Friday, April 22, 2011

The 24 wishes of Robert Boyle

In 1662, the scientist Robert Boyle scribbled down a wish list of 24 scientific achievements in his notebook that he would have liked to have seen. Boyle is of course, then originator of the famous “Boyle’s Law” that relates pressure and volume in a gas, and author of The Sceptical Chymist, the book that triggered modern chemistry.  The list was recently put on display by Britain’s Royal Society as part of its 350th  anniversary celebrations.   How are we doing on his dream (see inset)?

Figure 1:  The list can also be viewed at (look for Volume 8), a collection of images of Boyle’s handwritten documents.
1)    The Prolongation of Life
2)    The Recovery of Youth, or at least some of the Marks of It, as New Teeth, New Hair Colour’d as in Youth
3)    The Art of Flying
4)    The Art of Continuing Long under water and the Exercise of Functioning Freely There
5)    The Cure of Wounds at a Distance
6)    The Cure of Diseases at a Distance or at least by Transplantation
7)    The Attaining Gigantick Dimensions
8)    The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only
9)    The Acceleration of the Production of Things out of Seed
10) The Transmutation of Metalls
11) The Making of Glass Malleable
12) The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals and Vegetables
13) The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums
14) The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses
15) The Making Armor Light and Extremely Hard
16) The Practicable and Certain Way of Finding Longitudes
17) The Use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to Watches
18) Potent Druggs to alter or Exalt Imagination, Waking, Memory, and other functions, and appease pain, procure innocent sleep, harmless dreams, etc
19) A Ship to Sail with All Winds and a Ship Not to be Sunk
20) Freedom from necessity for much sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and What Happens in Mad-Men
21) Pleasing Dreams and Physicall Exercises by the Egyptian  Electuary and by the Fungus mentioned by the French author
22) Great Strength and Agility of Body Exemplify’d by That of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall Persons
23) Varnishes Perfumable by Rubbing
24) A Perpetuall Light

Almost three hundred and fifty years past the appearance of this list, it is interesting to take stock.  Of the twenty-four items, we can claim success in fourteen.  For three we can claim partial credit, while the balance remains unfulfilled.  Fascinating, regardless, has been the meandering course of science and engineering that led to these developments: each wish unfolding past breakthroughs and breathtaking disappointments, amalgamated across a tapestry of human competitiveness, inspiration, and eccentricity.

The prolongation of life and the art of flying would have had a place on any carefully considered list and here we can claim victory. The average lifespan in 17th century England was around 35-40 years, skewed by high child mortality rates. Regrettably, there are places in the world where similar numbers still hold true, yet global average life expectancy at birth stands today at around 67 years due to improvements in medical science, nutrition and hygiene.  Boyle refers to flying as an art and not a science, though it was the Wright brothers use of aeronautical engineering principles and the analysis of experimental data from wind tunnel experiments that allowed them, in 1904-5, to demonstrate what others had not been able to earlier—powered flight that could be robustly controlled.

Abundancy of food was on Boyles’ mind with “the acceleration of production of things out of seed”.  About one hundred and forty years later, in 1798, the political economist Malthus made a famous argument in a 134 page essay: since the human population will grow at a faster rate than food production,  the world would quickly converge to the catastrophic situation of a population kept in check by food scarcity.
Malthus’ extrapolation proved erroneous as he failed to foresee innovations in technology that would keep the world ahead of this catastrophe.  However, the essay and its notion of competition and tension that arise from limited resources, was deeply influential in an unintended manner—it inspired Darwin, by his own account, to envision his idea of natural selection.

A series of maritime disasters caused by ships unable to accurately determine longitudinal position at sea, led the British government to declare one of the earliest government funded research initiatives in 1712, with the establishment of the British Longitude Committee. The challenge lay in building a watch that could keep time accurately at sea, while weathering the rough conditions of movement, corrosion, and temperature variations on a ship.  Keeping a reference time to the port of departure (whose longitude is known), and comparing this time to the local noon on any given day at sea (when the sun is at its highest point), allows a simple means of establishing longitude.   What ensued was a fascinating chronicle of developments in watch making over the next half a century—a saga of stubborn innovation, rivalry, and bitterness; leading to the successful fabrication of a five inch diameter “sea watch” by one John Harrison that accurately estimated longitudinal position on a trip from England to Jamaica in 1761.  By the early 19th century, the marine chronometer was an expensive, but available tool on ships (Captain Cook used one), fulfilling The Practicable and Certain Way of Finding Longitudes and The Use of Pendulums at Sea and in Journeys, and the Application of it to Watches.

