Thursday, 19 November 2009

Boyle: between God and Science – Michael Hunter ***

I was really looking forward to this book as Robert Boyle is one of the least written about of the important people in the history of science, and before picking up Michael Hunter’s book I knew very little about him. I now know a lot more – but not always the things I wanted to know.
There are broadly three types of biography of a scientist. There’s the detailed historian’s biography, poring over every little document and providing an intensely detailed description of the individual’s life. The sort of biography that would make a great reference source, but frankly isn’t bedtime reading. Then there’s the populist biography, with all the rip-roaring personal details, but not enough about the science. Finally there’s the true popular science biography, which should combine the essentials about the person’s life – enough to get a feeling that you know the person without getting bored – with an exploration of the science this individual was responsible for. After all, what’s the point of reading a biography of a scientist, if you don’t find out about the science? It might as well be a biography of a shoemaker. (Nothing personal about shoemakers, here.)
Sadly, though it is, I am sure, a superbly researched tome, Hunter’s biography sits squarely in the first category. You can get a feel for the writer’s enthusiasm for all the minutiae and documentation on which it is based – which is fine – but the writing never captures the imagination. I don’t care about Robert Boyle as a result of this – it could just as well be an extremely long (beautifully documented) laundry list.
But the reason this book is, for me, an abject failure is that it skips over the science. Boyle is, of course, famous for Boyle’s Law, the gas law that tells us pressure times volume is constant. If you don’t concentrate hard you could miss Hunter’s reference to this altogether, it is so summarily covered, with no feeling for the context of the discovery and its implications. To give another example (there are many), we are given some details of an experiment that Boyle makes with nitre – but no attempt is made to even say what nitre is, let alone whether the experiment has any modern significance. We are just given a description of what was undertaken in Boyle’s own terminology. This isn’t good enough.
I’m not saying that I didn’t learn a lot from this book – I did. I vaguely knew that Boyle was Anglo-Irish, not in the sense of being half English and half Irish, but in the period sense of being of an English family with (extensive) landholdings in Ireland. But I didn’t know how rich he was, or about his life of celibacy, his relationship with the Royal Society, his extensive theological writings or his time spent in Oxford. Similarly I knew that Boyle stood at the crossroads where chemistry veered away from alchemy, but didn’t realize that (like Newton) his interest in alchemy was not an early concern to be discarded as he learned more, but rather something he got deeper into when his chemical ideas where already matured.
So, if you need to read up on Boyle, this is certainly a book worth consulting. But don’t expect either good writing on the science, or an enjoyable, readable text. Michael Hunter is a pure historian, not a historian of science, and an academic one at that. This isn’t a bad thing per se – but doesn’t make him the ideal choice if what you want is a popular scientific biography.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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