Robert Boyle (1627–1691)

For centuries up to the 1600s, alchemy played a strong part in the scientific thinking of many. Alchemists were the medieval forerunners of today’s chemists, but most of their time was taken up trying to turn base metals such as lead into gold, or in attempting to produce an ‘elixir of life’ which would keep them perpetually youthful. But the beliefs of the alchemists were about to be shaken.

Robert Boyle was born in 1627, at Lismore Castle in Ireland, the fourteenth child of Sir Richard, the wealthy Earl of Cork, and Lady Boyle. His parents provided young Robert with the best education available in seventeenth century England. He attended Eton—the college founded by King Henry VI almost 200 years earlier—and also had private tutors. Sir Richard encouraged his son to continue his education in Europe. So Robert was sent off to mainland Europe, destined for school in Geneva.

Robert did well in Europe. He had access to resources not available to students in England, and his knowledge broadened noticeably. He had a fondness for languages, mastering six, and found his interests also leaning greatly towards science.

Cherished meeting with Galileo

The 16 year-old saw the world around him as a marvellous creation of God. His attentive and alert mind was constantly striving to know more about the Creator and the mechanics of His world. In Italy, Robert had the privilege of meeting the aged and ailing astronomer Galileo, who paved the way to a better understanding of the universe. This meeting was something Robert cherished, and it provided a great impetus to the young man to try now to discover even more about God’s world.

As his budding interest in science began to flower, Robert encountered heavy disappointments. He had enormous difficulty overcoming the mental barriers set up in people’s minds by the alchemists. Most alchemists were interested only in performing scientific ‘magic’ to increase their wealth and prestige. They gave little time to anyone who tried to down-play the great importance of their selfish objectives….

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