Robert Boyle, Visionary

Pall Mall, London
Pall Mall, London

On New Year’s Eve, 1691, just a few weeks short of his 65th birthday, the Honourable Robert Boyle died at his home here on Pall Mall in London. Now, Robert Boyle is widely regarded as the founding father of modern chemistry, he’s certainly one of Britain’s most famous scientists. He rubbed shoulders with Samuel Pepys, with Isaac Newton and with Christopher Wren, and every science student knows him for the law that bears his name; Boyle’s Law, which relates the pressure and the volume of a gas that fits temperature.

But there was also another romantic, visionary side to the man which was revealed on a piece of paper that was found in his personal effects just after his death. This artefact is so significant that it is kept here at the Royal society, a stone’s throw from where Boyle lived and died.

Boyle’s List

Boyle's List
Boyle’s Handwriting

And here it is, it’s a list written in Robert Boyle’s neat handwriting at the time the Royal Society was founded. And although it has no title, it looks like, if not a to-do list then at least a… a list of things that Robert Boyle thought could be achieved by science.

Number one is the prolongation of life. The art of flying. The transmutation of metals. A practical and certain way of finding longitude. A ship to sail in all winds, and a perpetual light.

Boyle’s list is eclectic and, in places, surreal. It seems he’s interested in attaining gigantic dimensions. He wants to stop and even turn back the ageing process. He’d like to find a way of continuing long underwater and emulating fish, and feels that varnishes, perfumable by rubbing, would be worth having.

Now, this list would have seemed fantastical to someone in the 17th century. It would have seemed like science fiction, but what I find remarkable about it is that all but two of the 24 things on this list have now been achieved by science, and I suppose that makes Robert Boyle a visionary.

Robert Boyle
Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle recognised that science, indeed British science, could do much more than just expand our knowledge of the world. He thought that science could also be used to change our world, to enrich our lives and create a better future for everyone.

Since Robert Boyle wrote his list, the world has been changed by science and scientists, and it’s here in Britain where some of the greatest changes have their roots. This is where James Watts and George Stephenson harnessed steam power, where Rutherford and Chadwick unravelled the architecture of the atom. Where Edward Jenner worked out the principles of vaccination, saving millions of lives in the process. Robert Watson-Watt’s radar has transformed travel, and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web has transformed everything.

Professor Brian Cox

Brian Cox “There is no doubt that science, much of it British, has created the modern world, but how that progress should be achieved has always been contentious.”

Professor Brian Cox “In this film I want to explore the diversity of that scientific progress, from the curiosity-led exploration of nature, to the solutions of practical problems and to financial gain. I also want to explore our scientific future and how we can ensure that that future is always going to be a better place to live than the past.”


Boyle’s Law Wikipedia Page

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