Hobbes, Boyle, and the vacuum pump

Sometime in the late 1650s, Robert Boyle built an apparatus that removed the air from within a glass dome. The members of the newly-formed Royal Society promptly set about devising all manner of experiments to perform with the newfangled device. They placed candles, mercury barometers, and then – just as one might expect of unsupervised boys – living mice within the dome and watched what happened as a piston systematically drained the air away. (It is probably a good thing for the local fauna that the experimenters did not have a bigger air pump at their disposal.)

The effects of these experiments were easily seen, but controversies raged nonetheless over what was really going on. Did the device truly empty everything from the dome? Thomas Hobbes, Henry More, and others insisted that a pure vacuum is impossible, and that some sort of rarified matter must remain in the dome. Their reasons for asserting this so confidently are various. Some found the suggestion of a specific volume attached to no material thing unintelligible. Others found it ridiculous to believe that as Boyle expelled the air out of the dome, and nothing took its place, the volume of the universe would necessarily inflate by just that amount.

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About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in 3QD essays, Historical episodes. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hobbes, Boyle, and the vacuum pump

  1. Zujaja says:

    Thank you for this really illuminating and interesting piece! I think this is what my history of science professor wanted me to understand a few years ago when we discussed this historical debate, but it was never articulated to me as clearly or vividly as you have done so here. I first read this piece on 3QD and then luckily found your blog which I’ve now spent the better part of the last hour eagerly reading through. Anyhow, just wanted to express how much I am enjoying your writing and look forward to reading more!


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thanks so much!


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