Institute and Museum of History of Science, Florence, ITALY

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The void and divine omnipotence Reducing the abhorrence of the void Much ado about nothing

Otto von Guericke's air-pump. Otto von Guericke, Experimenta Nova (ut vocantur) Magdeburgica De Vacuo Spatio, Amsterdam 1672

Boyle's air-pump
Robert Boyle, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects, Oxford 1660

The aristotelian theory of the void and the elements started to be discussed and questioned animatedly from the mid-sixteenth century. The rebirth of atomism was of increasing importance in this process. Atomism reasserted the doctrine of the existence of the void as central and essential. At the same time, the development of experimentation helped put the question of the weight of air at the centre of the debate.
In 1630, a distinguished experimenter, Jean Rey, interpreted the increase of weight observed in calcinated tin as caused by the absorption of air by the metal during the process of calcination.
Air-pressure remained largely misunderstood until the start of the seventeenth century, in spite of some intuitions by certain medieval authors.
Amongst the first to offer innovative ideas on the void and air-pressure was the Dutchman
Isaac Beeckman. He accepted the existence of the void and recognised that air pushes in every direction. He was also one of the first to introduce the concept of the elasticity of air. Beekman communicated these innovative ideas to Descartes, who absolutely denied the vacuum, and developed a lively and interesting discussion with the great French philosopher.
In the mid-years of the seventeenth century, at the heart of the Scientific Revolution, the debate on the void and atmospheric pressure represents one of the key points of the discussion of the constitution of matter and the nature of the universe. We can judge, with these delicate concepts, Galileo, Descartes, Gassendi, Hobbes, Pascal and Newton.



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