Boyle’s Air-Pump

(See the wiki.)

From 1844-ish, Robert Boyle (1627-91), alchemist and natural philosopher, was among band of inquirers known as the “Invisible College” (later the Royal Society of London), who devoted themselves to the cultivation of Bacon’s “new philosophy” (Novum Organum [1620]): the Baconian method of inductive reasoning (by which a “phenomenal nature,” e.g., heat, is reduced to a “form nature,” or cause that makes things hot), though he would never have admitted to being a student of any person or school, taking himself for a experimentalist par excellence. He relied on the documentation of first-hand observation of phenomena in the closed space of the laboratory, rather than hypothesis or calculation, as in the “Atomical” and Cartesian systems.

Reading in 1657 of Otto von Guericke’s air-pump, Boyle set himself, with the assistance of Robert Hooke, to devise improvements in its construction. The result was the “machina Boyleana” or “Pneumatical Engine,” finished in 1659, with which he began a series of experiments on the properties of air, an account of which was published as New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (Made, for the Most Part, in a New Pneumatical Engine) (1660). He describes 43 experiments on the effect of air on various phenomena: the effects of “rarified” air on combustion, magnetism, sound, and barometers, and the effects of increased air pressure on various substances. He lists two experiments on living creatures: “Experiment 40,” which tested the ability of insects to fly under reduced air pressure, and “Experiment 41,” which demonstrated the reliance of living creatures on air for their survival (see the Wright image below).

(Among Boyle’s critics was the Jesuit Franciscus Linus [1595–1675], and it was while answering his objections that Boyle first proposed the law that the volume of a gas varies inversely to the pressure of the gas, the law that has taken his name.)

For Bruno Latour, Boyle’s innovation was to rely on a “parajudicial” metaphor (rather than logical, mathematical or rhetorical method), whereby

credible, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, the matter of fact, even if they do not know its true nature.

What counts here is

not . . . these gentlemen’s opinion [a doxa, strictly speaking], but rather the observation of a phenomenon produced artificially in the closed and protected space of a laboratory. (We Have Never Been Modern [1991; Harvard UP, 1993] 18)

In effect, then, as Donna Haraway has suggested, the witnesses become “invisible” and “transparent”; but, in fact, “[v]ision requires an instrument of vision; an optics is a politics of positioning,” i.e., the good gentlemen bearing witness aren’t sitting on their invisible hands (“Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature [Routledge, 1991] 193 [183-203]). As Joseph Wright’s representation of Experiment 41 shows, affect positions the witnesses—man, woman and child alike in the enlarged socius of the late eighteenth century—vis-à-vis the object under examination.

Joseph Wright, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768)

This laboratory [L. workroom] is a new world: a designed micro-environment open to examination, a “theatre of proof”—not unlike a classroom, perhaps (Latour 18). And it is not an inside, an epistemological low pressure zone, of which society and politics are the outside that locate—or press upon—it, because “[n]o science can exit from the network of its practice” (ibid., 23). It is a microcosm where science and politics mingle—in the form of the quasi-objects of culture. That science and politics can be kept apart is the pretense of modernity, viz . . .

Thus, Boyle gives us a repertoire for speaking about nature (as constructed in the laboratory): “experiment,” “fact, “evidence” and “colleagues”—as Hobbes does for culture, i.e., politics (as embodied in the Leviathan): “representation,” “sovereign,” “contract,” “property” and “citizens” (ibid., 25).


For Peter Sloterdijk, the air-pump might well have whispered something more sinister (see Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patton [2002; Semiotext[e], 2009; see “Airquakes” from Sphären]). In “Air,” Latour summarises Sloterdijk’s argument that chemical warfare (“military climatology”), which united terrorism, product design and environmental thinking, ushered in the age of “atmoterrorism” on 22 April 1915 (Terror 19, 23):

[A]ir has been made explicit; air has been reconfigured; it is now part of an air-conditioning system that makes our life possible.

Latour could have argued that this episteme was ushered in—or announced, at least—by Boyle 350 years earlier.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s