Feeling the Cold?: Robert Boyle’s Experiments with Temperature

This <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Shannon_Portrait_of_the_Hon_Robert_Boyle.jpg">portrait</a> of Boyle by Johann Kerseboom is owned by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Will Brown.

This portrait of Boyle by Johann Kerseboom is owned by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Will Brown.

The seventeenth century was a crucial turning point for chemistry; it marked the beginning of the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry and the scientific method. Robert Boyle (1627–1691) is widely considered to be one of the period’s most influential chemists. Boyle made two important contributions to the field: he convincingly established chemistry as an important and distinct branch of natural philosophy, and he developed the experimental method as it relates to chemistry. He is best known for defining the inverse relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas—what is now known as Boyle’s Law. One of Boyle’s lesser known works is New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold, in which he attempts to deal with the nature of temperature.

Illustration from <a href =http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21343495500001021><i>New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold</i></a> by Robert Boyle, QC 271 .B69 1683, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Illustration from New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold by Robert Boyle, QC 271 .B69 1683, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The work was originally published in 1664 with the second edition issued in 1683. A copy of the second edition is held by the Burns Library. In New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold, part of Boyle’s challenge is to prove the difference between the subjective perception of one’s senses and the objective perception of a thermometer. He showed that if your hand was previously in cold water and then placed in water of ambient temperature, it would feel warm; conversely, if your hand was in hot water and then placed in water of ambient temperature, the water would feel cool when, in fact, it was the same temperature the whole time as the thermometer would corroborate. Boyle and his contemporaries saw heat and cold as separate entities. He observed that living organisms could regulate their temperatures: they can cool themselves in the heat and warm themselves in the cold. He interpreted these observations to mean that organisms produce heat and cold. Boyle concludes:

[W]hen a Body, wherein either [heat or cold] resides, happens to be surrounded by other Bodies, wherein the contrary Quality is predominant, the besieg’d Quality by retiring to the innermost parts of that which it possesses, and thereby recollecting its forces, and as it were animating itself to a vigorous defence, is intended or increased in its degree, and so becomes able to resist an adversary, that would otherwise easily destroy it.

Here, Boyle draws a number of false conclusions. He states that heat and cold can destroy each other if they are mixed together—a reasonable conclusion based on his assumption that heat and cold are separate entities. The heat or cold—whichever is being attacked—withdraws to within the body so as to defend itself against the opposing extreme. This explanation is now known to be false. Boyle’s biggest obstacle was seeing heat and cold as separate entities. According to modern thermodynamics, temperature is the measure of the average energy of a substance. The more energy a substance possesses, the higher the temperature and the hotter it feels. Cold is simply a lack of energy, a lack of heat. When two objects of different temperatures come in contact with one another, the object with more energy transfers some of its energy to the object with less energy until they reach equilibrium.

Title page from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21343495500001021"><i>New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold</i></a> by Robert Boyle, QC 271 .B69 1683, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Title page from New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold by Robert Boyle, QC 271 .B69 1683, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In regard to the provenance of this particular volume, I have some information. The Burns Library’s copy second edition, which was issued in 1683. Ownership for this copy is unknown until the Mathematical Society in the London parish of Spitalfields acquired it, but the Mathematical Society in Spitalfields was founded in 1717 and was therefore not the original owner. The boards are stamped, both front and back, with “MATHEML SOCIETY,” and there is a “Mathematical Society, Spitalfields” stamp on the title page and the penultimate page. In 1845, the society dissolved and transferred its 3000 volume library and remaining members to the Royal Astronomical Society. The title page has a “Royal Astronomical Society” stamp above which is written “sold by” and below which is written “1951 Aug. 3 / E.W.” After the Royal Astronomical Society sold the book-copy to an unknown party in 1951, ownership remains uncertain until Boston College acquired the volume from a rare books dealer in 2009.

If you would like to peruse this volume, visit the John J. Burns Library Reading Room.  For more information, contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.  If you’d like to learn more about early scientific works in the Burns Library’s collections, read this blog post about a previous exhibit of scientific works at Burns.

  • Christopher Petroff, BC’15 & Student in Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2014 Early Printed Books: History and Craft

This blog post comes from the Early Printed Books: History and Craft class, which was taught by BC History Professor Virginia Reinburg in Fall 2014. 

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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