“If science is the constellation of facts, theories, and methods collected in current texts,” as Thomas Kuhn put it in 1962, “then scientists are the men who, successfully or not, have striven to contribute one or another element to that particular constellation.” But the “if” at the beginning of this sentence in Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is crucial: Science is not just a pile of discrete facts about the natural world that keeps getting bigger and bigger. And yet this simplistic view of science and scientists—as an endlessly accumulating set of facts, and scientists as the men who accumulate them—is more or less how Wikipedia articles tell the story of scientific discovery.
Take, for example, Boyle’s law. Wikipedia article describes it as “an experimental gas law that describes how the pressure of a gas tends to increase as the volume of the container decreases.” It “was named after chemist and physicist Robert Boyle, who published the original law in 1662,” the first of the gas laws to be discovered; if you click that link, you find a sequence of gas laws named after their discoverers: Charles’s law (1787), Gay-Lussac’s law (1809), and Avogadro’s law (1811). There’s your pile of facts and your list of men who found them and added them to the heap.
But when Boyle first published A Defence of the Doctrine Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air (1662), he did not use the words “volume” or “pressure.” Instead, in chapter five, he wrote that “the same air being brought to a degree of density about twice as that it had before, obtains a spring twice as strong as formerly.” By what alchemical process has “the doctrine on the spring and weight of the air” been transformed into a “law” about “volume” and “pressure”? The terms “density” and “spring of the air” are not simply archaic vocabulary for the same underlying thing. What Boyle understood by the “spring of the air” is simply not what we understand by “pressure,” nor are the underlying models identical. And this difference matters.
Pressure is the combined force of individual gas molecules colliding with the container, tiny molecules which collide because they are always in motion. “Boyle’s Law,” as we understand it today, asserts that if you reduce the volume of this container, the number of collisions will increase, and so the combination of the force exerted on the container, the pressure, will become greater. By contrast, Robert Boyle began by asserting that the particles of air (what he called “corpuscles”) are like little springs: instead of motion-induced collisions, “the spring of the air” is the fact that if you compress a spring, it pushes back, trying to return to its original state. Instead of tiny particles moving and colliding in the relatively empty space between them, he pictured “a heap of little bodies” compressed like wool in small container. Take a handful of unspun wool, he wrote, and you see that it’s made up of long fibers. Now squeeze your hand shut around the wool: You can completely enclose the wool inside your fist, compressing it into a small wad, but when you open your hand that small wadded up piece of wool springs back to something like its original size and shape.
That is how Boyle imagined air: long, thin particles that could be compressed like springs, and which, like springs, resisted the compression and would return to their original state when released. This is not how we understand air, today, nor how we would understand the pressure it exerts on a container.
In short, Boyle’s explanation of why the “spring of the air” increased as the volume decreased is not the same as the gas law that now bears his name. They have an underlying formula in common—the inverse relationship between volume and pressure/spring of air, the fact that increasing one variable decreases the other—but the modern statement of Boyle’s law requires an understanding of atoms and molecules, as well as a distinction between solid, liquid, and gaseous states of matter that was not available until two hundred years after Boyle’s death. The modern statement of the law can explicitly include temperature, for instance—the caveat that “this holds as long as the temperature is constant”—because of a modern understanding of how temperature relates to molecular motion in gases: if heat is the motion of particles, then adding heat would increase the pressure.
Unless we imagine that science is the discovery of facts, it doesn’t invalidate Boyle’s work or diminish his historical significance to point this out. His contribution remains crucial. But it helps explain how a sentence like “The law was named after chemist and physicist Robert Boyle, who published the original law in 1662” seems to have it both ways, suggesting that Boyle could both publish the “original” law in 1662 but also have that law “named after” him later. The answer is simple: “Boyle’s law” is not what Boyle originally published.
Here’s the problem with the idea of “discovery” in scientific narratives on Wikipedia. To say that Boyle “discovered” this law is to collapse a centuries-long process into a particular moment in 1662 when Boyle and some unnamed collaborators observed tubes full of air and mercury and wrote about their observations. As crucial as that moment was, the discoveries the preceded it and followed it were no less crucial.
What is left out? For one thing, men are far more likely to be labeled firsts, founders, and pioneers than women; when children are asked to “draw a scientist” the majority will draw a white man. Wikipedia reflects and reinforces this tendency; as Sam Muka has noted, Wikipedia has a page titled “List of people considered father or mother of a scientific field,” but of the 227 parents on this list, only seven are women. Boyle is one of five “fathers of chemistry,” but there are no mothers. But while it’s true that women were not allowed to join the Royal Society, the scientific society of which Boyle was a founding member—and women were not allowed to publish in the Society’s journal, the Philosophical Transactions—their exclusion from official science doesn’t mean that Boyle’s female contemporaries weren’t involved in scientific progress. It just means that the paper trail is different. But Wikipedia is like any encyclopedia in that it emphasizes certain kinds of records as authoritative, to the exclusion of others.
