Natural Philosophy #8 The Sceptical Chemist

I’m truly amazed at how our scientific understanding of the natural world expanded so much in such a short period of time. Not only did our knowledge of “things” expand, but so did our ability to apply replicable processes and enable verifiable experimentation, plus the FIRST laws of science were created by men like Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke across the period 1660-1740 approximately. Of course they were preceded by Galileo and Francis Bacon, but the sheer explosion of discovery and talent beggars belief when you line them up.

  • Christopher Wren (Astronomer, mathematician, architect)
  • John Flamsteed (The first Astronomer Royal)
  • Edmund Halley (Astronomer, mathematician, geophysicist)
  • Humphrey Davey (Chemist, inventor, poet)
  • Michael Faraday (Electrochemist)
  • Joseph Black (Chemist, physicist)
  • Thomas Newcomen (Engineer, inventor)
  • James Watt (Engineer, inventor)
  • Joseph Priestly (Chemist)

What a list……….. and all from this tiny island of ours! The overall “honours” list is of course much bigger than this, but I have selected a few examples above that non-scientists might be familiar with. Google any of them and simply read their Wikipedia page.

However I want to go back to that Tremendous Trio of scientists who really kicked things off, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, because I am certain that there is a lot we can learn from them that goes way beyond their discoveries, theories and laws. All three lived at a time when the words “fact, experiment and empiricism” did not exist in the English language! (And that is not fake news!). These three words are now sacrosanct in the scientific world and not to be confused or substituted with “opinion, hypothesis, or phenomenology”. Nor should correlation be taken to mean causation. We have these three scientists to thank for this evidence based approach that underpins all of science today, and that was no mean feat because “evidence” had been a dirty word in science until then. Scientists wouldn’t use it because of its association with law courts and unreliable witnesses. Despite this, their respective research and publications have “defined” science for us today:

Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica, ……… motion and gravity.
Robert Boyle, relationship between volume and pressure of gases.
Robert Hooke, Micrographia with his stunning micrograph and artwork.

What is rather odd however, is the stormy relationship between these three scientists, all living within a stones throw of each other at their peak, all members of The Royal Society, each working in slightly different fields but with considerable overlap across other areas of interest. First, the relationship between Boyle and Hooke was a good one, the young Robert Hooke having become an assistant or apprentice to Robert Boyle. However their relationship to Newton was far from friendly, it was quite cold, and at times “explosive” even. At first glance, Isaac seems to have been an extremely sensitive and arrogant person who couldn’t tolerate any criticism or well intentioned feedback. He didn’t like Hooke showing that he had observed certain “facts” before him, nor did he like it when Boyle praised one of his manuscripts but describing his conclusion as a hypothesis rather than accepting it as a “fact”!

Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist.

It may have been such sensitivity and “offence” that led Robert Boyle to write his book “The Sceptical Chymist” in which he virtually laid the ground rules for the infant science of chemistry. Boyle believed that chemists SHOULD be sceptical of other scientists work and results and that we should rigorously question them, demand to see their evidence, and insist on being able to replicate their results. This became incorporated into the rules of The Royal Society in the 1600s. Without doubt his dogged pursuit of reproducible experiments and use of plain language in describing his own results laid the foundations for modern research.

But ….. sadly today we seem to be in an age when questioning and scepticism is seen as being “offensive” leading to the sceptics being ignored, silenced and no-platformed. This is dangerous and has no place within science. We need to “call this out” and stand up for the rights and obligations of The Sceptical Chymist, just as Robert Boyle asserted so long ago, perhaps most succinctly put by Thomas Sewell:

“It is usually futile to talk facts and analysis to people who are enjoying a sense of moral superiority in their ignorance”

Thomas Sewell 1830-

Bizarre Footnote: After Hookes death, Newton was elected president of the Royal Society and one of his first duties was to oversee the Society’s move into new premises. During the move the official portrait of Hooke disappeared and was never found. To this day there is still no known and confirmed contemporary portrait of Robert Hooke! Did Isaac destroy Hooke’s portrait? Read the story of The Missing Portrait.

Categories: Natural Philosophy, Philosophy

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5 replies

  1. Thomas Sewell’s quote has been completely forgotten by the “woke” faction of our society. Alas, today’s university governors quail before the onslaught rather than defend the original purpose of a university — to debate, to challenge, and yes at times to offend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. scientists stand on the shoulders of the giants before them… and that is a strange story about Hooke’s portrait…

    Liked by 1 person


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