There is much good news to report in the making of armor light and extremely hard, and not limited to armor alone: to impart modern relevance, it makes sense to interpret this in the larger context of new metals for engineering applications.  Only 12 of the 86 known metals had been discovered by Boyles’ time, and of these, iron, copper, zinc, lead and tin were in common industrial use.  The emergence of two metallurgies, those of steel and aluminum, has changed the industrial world since.  In Boyle’s time, almost all armor was made of iron and steel, but the quality was uneven.  It was only in the 1850’s that a new industrial process for steelmaking, called the Bessemer process, allowed the production of steel of consistent quality.  Stainless steel arrived in 1913, popularly, but disputably credited to the metallurgist Harry Brearley.  There is a story of how Mr. Brearley, charged with making hardier gun barrels, was experimenting with different steel compositions and realized one day that an earlier experiment, consigned to the scrap heap, had not rusted.  Such serendipity is not uncommon in the history of materials science.  The second metal, aluminum, though plentiful in the earth’s crust, was difficult to extract from its ore and remained more expensive than gold until the late 1800s.  It took a new electrolytic method of extraction, invented independently by two unknown (at that time) young scientists Hall and Heroult, for aluminum to be cheaply available.  Light in weight, its alloys revolutionized the aircraft industry. 

Varnishes perfumable by rubbing, is one of the more quizzical wishes—it certainly does not scale in importance to Boyle’s other, grander challenges.  But if we ascribe this to a bit of vanity on his part, then certainly something like the scratch and sniff product can fit this bill, where small amounts of perfume are sealed in tiny, hollow, polymer spheres.  Rubbing punctures these spheres, releasing the aroma.

Electric incandescent lighting turned The perpetuall light into a reality in the late nineteenth century. Sir Humphrey Davy demonstrated the first electric light in 1807 by passing an electric current to heat up a platinum wire. It then took almost an entire century to make this a practical reality, since it was difficult to make the glowing filaments last.  Incandescent lighting however is vastly inefficient: less than a few percent of the energy used actually translates into visible light. Perhaps the 21st century will leave behind a new legacy for the perpetual light; the light emitting diode or LED, a device that emerged in the second half of the 20th century.  Already a household object, most traffic lights and many commercial billboards are built with these, and they offer the promise for energy efficient lighting for wider scale commercial and domestic use in the future.

Boyle was himself an alchemist and he was following the alchemist’s dream in placing The Transmutation of Metals on his list. Seduced by the lure of turning base metals into gold, and attracting eminent scientists such as Newton, alchemy remained in practice till about the 18th century.  The transmutation of elements is indeed possible and was demonstrated in 1919 when the scientist Ernest Rutherford converted nitrogen to an isotope of oxygen by bombarding nitrogen gas with high energy atomic particles. This is however a costly and impractical process, and the news would probably only be of academic interest to the alchemists.

Pleasing Dreams and Physicall Exercises by the Egyptian  Electuary (medicine powder) and by the Fungus mentioned by the French author , contains curious references pointing to hallucinogens.  If Boyle could have heard the rendition of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, by the Beatles, it is likely that he would put a green checkmark against this particular wish.  Similarily, sleeping pills, pain killers and mood altering drugs bring to closure wish numbers 18 and 20, the ability to control sleeping habits and numb pain.

The seventeenth century was a time rich with innovation in the building of telescopes.  Jan Lippershey had invented the glass lens based refractor telescope in 1608, and Galileo a year later used such a scope to discover the four moons of Jupiter. Lenses of that era, with their surfaces ground to a spherical shape, were flawed, created distorted images.  Part of the reason, known at the time, was that the lens could not bring together a parallel set of rays to focus into a tight spot.  Much effort was therefore spent in determining the exact shape of a lens surface that would eliminate this particular aberration, till Rene’ Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician, showed in 1637 that it needed to be hyperbolic. Perhaps this partly contributed to wish number 14: The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.  It was just a decade later that Isaac Newton  would show white light to be a spectrum of different colors, or wavelengths.  This was soon recognized as also contributing to the lens distortions and after a while it became clear that a reflecting parabolic mirror lens could eliminate both types of aberrations.  It would be another 60 years till the English mathematician John Hadley was able to develop a reliable method to grind out a parabolic mirror in 1721.  The telescope made by Hadley was only a few feet in length, yet it almost rivaled in quality the images from a 120 foot long  telescope made by Huygens using the earlier glass lens based technology.

The art of continuing long under water and functioning freely there, was a vision for many, including Leonardo Da Vinci, who had drawn up blueprints for the design of a submarine more than a hundred years earlier. David Bushnell, a graduate of Yale, built one of the first functional military submarines in 1775, the Turtle, with a human powered propeller and a water ballast for raising or lowering it (a method still in practice).  The development of the submarine, and later, scuba diving equipment, rounds out this list of Boyle’s entries that have come to fruition.

