Thursday, October 07, 2010

I basically stole this post from the Royal Society's blog.

My clever friend The Clergy brought this blog post to my attention: Robert Boyle's To-Do List. This is the Boyle of Boyle's law, which you learned about in high school unless you had a senile chemistry teacher like I did.

Boyle lived from 1627-1691 and was, among other things, a natural philosopher. I always get very excited when people are described as natural philosophers, because usually it means they believed hilarious things and spelled them funny. I shouldn't laugh because Boyle was a scientific genius and I'm not, but there's something adorable and endearing in the fact that while Boyle was making a note of the inverse relationship between the pressure and volume of gas when its temperature remains the same, everyone was still thinking of science as a branch of philosophy.

Anyway, apparently Boyle had some grand visions of what natural philosophy could accomplish. And he wrote them down. For our amusement. From his list:

  • The Cure of Wounds at a Distance.
  • The Cure of Diseases at a distance or at least by Transplantation.
  • The Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only.
  • The Transmutation of Metalls.
  • The Transmutation of Species in Mineralls, Animals, and Vegetables.
  • The Attaining of Gigantick Dimensions.
  • The making of Parabolicall and Hyperbolicall Glasses.
  • The making Armor light and extremely hard.
  • The practicable and certain way of finding Longitudes.
  • A Ship to saile with All Winds, and A Ship not to be Sunk.
  • Freedom from Necessity of much Sleeping exemplify’d by the Operations of Tea and what happens in Mad-Men.
  • Great Strength and Agility of Body exemplify’d by that of Frantick Epileptick and Hystericall persons.
  • A perpetuall Light.
  • Varnishes perfumable by Rubbing.

Aside from the spelling, and the randomness, I think it's the earnestness that cracks me up. If only we could never sleep! If only we could swim like fish! If only we weren't slaves to the wind! If only we could attain gigantick dimensions!

The fact that we have done some of these impossible things (we have glasses, Kevlar, satellite navigation, outboard motors, Red Bull, steroids, electricity, etc. etc.) makes it all the weirder that we haven't figured out the others. As far as I know, we can't transmute metals or species. We understand that swimming under water like fish is not a simple matter of education. We can't prevent any given boat from ever sinking. I am not sure why we would want to attain gigantick dimensions, but we certainly haven't. As for a varnish perfumable by rubbing, I don't even know how to imagine that. The closest I can come is Scratch-n-Sniff stickers, but I have a feeling he's really after something more like Glade PlugIns. The seventeenth century was full of some hardcore stenches, after all.

The point is, this makes me wonder what things I think of as completely insane and impossible that we could have in three hundred years, and what things I assume we'll have in three hundred years that we still won't haven't figured out yet. I can't imagine we'd ever figure out how to put an electronic port in our brains, so that'll probably happen. But jet packs and hovercrafts? I bet we go extinct without ever getting to play with those.


Ivan said...

I found this post highly amusing...partially because the first time I went through I read "transmutation of meatballs". After that I singled out the "mad-men tea" bit as secret nod to a tea-fueled night that had seen you through a marathon of the hit AMC television show "Mad Men". Then I realized none of this was correct. And was glad I never took chemistry. Actually, did I take chemistry? Whatever. I'm hungry. Good post.

Simon said...

I think you need to have a snack.