Richard Smith: What is science for?

richard_smith_2014Robert Boyle, Ireland’s most famous scientist, thought that the first aim of science was to develop practical applications to make life better. Earlier in his life he wrote in ecstatic terms about how science should glorify God. Boyle’s thinking on the functions of science underpinned the discussions at the Robert Boyle Summer School held in Youghal and Lismore in Ireland in June.

The philosophy of Robert Boyle

Boyle, who is known as the father of modern chemistry, was born in Lismore Castle on the banks of the Blackwater River in 1627. His father, Richard Boyle, arrived in Ireland with £27 and rose to become one of the richest men in Ireland and Britain and was ennobled as the Earl of Cork; he was involved in the transfer of lands confiscated from rebellious Irish chieftains to English settlers. Some of the speakers at the school referred to Richard Boyle as a “carpetbagger,” with lingering and justified resentment. Richard Boyle took over extensive lands that had been gifted to Walter Raleigh, but the great benefit of Richard Boyle’s carpet-bagging was that it left his son free to pursue a life in science without having to worry about earning a living. (Another benefit was his role in developing Lismore Castle, which is now owned by the Duke of Devonshire and has seven acres of exquisite gardens. It has 15 bedrooms, and you can rent it for £30 000 a week with staff and food included.)

Boyle’s greatest book, said Michael Hunter, a leading Boyle scholar, was Some Considerations Touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy (pictured left), which described three categories in which science could be useful: physic (medicine as we now call it); the “mechanical trades,” activities like agriculture; and “the accommodation of life,” activities like food preparation, shoemaking, and the production of dyes, paints, and perfumes. The book includes a vast number of examples in each category. Boyle believed that if he could make “a better cheese” then he would be a “true scientist.” His book emphasised the importance of experiment as the way to scientific truth. Hunter pointed out that despite Boyle’s emphasis on the practical, he had a patronising attitude to practical people like gardeners and milkmaids.

Included in Some Considerations Touching the Usefulness of Experimental Natural Philosophy, first published in 1663 with a second part in 1671, is a desiderata ( or wish list) that includes making ships unsinkable, prolonging human life, rejuvenating teeth and hair, achieving human flight, and making perfect lenses. Hunter argued, however, that Boyle accomplished more in his writings than in real life in that many of his projects, including the desalination of sea water, failed.

Although known now primarily as a chemist, Boyle was very active in medicine, calling for more science in medicine. He was critical of both of the two medical schools of the time: the followers of Galen using bloodletting and purging, and the followers of Paracelsus using chemical treatments. Boyle was so scathing of the safety of some of doctors’ treatments that he suppressed his writings for fear of causing offence. He did, however, publish treatises on blood and mineral waters “By Way of Letter to a Friend” (which I take to be an early blog) and a book of medical recipes in which he categorised the recipes by degree of efficacy as A, B, and C.

There was much discussion at the summer school of the importance of funding. It becomes increasingly difficult in Ireland and in the UK to get funding for research driven by curiosity in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; and funding for research in the humanities is disappearing altogether.

The Parsons: a family of geniuses

It was wealth that allowed the flowering of the genius of the Parsons family, the Earls of Rosse, who lived and still live at Birr Castle in the centre of Ireland. Alicia Clements, herself an engineer and the daughter of the seventh Earl of Rosse, described the achievements of four generations of the family, beginning with the First Earl, who was essentially a pirate and had connections with the Boyle family. His son, the Second Earl Laurence Parson, did remarkable engineering at his castle, creating a lake and building what might be the world’s first suspension bridge. He opposed the Act of Union in 1802, and instead of sending his four sons to public schools in England educated them to be engineers and to believe that “anything was possible.”

His oldest son, John, was a mathematical genius but died aged 26.  His second son, William, became the Third Earl of Rosse and had the wisdom to marry a rich heiress, Mary Field, who was unusual for the time in being a woman who had been educated. William is famous for having built the Leviathan of Parsonstown, which when finished in 1845 was the world’s largest telescope. It had a six foot mirror that weighed four tons and needed 60 men to move it. The telescope was positioned on walls 50 feet high, and the astronomer sat on a platform 40 to 50 feet in the air. He had to sit there in the pitch dark and often in winter, when the skies were clearest but temperatures were freezing.

But just as the telescope was finished after years of effort in 1845, the Irish potato famine struck. The Parsons spent the next three years in famine relief, and the telescope was not used until 1848. William was able to see spiral nebula, which had not been seen before, and perched on his platform in the dark he managed to make accurate drawings.

William believed in sharing everything, his findings and his telescope. People from across the world, including Charles Babbage and the son of Napoleon, came to Birr to see the Leviathan. William was made a fellow of the Royal Society as early as 1831, and his wife became one of the world’s earliest photographers, sharing her work with Fox Talbot. Another relative, Mary Ward, was the first woman to publish on microscopy. She was also sadly the first woman to be killed in a car accident when she fell off and under a steam driven car.

The Fourth Earl of Ross carried on the family tradition, calculating the temperature on the moon, showing that it was not freezing, as everybody else thought it was. He was eventually proved right when the Americans landed on the moon. But people thought him mad; indeed, said Clements, the whole family was thought mad by other landowners with their fascination with engineering and science, their insistence on teaching their children practical skills at home, and their encouragement of women to participate in science.

