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