The Great Secret of Chemistry Past

The “great secret” of chemistry’s past

The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and his Chemical Quest

by Lawrence Principe

Princeton University Press: 1998. 339pp. $45, £32.50

We thought we knew where we were with Robert Boyle (1627–91), father of chemistry and uncle of the Earl of Cork. Boyle, so we believed, had no time for alchemy or other mysterious activities. He promulgated both a modern definition of a chemical element and a mechanical world-view. The world was a bigger version of the famous Strasbourg clock; matter was composed of corpuscles, all made of the same stuff, differently arranged. Boyle’s book The Sceptical Chymist was reverently regarded as the beginning of rational chemistry, even if few actually read its longwinded dialogues.

Alas, just when we get our world picture clear, researchers come along and disturb it. Lawrence Principe has done just this in his provocatively titled The Aspiring Adept — like Geoffrey Keynes calling Newton Last of the Magi half a century ago. How could our Boyle have been, or have aspired to be, an ‘adept’ — the term for alchemists who have attained the ‘great secret’?

A great deal of work has been done on the Boyle papers in recent years, particularly by Michael Hunter. The close study of the documents, and of associated published texts, has confronted us with a quite different Boyle. His lifetime was a period of tremendous religious and political upheaval. While he kept out of political storms, he was an important figure in the religious life of his time, supporting missions and biblical translations. As a good Protestant, he could not accept that saints might come between him and God. In the same way, he could not believe that Nature, in the form of a semi-divine demiurge, could come between his free and inscrutable God and the world. Boyle’s preoccupations were typical of his time, and he impressed contemporaries as much by his piety as by his acuity.

Principe has approached Boyle from further back in history, from Basil Valentine, the fifteenth-century German monk whose name appears on chemical writings over a span of two centuries, rather than from later science — as a successor to earlier chymists rather than as a precursor to modern chemists. Careful reading of The Sceptical Chymist and other familiar writings of Boyle’s indicate that he was not simply a mechanical philosopher who insisted, in a modern manner, that science was public knowledge and that experimental data should be published uncooked. Principe sees alchemy as part of the ‘normal science’ of the seventeenth century, and The Sceptical Chymist as an attack only on vulgar alchemists: learned adepts escape criticism.

Principe prints as an appendix fragments from Boyle’s Treatise on Transmutation (also in dialogue form, partly in Latin and partly in English) and also a very curious fragment of dialogue about converse with angels — a fascinating topic to our ancestors, where one needed to be sure that the angels were not fallen ones. In the fragments, Boyle reports on transmutations he and other reputable persons had witnessed. Certainly, they seem as well attested as other events in history that we do not doubt, though our chemistry does not allow us to believe them. Like the psychical researchers of the last century, Boyle was not the sceptic he sometimes thought himself.

We should note with Principe, however, that alchemy sometimes included a particulate theory of matter, and that Boyle’s corpuscles were readily compatible with transmutation. He was particularly struck with an experiment in which he seemed to have degraded gold to a base substance: his alchemy could go both ways, and he was impressed with the great effects that small quantities of potent reagents could produce.

Boyle had inherited wealth, some of which seems to have gone to support a mysterious con man, who promised him contacts with sages from the East, and alkahest, the universal solvent sought by the alchemists. But Boyle believed that it should be possible to live modestly by alchemy. Seeing the old statute against it as a barrier to serious scientific research, he managed to get it repealed. References to alchemy are widely dispersed throughout his work and, although in some respects an advocate of openness, he was content to fall in with the secrecy of alchemy, sending letters in code, for example. Just as he allowed for God’s action in a clockwork universe, so he was content with parallel (and seemingly incompatible) explanations in his chymistry.

The new Boyle is more interesting, because more filled out, than the old one. If both he and Newton took alchemy seriously, then we have to see chymistry as an ancestor of chemistry. We do not need to fret about this, however, any more than about our own remote and ape-like ancestors. In the late eighteenth century the alchemist Peter Woulfe FRS invented a wash bottle for gases, and attached to his apparatus little pieces of paper with prayers (we might have done the same, faced with his glassware). Michael Faraday was sympathetic to alchemy in principle, believing that there couldn’t be so many irreducible elements. Ernest Rutherford sometimes described his work as “new alchemy”.

Boyle the aspiring adept is in some ways further from us, in that foreign country of the past where they do things differently. But in other ways he is less remote, and Principe is to be congratulated on bringing him into a new focus.

D.M. Knight is in the Department of Philosophy,

University of Durham, 50 Old Elvet, Durham

DH1 3HN, UK.