Boyle the alchemist

September 24, 1999

Robert Boyle, the 17th-century philosopher celebrated as the founder of modern chemistry, was an alchemist who spent his life in pursuit of the mythical philosopher's stone, according to historians.

Research soon to be published by a number of experts will reveal the extent to which the man portrayed as one of the great champions of experimental science was obsessed with trying to transmute base metals into gold.

While Boyle's interest in alchemy has been noted before, John Christie, senior lecturer in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Leeds, told a meeting at the British Association's Festival of Science that new research by several scholars will cause further embarrassment to chemists and historians who argue that Boyle helped separate chemistry from its mystical roots.

Generations of scholars have regarded Boyle as a beacon of rationality emerging from the irrational beliefs of the past. He gave the first precise definitions of a chemical element, reaction and analysis, and he invented the vacuum pump, coining Boyle's Law describing the expansion of gases under pressure.

But much of his groundbreaking work was carried out as Boyle searched for the philosopher's stone, a material that could transmute metals into gold and was first described in ancient, mystic writings. In the 1650s, while at Oxford, he was researching the properties of mercury as a crucial step in the process.

Dr Christie said it would soon emerge that Boyle was doing this mercury work with the American alchemist George Starkey.

His publications in the Transactions of the Royal Society further betray the touch of an alchemist. "Boyle does not adopt supposed modes of open, clear language supposedly espoused by all members of the Royal Society - he says there are some processes he cannot tell the reader about. He was keeping certain alchemical processes secret. All of this leads me to say that Robert Boyle was an alchemist," Dr Christie said.

This does not diminish his great scientific achievements, Dr Christie argued, but rather highlights the great debt modern scientists owe to alchemy.

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