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No. 350:
Boyle's Lab Assistants

Today, we meet an early scientist and his assistant. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Author Steven Shapin quotes the famous 17th-century scientist Robert Boyle: Boyle complained about gentleman scientists who wouldn't get their hands dirty in the lab. He accused them of "effeminate squeamishness." By then, the experiments of would-be scientists were quite commonly done by their assistants.

Boyle was well-known in the new age of science. Born 15 years before Galileo died, he was a major inheritor of Galileo's new experimental outlook. But when we ask how he did business, a surprising answer emerges out of historical obscurity.

Boyle makes only fleeting reference to help in his lab. We read about "lusty and dexterous" fellows who operated his air pumps. We find him telling an assistant to "proceed more warily" after the fellow almost killed himself doing one of Boyle's tests. So Boyle certainly did use assistants, and he used them heavily. Indeed, we smell an unsettling sanctimony when Boyle says it's a sign of Christian piety for scientists to be drudges and underlings in the search for God's truth.

Two of Boyle's assistants are well known today. Robert Hooke was one. The other was the French scientist and inventor Denis Papin. Papin invented, of all things, the pressure cooker. Out of that work he set down the principles of the new steam engines. Boyle actually mentioned Papin in the paper. Not only did he credit Papin with making inferences he didn't need to check, he also credited him with having written the paper.

That concession was not typical of the times, and it bespoke an unusual fairness on Boyle's part. In the 17th century the right of publication came from the scientist's authority. No matter who ran the tests -- even who wrote the words; what did matter was that the story was being told under his authority.

Today, such behavior is both moral and professional anathema. Yet the practice survives in altered form. Many scientists say to students and professional helpers, "If you join my group, do my work, and write my papers, then my glory will touch you."

We pay a twofold price for that. We lose historical orientation. The scientific community itself becomes muddled about what it's done. The second price is even greater. We can only subdelegate routine work. Working through assistants, we can do no more than solve problems; we cannot create new science. The system of servitude fails utterly when we need new ideas.

Boyle was the exemplar of a new scientific establishment. I hope he would have been pleased that, 200 years later, it is his assistant whom I celebrate. Papin died in obscurity; but it was he who set the steam engine in motion to drive our modern world.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Shapin, T., The Invisible Technician. American Scientist, Vol. 77, No 6, 1989, pp. 554-563.

Photo by John Lienhard

Denis Papin as he appears on the eaves of the Louvre holding a steam piston in one hand