The final genius in the family was Charles Parsons, the youngest son of the Third Earl, who developed the steam turbine, which went into power stations. He used it as well to power a small boat, the Turbinaria, which at 34 knots per hour went faster than any other boat. His engines were included in all the big boats of the time, including the Titanic and the Lusitania, and he made a fortune for the family.

This extraordinarily talented family used science for both highly practical ends and for discoveries that had no immediate practical value. They show how children brought up in workshops and educated in the sciences can do remarkable things. They, like Boyle, were religious and saw their achievements as glorifying God. These were times when science and theology were not so far apart, but Jim Malone, professor of medical physics at Trinity in Dublin, regretted that hard borders between science and religion impoverish both and, now, impede learning.

Science and theology

Malone described three cases where he thought science and theology might benefit by learning from each other.

Many researchers have studied whether intercessory prayer, conducted remote from the person being prayed for, might benefit the sick, but, Malone said, the two largest and best studies, with hard clinical endpoints, showed no benefit from being prayed for. Indeed, some studies show that those who know they are being prayed for do badly. These results do not mean that prayer is pointless, but they do suggest that such prayers for the sick will not affect clinical outcomes.

Malone was brought up as a Catholic and remains so culturally. But he described it as a “sin management system” that offered a “priority booking service for heaven.” Central to the Catholic and most of the Protestant reformed churches is a narrative about redemption. This asserts that the reason God incarnated his son as a human who died on the cross, was to appease the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This brought about death, suffering, and sin. Yet evolution requires death, argued Malone. It is actually essential for humans to become what they are today, and thereby undermines the redemption narrative. Malone pointed out that Eastern Orthodox Christians do not subscribe so strongly to the redemption narrative as the reason for the incarnation. He described as well how Franciscans have a different emphasis with strong respect and reverence for nature.  A sense of mystery is important in both religion and science.

Ever since he saw it in 1989, Malone has been fascinated by a painting (pictured left) showing the physicist Erwin Schrödinger in the hand of God. Schrödinger lived in Dublin for about 15 years, and the picture was painted by John Lighton Synge, a mathematician and nephew of the great playwright. The painting shows a tiny Schrödinger seated at a lighted desk in the hand of God who looks down protectively on Schrödinger. A mathematical formula links them, and both God and Schrödinger are depicted against a starry sky. For Malone, the picture shows that a contemplative approach is essential in science and religion. “Sitting quietly before mystery and treating it with respect” is a way to do science.

The need for more humility in science

Gaston Meskens, a theoretical physicist turned ethicist with a strong interest in climate change, argued that scientists should show more humility. Science is a social process embedded in society, and it often finds itself in tension with science and politics. Scientists have seen themselves as experts handing truths to politicians and the public, but, he argued, they should take a more holistic, transdisciplinary, and participatory role.

He used the example of scientists advising on alcohol. They had somewhat arrogantly set safe limits for alcohol consumption when they did not really have enough evidence to offer confident advice. They perhaps failed as well to recognise the social and cultural significance of alcohol and that many people might accept risks from drinking above the recommended limits. Now scientists—as with England’s chief medical officer—are recognising the difficulty of offering safe limits and are saying that there is risk in every drink. A process that was more holistic, transdisciplinary, and participatory might have produced better advice and less confusion.

It occurred to me that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) followed the principles of being holistic, transdisciplinary, and participatory in reaching its decisions of which new treatments should be available in the NHS. Decisions are based on solid science, including economic and social science, and NICE’s method is participatory, including citizens, patients, and other stakeholders.

Ireland’s ban on smoking

Ireland was the first country in the world to ban smoking in workplaces—and enclosed public spaces such as hotels, restaurants, and bars—and Luke Clancy, a respiratory physician in Dublin, was central to achieving the ban. He was also involved in achieving an earlier ban on the marketing, sale, and distribution of bituminous coal. Science was essential for achieving the ban, but dubious science was also used to try and block the ban.

Dublin had terrible smog in the early 1980s after the government encouraged the burning of coal, and Clancy noticed that the death rate doubled in his respiratory wards during one bad smog. He eventually got data that showed that the increase in death rates went closely with increases in smog and sulphur dioxide. These data, which were published, were crucial in achieving the ban, but Clancy showed data produced by other scientists funded by coal distributors arguing that the levels of smog and sulphur dioxide didn’t reach limits set by the European Union and so coal could not be blamed. Their data were, however, over a year rather than the days in which the smog and sulphur dioxide increased.

The Air Pollution Act in Ireland came some 30 years after an act in England, but the ban on smoking in workplaces came in Ireland before everywhere else. Clancy praised public advocates, including journalists, as they were more active than most scientific authorities in pressing for the ban, but politicians, trade unions, and the media all supported the ban—and there was little opposition apart from the tobacco industry. (Although a woman in the audience caused some excitement when she accused Clancy of closing her pub.) Asked why Ireland, a country famous for its pubs, had been the first to introduce a ban, Clancy said how almost everybody was supportive but also how the ban was enacted in the Celtic Tiger years when Ireland thought it could do anything.


The conference roamed widely in time and subject in trying to answer the question of what science is for, and there was no definitive answer. There was, however, universal agreement with Boyle’s assertion from the 17th century that science must serve the public good.

The summer school is held every year in June, and I can heartily recommend it as a delightful way to spend four days. Even my wife, a painter with little interest in science, attended all the lectures and enjoyed the school. For more information visit

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interest: RS spoke at the summer school and had his expenses paid.