Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold  



Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691) was born in Ireland to one of the wealthiest families in the country. He was the youngest of fourteen children and attended Eton. Boyle was one of the first experimental scientists to ever study the cold. He was a member of the Royal Society in the UK in the late 1600s and he studied physics, chemistry, agriculture, and even alchemy – believing that he might be able to understand enough about the composition of materials that he could turn lead into gold. But he also performed experiments on cold -- indeed he was the first scientist to make theories about the cold in over a thousand years.

Most people just accepted ideas about the cold that had been believed since Aristotle’s day – that the source of all cold in the universe was from some primary cold or primum frigidum. Some, including Aristotle, said that the primum fridigum, the source of all cold was water. Boyle performed experiments to disprove this by showing that materials that had no water in them, like silver and gold, could still become cold. Aristotle had also said that heated water froze faster than water at room temperature. Boyle discovered this was only true in very specific circumstances – he tested it by putting pots of hot, cold, and tepid water outside overnight in the cold and showed that the rate at which they froze didn’t depend on the initial temperature.

Boyle also studied things like how water expanded when it froze, and how materials like salt could intensify cold – all through experiments, unlike previous philosophers who simply tried to “think” their way through problems. By using experiments, Boyle truly began studying the cold in the same rigorous scientific way that scientists do today.

Boyle - young ; sitting ; chair
Boyle - Middle Age

Photo Credits:

Photo 1 - AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives
Photo 2 - AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives
Photo 3 - 'The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle', courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

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