In point of fact, chemistry had many mothers. In Boyle’s period, women across Europe left handwritten recipe books that detailed their procedures for making medicines and household products like soap and ink. Making medicines often required specialized chemical equipment, including alembic distillers, and the kinds of technical skills required to use them were substantial, not to mention knowledge of the chemical and medicinal properties of a huge range of substances. There are hundreds of these books from all over Europe from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; if anything, they collectively suggest that more women than men were actively involved in practical medical and chemical experimentation.
One of these mothers was Boyle’s own sister, Katherine Jones. Jones’s extensive correspondence with leading scientists of the day and the three recipe books she left behind demonstrate her interest in and knowledge about a range of scientific topics, including chemistry. She had a chemical laboratory in her London house. What are we to make of the fact that Boyle lived with his sister, and worked with her in this laboratory, for the last twenty-three years of his life? Might Boyle’s theoretical understanding of matter have benefited from the practical archive of experimentation and production that we find in these recipe books?
Because Wikipedia articles omit elements that don’t fit the story they are telling, entries on scientists often gloss over aspects of their lives that seem “unscientific” by modern standards: Boyle’s Wikipedia article, for example, has only one sentence about his alchemical work, even though the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone occupied an enormous amount of his time and resources. The article also states that he “was a pioneer studying races, and he believed that all human beings, no matter how diverse their physical differences, came from the same source: Adam and Eve.” But while Boyle did write about the differences between black people and white people in his Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours of 1664, describing Boyle as a “pioneer” implies that his work paved the way for racial equality, and reflects a desire to see scientists as neutral, apolitical, and objective, as leading the way out of the myths and misconceptions of their time.
Boyle, however, was a representative scientist, thoroughly embedded in the social, political, and economic myths and misconceptions of his time. As Elizabeth Yale has pointed out, while Boyle insisted that people of African descent were part of the human race, he emphatically did not believe that they were equal to Europeans, and certainly didn’t critique the institution of slavery. His analysis of racial differences was made possible by the British slave trade and colonial enterprises, and his discussion of racial differences was based on reports from slave owners and on dissections carried out on enslaved people. Africans themselves were excluded from the scientific discussion of race. And as Miranda Kaufman and others have amply demonstrated, there were definitely black people in Britain in the seventeenth century, both free and unfree, educated and illiterate, who could have been consulted.
None of this makes Boyle less of a scientist; it makes him a normal one. As Thomas Kuhn argued, all scientists begin with a set of assumptions—he used the word “paradigm”—which describe how the natural world works, assumptions about what was known about nature and also what was not. Kuhn’s great insight was to recognize that however wrong those assumptions might now be seen to be, in retrospect, they are nevertheless the shared foundation on which scientific progress builds. If scientific progress is a movement “forward” away from the misconceptions of the past, it isn’t because scientists stand outside of their society; scientific revolutions occur when anomalies or contradictions or problems within the existing paradigm open a door to new understandings. In an important sense, science isn’t the absence of wrongness, it’s the result of it. And so, it’s worth remembering that Boyle’s was a period in which scientists were questioning the idea that matter was composed of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and that Boyle was one of the many exploring the possibility that matter was made of tiny particles. Boyle’s experiments with air pressure were part of his quest to understand those particles, as were his physiological experiments on respiration in animals, and his alchemical work. Even his study of color—in which we find his musings on race—are primarily about the properties of matter and light that enable us to perceive color. But if his understanding of air as “springs” was wrong, it was wrong in a way that builds a bridge between the past and the present.
No scientist works in isolation, nor stands aside from the paradigms of their day. It’s precisely because Boyle was not alone in his interest in the subvisible particles that make up our world, in fact, that he was able to advance the scientific understanding of his day. He learned from others—building on what they knew, right or wrong—and, by the same token, both the right and wrong of what he learned forms the foundation of what scientists following after him have discovered. For this reason, it makes no sense to disentangle a scientist like Boyle from the assumptions of his period; to individualize his discoveries makes the real work that he did illegible. And to forget the discoveries that came after him—the corrections to this theory that were required—causes us to lose sight of his real contribution, the work of making future progress possible.
Wikipistemology is a regular Popula column exploring the epistemology of Wikipedia, the world’s most omnipresent and useful and strikingly-unquestioned source of information. What do they know who only Wikipedia know?