Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Boyle's List

A couple of months ago a list drawn up by the famous natural philosopher Robert Boyle went on display for the first time. Written in the 1660s, soon after the Royal Society was founded, it set forth the most pressing problems for scientists to tackle. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to see a copy of the full document but I’ve managed to piece together some of it from a photo of the wishlist and a couple of newspaper articles on the subject.

The first item on Boyle’s list is the
'Prolongation of Life'; something we tend to be a lot better at nowadays, unless of course your last name happens to be Kennedy.

Following on from that, Boyle goes on to list
'Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of it, as new Teeth, new Hair colour'd as in youth'. Again if you’ve seen those ‘Just for Men’ ‘no play for Mr Grey’ commercials you’ll know this is still very much a work in progress. Item 3 is ‘A ship to saile with all winds and a ship not to be sunk’. The first has been achieved, the less said about the second the better (I read recently that the Titanic was described to be ‘virtually unsinkable’ but only in an obscure trade publication)

Four is, intriguingly, ‘The attaining of gigantick dimensions’. Being only a modest 5”6 and a half, I for one would like to see this kind of technology come in but sadly the only progress since Boyle’s list has been the so-called ‘elevator shoe’, surely one of the worst inventions in recorded history.

These are followed by ‘the acceleration of the production of things out of seed, ‘the art of flying’, ‘the making of armor light and extremely hard’, ‘the practicable and certain ways of finding longtitudes’ and ‘the cure of diseases at a distance, or at least by transplantation’.

Towards the end it gets rather trippy as Boyle lists the production of ‘potent drugs to alter of exalt imagination, waking, memory and other functions, and appease pain, procure sleep, harmless dreams etc..’ as one of his aspirations.

Some of these functions are fairly practical but one wonders what Boyle really means by ‘alter of exalt imagination’. Perhaps if he had worked a bit harder with his chemistry set he might have become some kind of Restoration era Timothy Leary.

Next up is ‘freedom from necessity of much sleeping exemplify’d by the operation of tea and what happens in mad-men’. He must have written this mere decades before the first authoritative coffee treatise was written in latin by Faustus Nairon and coffee houses began to spread across Europe. Interestingly this movement met with some resistance in Germany where beer was at the height of it’s popularity and where Adam Olearius’s Persian travelogue appeared with the following anecdote:

‘However if you partake to excess of such kahave water, it completely extinguishes all pleasures of the flesh. They write of a king, Sultan Mahmud Kasnin who reigned in Persia before Tamerlane and who became such a habitual drinker of kahave water that he forgot his spouse and developed a repugnance of intercourse which displeased his queen greatly. For on one occasion as she sat in the window and a espied how a stallion was being held down prior to castration, it is said that she inquired what was happening. And upon being told with all due frankness that the intention was to tame the lust of the horse that it would no longer mount another or service a mare she express the view that such steps were unnecessary, all that had to be done was to give him the shameful kahave water and he would soon be like the king.

The last item on the list is perhaps the most intriguing, ‘the emulating of fish without engines by custome and education only’.

I’m afraid I’m at a loss to see how this could advance civilisation.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Merkavah said...

So Robert Boyle was looking for the same thing as Huey Lewis?

I guess great men throughout history just want a new drug!

Courtney said...

I thought it would be interesting to see how much progress there really has been since Boyle’s day with respect to prolonging life for a 40 year old man (I guess this was roughly Boyle’s age when he wrote the list).

I found a link providing life expectancy in Plymouth colony, New England for the mid seventeeth century indicating that a 40 year old man could expect to reach 71.2yrs.


Actuarial life tables from the USA published in 2006 show that a 40 year old man can expect to reach 77.6yrs.


I guess a little over 6 years isn’t bad but would Boyle have been impressed with this progress given we’ve had near three and a half centuries to achieve it?

And now lets get down and biblical:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away (Psalm 90)

Seeing as some think Moses might have written this, may I be just a little bit mischievous by asking whether he would have been impressed with this progress given we’ve had near three and a half millenia to achieve it?

Humphrey said...

Hi Courtney. The one point I would make is that the New England colonies of the mid seventeeth century was a reletively healthy place. If you compared todays life expectancy with that of London in the 1700s, or even another colony like those of the Chesapeake, it begins to look more impressive. H

godescalc said...

"alter of exalt imagination" - I'd hazard a guess that this should be "alter or exalt imagination".