December 31 marks the passing of Robert Boyle. Boyle was an Irish chemist who made a significant contribution away from the alchemical idea of Aristotle’s four elements to the atomic model of elements. He argued elements consisted of ‘corpuscles’ (atoms) instead of the four traditional elements of earth, air, fire, and water. He also proposed nature could be broken down and described as a set of simple mathematical laws. He outlined his arguments in the form of a narrative of a group discussion in his book The Sceptical Chymist.
He also worked extensively with gases, especially with low pressure or ‘rarefied airs’ and vacuums. He demonstrated that vacuum can exist in nature, sound cannot travel through it, and animals cannot live without air. These experiments led to Boyle’s ideal gas law where a gas at constant temperature changes in pressure in inverse proportion to the volume containing the gas.
Boyle was also one of the founding members of the Royal Society that formed from a group of science and mathematically inclined people who met on a weekly basis in London and Oxford. He was elected president of the Society in 1680 but turned them down because the oath of office disagreed with his religious principles. Boyle’s religious contributions included financing an Irish translation of the Bible, funding missionaries to travel with the East India Company and a series of public lectures relating science and Christianity.
Boyle’s The Sceptical Chymist is available free online (it’s 400 years past the Copyright limits after all). The Internet Archive has a scan of an original printing containing all the 1600s English ∫pellings and printer errors. Project Gutenberg has a version with a font that is easier on the eyes. It’s not the easiest read, but it is a great look at 17th Century scientific discourse.
Notable Science History Events for December 31
1937 – Avaram Hershko was born.
Hershko is a Hungarian-Israeli biochemist who shares the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Aaron Ciechanover and Irwin Rose for the discovery of the ubiquitin protein in cells. Ubiquitin functions as a waste removal protein and quality control during cell division by attaching itself to unwanted proteins.
1905 – Alexander Stepanovich Popov died.
Popov was a Russian physicist who was the first to use an antenna to transmit and receive radio waves. Russians consider him the inventor of radio. Popov was more interested in atmospheric phenomenon and designed his device to detect the radio noise given off by lightning strikes.
1719 – John Flamsteed died.
Flamsteed was an English astronomer and the first Astronomer Royal. The Astronomer Royal is a post in the British Royal Household charged with charting stellar positions to aid navigation and the determination of longitude. He was also charged with building the Greenwich Observatory. Flamsteed himself equipped the observatory with instruments from his own pocket which would become a key element of a feud between himself, Issac Newton and Edmund Halley over ownership of the star catalog he produced.
1691 – Robert Boyle died.
1514 – Andreas Vesalius was born.
Vesalius was a Flemish physician and anatomist who is considered the father of the study of human anatomy. His book, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Workings of the Human Body) was the standard anatomy reference text for generations. The book was comprised of detailed woodcut plates of the human body in various stages of dissection and poses to illustrate relative positions of organs and structures.