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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