Who Discovered Boyle’s Law?


Stigler’s Law is a half-joking principle of mathematics and scientific history. It says that scientific discoveries are never named for the person who discovered them. It’s named for the statistician Stephen Stigler, who asserted that the principle was discovered by the sociologist Robert K Merton.

If you study much scientific history you start to wonder if anything is named correctly. There are reasons why. Often it’s very hard to say exactly what the discovery is, especially if it’s something fundamental. Often the earliest reports of something are unclear, at least to later eyes. People’s attention falls on a person who did very well describing or who effectively publicized the discovery. Sometimes a discovery is just in the air, and many people have important pieces of it nearly simultaneously. And sometimes history just seems perverse. Pell’s Equation, for example, is named for John Pell, who did not discover it, did not solve it, and did not particularly advance our understanding of it. We seem to name it Pell’s because Pell had translated a book which included a solution of the problem into English, and Leonhard Euler mistakenly thought Pell had solved it.

The Carnot Cycle blog for this month is about a fine example of naming confusion. In this case it’s about Boyle’s Law. That’s one of the rules describing how gases work. It says that, if a gas is held at a constant temperature, and the amount of gas doesn’t change, then the pressure of the gas times its volume stays constant. Squeeze the gas into a smaller volume and it exerts more pressure on the container it’s in. Stretch it into a larger volume and it presses more weakly on the container.

Obvious? Perhaps. But it is a thing that had to be discovered. There’s a story behind that. Peter Mander explains some of its tale.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

5 thoughts on “Who Discovered Boyle’s Law?”

  1. Sadly, upon his death, Robert Boyle was buried in Grant’s Tomb, depriving Ulysses S. Grant of a proper funeral. President Grant, accompanied by equation translator John Pell, continues to roam the earth, squeezing gasses into ever smaller volumes, hoping that one day he will find a container with enough extra room to hold his rotting corpse.

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    1. I am amused, and yet, Robert Boyle’s actual burial spot is no less wondrous. According to Wikipedia, he’s buried in Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, a church which is in Trafalgar Square and not any field in particular. More: The crypt houses a café which hosts jazz concerts whose profits support the programs of the church.'' Fair enough. But then,the crypt is also home to the London Brass Rubbing Centre.” And “A life-sized marble statue of Henry Croft, London’s first pearly king, was moved to the crypt in 2002 from its original site at St Pancras Cemetery”, in what I suppose was a really giddy prank. Furthermore, twelve of its bells are now in the Swan Bells tower in Perth, Western Australia. And doesn’t that improve your day to hear?

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      1. It does. It makes me realize that no matter how ridiculous the stuff I make up is, reality has the power to be even more insane. No, wait, not “improve”. What’s the other thing?

        On a related note, it may interest you to know that St. Pancras, who lived in the 3rd century, is the patron saint of teenagers, having been martyred at age 15 for talking back to an Imperial centurion. Consequently, pranks such as moving statues, being pearly, having jazz concerts in a crypt, and rubbing brass are considered devotions to St. Pancras, asking him to intercede so that God will give them $150 sneakers, or possibly the latest iPhone.

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        1. Thank you so. And this is all so wonderful I hesitate to bring it up but …

          Saint Pancras is regarded as the second of the Ice Saints, a group of saints given that curious name because their feast days fall on the 11th through 13th of May.

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