Boyle: between God and science

Boyle: between God and science

Michael Hunter

London, UK: Yale University Press 2009 | 400pp | ?25.00 (HB) 

ISBN 9780300123814

Reviewed by Mary Daniels


All I remember about Boyle is his gas law from school chemistry, but as this book shows there is much more to Robert Boyle (1627-1691). He was one of the first experimental chemists and indeed one of our greatest scientific minds pre-Newton. Unlike present day specialists, Boyle investigated a wide range of scientific subjects from luminescence and hydrostatics to medicine and the temperature of the oceans. His most famous book, The sceptical chymist (1661), outlines his corpuscular theories.

This biography, by the leading expert on Boyle, is well written, authoritative and perceptive, displaying the author’s intimate knowledge of Boyle’s published works and personal papers. It is not necessarily an easy read - the lack of available information on Boyle prevents biographers from incorporating interesting anecdotes. 

Boyle, like many of his contemporaries, mixed his experimental science with a dash of alchemy and deep religious faith. He published theological treatises such as Some motives and incentives to the love of God (1659).

Boyle’s inner spiritual conflicts - as reflected in the title ’between God and science’ - are explored extensively by Hunter as a key to the understanding of the man. This book will certainly become the definitive biography of Boyle - his science and his God.

Ed: In his will, Boyle endowed annual lectures/sermons on science and Christian faith. These lectures were revived in 2004 at St Mary-le-Bow church, London; the lecture takes place annually in February. The 2010 lecture was given by John Hedley Brooke under the title   The legacy of Robert Boyle - then and now, with a response by Geoffrey Cantor.