Monday, 12 March 2018

Burn before reading

One of the most obvious of the many problems with the lazy science vs. religion stereotype is how many eminent scientists have also been exceptionally earnest in their faith. I knew Robert Boyle, perhaps the key founder of modern chemistry, was one of these, but until recently I didn't know the extent of this. He was decisive in the republication of the Irish-language New Testament in 1681-2, and of the first Irish-language edition of the Old Testament in 1685: the driving force behind the twin projects, and also their indispensable financial sponsor, sinking well over £300 and perhaps as much as £700 of his own money into them, not least because of his insistence that the books should be given away to those who would benefit the most.

Still, I was reading through his letters on this with a faint sense of disappointment, because none of his Irish correspondents seem to have the slightest awareness that this is a scientific giant they are dealing with. And then I find the following delightful letter from Boyle to Narcissus Marsh, the provost of Trinity College, Dublin, dated 1 August 1682:
I am troubled, and almost ashamed, that I must begin this letter with the acknowledgement of a disaster, that befel yours before it came to my hands: for it being brought yesterday from the post, not directly to me, but to a servant, that was then busied about the fire, to make a chemical experiment, I had ordered him to attend in my absence, he having laid it by for a while, a kindled coal unluckily lighted on the letter, and burned it quite thorough in that part, that contained (as I conjectured) some of the most important passages of it. ... I shall venture to answer what I guess to have been the main contents of it.*
In the genre of epistolary excuses, that one is hard to beat. And he will have smoothed over any disappointment, since he guessed - correctly - that the letter was asking him for more money, and so he sent it anyway.

*Robert Boyle, The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (ESTC T004460. London: for A. Millar, 1744), vol. V p. 611.

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