Object 5: Air-Pump
What: Public Lecture, part of History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects
When: Tuesday 10th May, 6:15 – 7:15pm
Robert Boyle used the air pump to arrive at his famous gas law. But what is the nature of scientific laws? In what sense do such laws ‘govern’ the phenomena? In this lecture, “The Air Pump and Laws of Nature”, philosopher of science Professor Steven French will consider these questions – and more! – in the context of Boyle’s experiments.
Below is a blogpost about the lecture written by PhD student Callum Duguid:
The fifth of the HPS in 20 Objects public lectures began with the Museum of the History of Science’s Director Mike Finn presenting 3 of the museum’s air pumps to the audience. In 1659, the first air pump to be designed for usage in scientific experiments in England was commissioned by Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and built by his assistant Robert Hooke (1635-1703). While a short demonstration followed of how each would have been used to create a vacuum within a small glass chamber, Finn (wisely) refrained from re-enacting the infamous demonstrations of the 17th and 18th centuries that involved depriving a living animal of air.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) questioned the import of Boyle’s experiments with the air pump, disagreeing with him on the very nature of knowledge acquisition. It was against this backdrop that philosopher of science Professor Steven French stepped in to help the audience engage with the question of what the nature of the scientific method is, and how best to think of the laws of nature that science describes.
It is natural to think of Boyle as an intellectual descendant of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). The vision of the scientific method that these men had was one of empirical testing and careful observation. Science was to discover matters of fact by inference from the observations of experimental results. From this, a theory could be built up that best fit the available data. We might contrast this with the ‘Eureka’ view of science, perhaps characterised best by Albert Einstein (1879-1955). On this account, theoreticians come up with theories of the world and it is up to experimentalists to find out if the data fits the theory.
Of course, as French pointed out, the truth of the matter is more complex than this simple dichotomy. We cannot perform experiments without having at least some theory, or we wouldn’t have any idea what we were looking to find. Similarly, even Einstein relied on thought experiments in order to develop his theories of relativity.
The latter half of the lecture was concerned with the nature of scientific laws, the most famous example of which is likely Einstein’s formula of mass-energy equivalence: . Laws are standardly taken to be universal, robust, possessed of some necessity, and capable of governing phenomena.
But they are not always thought to have these properties. Boyle himself thought that laws, including his ideal gas law, could vary across the universe and hence would not be universally applicable. Further, the models used in science lie! Models often include various idealisations and abstractions, and ‘de-idealisation’ does not always look possible. Continuing a theme introduced in the fourth of these lectures by Juha Saatsi, French pointed out that it can be difficult to justify being realists about parts of our theories that we know are false.
The notion that laws govern has also come into question. Inspired by the writings of David Hume (1711-1776), modern day Humeans accuse this ‘governance’ of being nothing more than theological baggage, carried over from a time when it was assumed that all laws of nature were laid down by God. Instead, they offer a suggestion that we understand laws to be the simplest and most informative summaries of patterns in the world.
While the instruments of modern-day science are considerably more intricate and powerful than the air pumps of Boyle’s day, many of the issues they raise about the philosophy of science remain the same. How best to understand the nature of laws and their relationship to the scientific method continues to be a topic of debate.