For three of the items, one can claim partial success. The age of practical, transoceanic travel with steam-powered boats began in 1838 when two passenger steamships, The Great Western and The Sirius made the transatlantic voyage from England to New York.  However, an unsinkable ship does not yet have a practical embodiment, leading to only partial credit for A Ship to Sail with All Winds and a Ship Not to be Sunk With

While it would be a stretch to claim that we can orchestrate the recovery of youth, preventive medications like those that control blood pressure or age related degeneration can certainly slow down decay processes in the body.  Boyle may have known about blood circulation in the body from his contemporary, the English doctor William Harvey, but would have been unaware of the intricacies of blood pressure.  These studies evolved in the 19th century, with many pioneering contributions from the English doctor, Dr. Frederick Akbar Mahomed, on the measurement of blood pressure, its relation to kidney disease, the vascular system, and the process of aging.  He was—in an interesting twist—a grandson of Sake Din Mahomet, believed to have started the first Indian restaurant in Britain in 1812, The Hindostanee Coffee House.  Blood pressure control was just one of the earlier “maintenance” medications to have gained universal acceptance.  Today, the regimen of pills have become part of everyday life for so many, not really reversing the vector of time on the body, but certainly feathering the brakes to slow things down a half step.

The cure of diseases at a distance or at least by transplantation raises a few questions.  In the 17th century, courses of action for treating diseases varied from herbal treatments, bloodletting with leeches, to the Hippocratic maxim of letting nature take its course as is described by Dr. Thomas Sydenham, an eminent 17th century doctor and friend of Robert Boyle, "I have consulted my patients' safety and my own reputation most effectually by doing nothing at all." In seeking a remote form of attending to the patient, could Boyle have intuited some form of radiation treatment, though it would be another nearly 250 years until x-ray radiation and its effects on the body was discovered?  Cures by “transplantation” are confusing.  Did Boyle intend moving the disease from the patient to another host, in the celebrated manner that the Mughal emperor Babur, over a century earlier, was reputed to have willed his cure on his ailing son Humayun by allowing the disease to possess him instead, resulting in his demise and Humayun’s survival?  Or can we allow for a more liberal interpretation, suggesting that Boyle foresaw solid organ transplants, first conducted successfully in 1954 with a kidney transplant between twins in a Boston hospital by an American doctor who refined his method working on dogs.  The uncertainty in interpretation leads one to give only partial credit.

There remain seven items, where it would be fair to state, we have not achieved success.  Continuing along the theme of Boyle’s interest in remote medical treatments, is the curing of wounds at a distance .  In today’s language, we would speak about remotely speeding up the biochemical reactions required to heal a wound, perhaps by implanting a soldier with medication that could be released by wireless means or putting on an ultrasonic tourniquet that clots arterial blood.  We cannot claim victory here yet.

The Making of Glass Malleable remains a difficult task.  We now know why materials are what they are—brittle or malleable.  Boyle and his peers did not know that glass is a compound principally of the elements silicon and oxygen, the two most abundant elements in the earth’s crust, each silicon surrounded by a quartet of oxygen forming a little tetrahedral cage, the material an amorphous collection of these cages, each cage slightly cocked with respect to the next one.  Indeed it would be another 100 years till oxygen, and yet another roughly 50 years till silicon would be discovered.  Glass is of course, malleable at high temperatures (this allows glass blowing) by inserting additives that break the link between the cages, but a glass that is malleable at room temperatures, that can be hammered out on an anvil like a piece of metal without compromising itself, is yet outside of our capabilities.

Boyle’s extension of transmutation to cover Mineralls, Animals and Vegetables, a universal alchemy where all things could be mapped onto others, undermining, effectively, the value of one over another, is not possible today.  Neither is the emulation of fish without engines, an example of what in today’s language could be called biomimicry, a subject that we are just beginning to probe.

The Liquid Alkaest and Other dissolving Menstruums, the search for a universal solvent came straight from Robert Boyle the alchemist, using the jargon of that practice.  A universal solvent, if it were to be true to its capabilities, would have no vessel that could store it.  No such solvent exists today and if one were to recast this entry fashioned in the trends of today, it would be the search for a universal solvent that is cheap, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly.

Crafted at a time when great physical strength was of value in one’s daily life, it is questionable whether attaining gigantick dimensions and Great Strength and Agility of Body serves any beneficial purpose today outside of athletics. Human beings are larger today, thought the effects cannot be described as either gigantic or great.  Giant machinery  and robotics have obviated this need: perhaps in this sense Boyle’s wish has been indirectly met.

What did Boyle miss?  For one, his list is conspicuous by the absence of a computing machine. The need for automated calculations was certainly felt at that time.  The method of logarithms had been introduced in the first part of the 17th century and in 1627, Kepler was able to use this new method in producing the Rudolphine tables, an accurate listing of the planetary positions.  Well known 17th century scientists such as Leibniz, Pascal, and Schikard were already trying to build mechanical computers.  Boyle himself, while modest about assessing his own skills in pure mathematics, certainly used it for calculations relating to his “mechanical experiments”.  The omission of a computing machine from the list is thus surprising.  Advanced weaponry appears to be a second, important omission, one that shaped much of the world in the centuries to come--indeed Boyle seemed more concerned with protection (tougher armor, healing of wounds) than aggression.  And finally, while seeking better means of transport through two media--air and water, he ignored the third.  He was, one would assume, not unsatisfied with the mode of transportation closest to his doorstep—that by land.

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