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Religiously inclined to experiment

Adam Ford delights in a devout scientist’s life

Boyle: Between God and science
Michael Hunter
Yale University Press £25
(978-0-300-12381-4)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

WHEN Oliver Cromwell decided to welcome the Jewish community back into England (after 350 years of exile), Robert Boyle proposed that a government grant should be made available to the Church of England. Anglican clergy, he be­lieved, needed to be trained in Hebrew, or they would be no match in debate with the rabbis. He spoke from experience, having encoun­tered astute Jewish scholars on the Continent, when doing the Grand Tour in his early teens.

Robert Boyle, “the son of the Earl of Cork and the father of modern chemistry”, was a deeply pious man, religious through and through. Michael Hunter, in this definitive biography of the great 17th-century scientist, is quite clear that, for Boyle, science and religion go com­fortably hand in hand. He writes of “Boyle’s Christian commitment” as “arguably the central fact of his life” — an important reflection in today’s climate of overheated debate about science and religion.

Boyle viewed the world as a great machine made up of matter in motion, and believed that the only way to explore it was by experi­ment­ation — the bold new idea on the block. It was the time of a great awakening, and he was a leading light in “the real Oxford movement” (not the 19th-century High Church revival), a period of great intellec­tual ferment in astronomy, chemis­try, and anatomy — the use of telescopes and microscopes.

He was a great revolutionary, breaking with orthodox tradition and the unquestioning dependence on Aristotle (and Galen in medi­cine). He also believed that the study of the world was a religious duty — one that could further our understanding of God. Man is high priest of nature.

Famous for his law relating pressure and volume in gases, Boyle wrote voluminously, leaving the biographer a wealth of useful mater­ial: work diaries recording details of his experiments, tracts, memoirs, letters, meditations, medicinal recipes, and books. He never had the time or inclination to marry (an experiment he never made, John Evelyn commented at his funeral). He was a pressure-cooker of a man –— and half blind for more than half his life.

Complex, too. He was fascinated by alchemy, and claimed to have witnessed the transmutation of lead into gold. But this was a dangerous subject: Isaac Newton warned him in a letter of the uncontrollable power that such processes might unleash.

Hunter’s biography of this fascin­ating character is clear and very read­able. It also includes a mam­moth compendium of sources for the scholar and historian of science.

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.

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