Hypostatical,
As they are wont to be Propos'd and Defended by the Generality of
Alchymists. Whereunto is praemis'd Part of another Discourse
relating to the same subject
by
The Honourable Robert Boyle, Esq.
London
Printed by J. Caldwell for J. Crooke and are to be
Sold at the Ship in St. Paul's Church-Yard.
MDCLXI.
(1661)

    From Wiki:

The Sceptical Chymist: or Chymico-Physical Doubts & Paradoxes is the title of Robert Boyle's masterpiece of scientific literature, published in London in 1661. In the form of a dialogue, the Sceptical Chymist presented Boyle's hypothesis that matter consisted of atoms and clusters of atoms in motion and that every phenomenon was the result of collisions of particles in motion. He appealed to chemists to experiment and asserted that experiments denied the limiting of chemical elements to only the classic four: earth, fire, air, and water. He also pleaded that chemistry should cease to be subservient to medicine or to alchemy, and rise to the status of a science. Importantly, he advocated a rigorous approach to scientific experiment: he believed all theories must be proved experimentally before being regarded as true. For these reasons Robert Boyle has been called the founder of modern chemistry.[1]

The Sceptical Chymist is well written, enlivened with touches of humour, as when the alchemists are compared with "the Navigators of Solomon's Tarshish Fleet, who brought home … not only Gold, and Silver, and Ivory, but Apes and Peacocks too", since their theories "either like Peacock's feathers make a great shew, but are neither solid nor useful; or else, like Apes, if they have some appearance of being rational, are blemish'd with some absurdity or other which makes them appear ridiculous." The chief value of The Sceptical Chymist, aside from its main message, was the wealth of chemical experiment that showed the chemist how to employ standard terms and nomenclature in chemical explanation and also presented new chemical fact.

Its influence can be discerned in Nicholas Brady's reference to "jarring seeds" in his Ode to St. Cecilia (set by Henry Purcell in 1691, well before Daniel Bernoulli's kinetic theory):
Soul of the World! Inspir'd by thee,
The jarring Seeds of Matter did agree,
Thou didst the scatter'd Atoms bind,
Which, by thy Laws of true proportion join'd,
Made up of various Parts one perfect Harmony.

Robert Boyle FRS (25 January 1627 – 31 December 1691) was a 17th century natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor, also noted for his writings in theology. He is best known for Boyle's law.[1] Although his research clearly has its roots in the alchemical tradition, he is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist, and therefore one of the founders of modern chemistry. Among his works, The Sceptical Chymist is seen as a cornerstone book in the field of chemistry.




Top: An animation of Boyle's Law, showing the relationship between pressure and volume when amount and temperature are held constant.

3 comments:

Pat B said...

Steven,
Strangly (at least to me) there are two title pages in the book, one at the start (with Boyle's name) and one after the preface and Physiological introduction that does not have his name...
and in the second edition around 1680 there were still two title pages, but his name is not on either..

Pat B said...

By the way, your word verification this time was Imucs... "messes you make on an Ipod"... as in "I mucks it up"

Steven Colyer said...

Ah, very good, thank you Pat, you've "whetted my whistle" so to speak to actually read the original text.

I actually first became aware of the publication quite recently by reading the wonderful "Euler's Gem" by Dave Richeson, where I learned it was this very publication that got us away from the silly Earth-Air-Fire-Water are the Elements bit. Amazing.

Also amazing, Chymist came out the very decade Newton invented Calculus. Under Boyle's Wiki entry is a link to Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver", a highly recommended novel, in which we see Boyle as a character during the reign of Charles II and the dawn of The Royal Society.

Btw, I pay no attention to word verifications. I suppose in an amusing way one can find links, and I further note some of the most intelligent people I know share that amusement with you. I was curious if you knew that NPP laureate Murray Gell-Mann is hard at work trying to link Linguistics with Mathematics. Such a field is in its infancy.

Yet another specialized field I fear I will never be able to delve into before the reaper pays his inevitable visit! Ah well, it's all good. ;-)