I mostri di Boyle

La più antica rivista scientifica tuttora pubblicata sono le Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, il cui primo numero fu pubblicato il 6 marzo del 1665, 5 anni dopo la fondazione della Royal Society stessa. Benché Robert Boyle sia famoso soprattutto per la sua legge dei gas perfetti (“in condizioni di temperatura costante la pressione di un gas perfetto è inversamente proporzionale al suo volume, ovvero che il prodotto della pressione del gas per il volume da esso occupato è costante” – Wikipedia), l’autore irlandese sulle Philosophical Transactions ha scritto un po’ su tutto, dagli animali deformi alla salinità del mare.

Legge di Boyle


Il primo articolo di Boyle (riassunto dall’editor della rivista, Henry Oldenburg a partire da una lettera inviata dallo stesso Boyle) verteva su un vitello mostruoso trovato nell’utero di una mucca macellata. In un altro articolo (3 luglio 1665), Boyle si concentra sul caso di un puledro (di cui riporto sotto il disegno dello stesso Boyle) nato con un solo occhio, ma due cornee e due iridi. L’interesse di Boyle e degli altri filosofi naturali per la teratologia era mirato a comprendere le leggi dello sviluppo fetale normale. Boyle aveva scoperto che l’alcool etilico (“sppirito di vino”) aveva la proprietà di preservare i tessuti e questo gli consentì di studiare a suo agio la testa del puledro.

Boyle's Colt

the-scientist.com / Philosophical Transactions (1665-1678)

Ho tratto lo spunto da questo post da un articolo comparso su The Scientist, che riporto integralmente:

Boyle’s Monsters, 1665 | The Scientist

On March 6, 1665, Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the fledgling Royal Society of London, published the first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London—now the longest-running scholarly journal dedicated to science. Oldenburg selected the material for the journal from the voluminous correspondence addressed to him by members of the Royal Society, founded 5 years earlier, and often summarized the material himself. Among Oldenburg’s frequent correspondents was the highly esteemed “noble philosopher” Robert Boyle. Although the Anglo-Irish scientist is best known for Boyle’s Law of gases, his first contribution to Philosophical Transactions was actually Oldenburg’s summary of Boyle’s second-hand account of a deformed calf fetus discovered in Hampshire in southern England. Boyle’s writing appears often in Oldenburg’s issues of the journal: from pieces on abnormal fetal development and blood transfusions, to studies of the saltiness of the sea.

In the paper titled “An Account of a Very Odd Monstrous Calf,” Oldenburg described how a butcher, having killed his fatted cow, found her womb full and opened it. Inside was a calf, “whose hinder Leggs had no Joynts, and whose Tongue was, Cerberus-like, triple . . .” From its sternum sprang a strange, greenish, stony growth. By investigating such examples of development gone awry, scientists of the era aimed to learn more about normal development, says science historian Michael Hunter of Birkbeck, University of London. In a later issue, Boyle described a colt (shown at right) with a head that had developed only one huge eye connected to one optic nerve, but which contained two corneas, two pupils, and two irises. It had no nose, but an empty sac erupted from its forehead, which Boyle hypothesized was an aborted attempt to grow the missing nose.

Although descriptions of malformed animals may seem an odd diversion for Boyle—who by 1665 had already published his ideal gas law—his scientific career was wide-ranging and prolific, says Hunter. The story of the calf, probably selected for publication by Oldenburg, was followed by a brief description of Boyle’s seminal treatise, New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold, in which he first presented the concept of an “absolute cold.” Around that time, Boyle also demonstrated that “Spirit of Wine,” or ethyl alcohol, could be used as a preservative for tissues. By dunking the colt’s deformed head in alcohol, Boyle showed that animals “may be preserved long enough, to afford Anatomists the opportunity of examining them.” Alcohol remained the method of choice for specimen preservation until late in the 19th century.

Boyle was an extremely influential figure during the Royal Society’s early years, but the Society influenced him as well. Its mania for lists led Boyle to organize his experiments in list form in his famous treatise on cold. At the Society’s founding in 1660, Boyle drew up a seemingly fanciful list of 24 future scientific achievements, and managed to presage everything from scratch-and-sniff technology (“Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing”) to Kevlar body armor (“making Armor light and extremely hard”). In contrast, Boyle structured The Sceptical Chymist, his landmark book on the nature of matter, as a dialog among competing philosophers, and addressed New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects . . . to his nephew in letter form.

Michael Hunter – che trovate citato nell’articolo ed è il direttore del Robert Boyle Project del Birkbeck College della University of London – ha scritto una biografia di Boyle vincitrice di numerosi premi [Michael Hunter (2010). Boyle: Between God and Science. Yale: Yale University Press. 2010. p. 367. ISBN 978-0300169317].



Boyle è anche uno dei personaggi che affollano il “ciclo barocco” di Neal Stephenson (ne abbiamo parlato anche ieri). Ma, con buona pace di Stephenson, ha il ben più importante onore letterario di essere stato preso per il fondelli da Jonathan Swift (un altro irlandese!), che scrive una parodia delle Occasional Reflections upon Several Subjects di Robert Boyle nel suo A Meditation upon a Broomstick:

According to the Style and Manner of the Hon. Robert Boyle’s Meditations.

This single stick, which you now behold ingloriously lying in that neglected corner, I once knew in a flourishing state in a forest. It was full of sap, full of leaves, and full of boughs; but now in vain does the busy art of man pretend to vie with nature, by tying that withered bundle of twigs to its sapless trunk; it is now at best but the reverse of what it was, a tree turned upside-down, the branches on the earth, and the root in the air; it is now handled by every dirty wench, condemned to do her drudgery, and, by a capricious kind of fate, destined to make other things clean, and be nasty itself; at length, worn to the stumps in the service of the maids, it is either thrown out of doors or condemned to the last use—of kindling a fire. When I beheld this I sighed, and said within myself, “Surely mortal man is a broomstick!” Nature sent him into the world strong and lusty, in a thriving condition, wearing his own hair on his head, the proper branches of this reasoning vegetable, till the axe of intemperance has lopped off his green boughs, and left him a withered trunk; he then flies to art, and puts on a periwig, valuing himself upon an unnatural bundle of hairs, all covered with powder, that never grew on his head; but now should this our broomstick pretend to enter the scene, proud of those birchen spoils it never bore, and all covered with dust, through the sweepings of the finest lady’s chamber, we should be apt to ridicule and despise its vanity. Partial judges that we are of our own excellencies, and other men’s defaults!

But a broomstick, perhaps you will say, is an emblem of a tree standing on its head; and pray what is a man but a topsy-turvy creature, his animal faculties perpetually mounted on his rational, his head where his heels should be, grovelling on the earth? And yet, with all his faults, he sets up to be a universal reformer and corrector of abuses, a remover of grievances, rakes into every slut’s corner of nature, bringing hidden corruptions to the light, and raises a mighty dust where there was none before, sharing deeply all the while in the very same pollutions he pretends to sweep away. His last days are spent in slavery to women, and generally the least deserving; till, worn to the stumps, like his brother besom, he is either kicked out of doors, or made use of to kindle flames for others to warm themselves by.

Jonathan Swift



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