Two hundred years ago February 13, 1787 the Croatian Jesuit mathematician Roger Boscovich,S.J. died. He developed the first coherent description of atomic theory in his work Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis , which is one of the great attempts to understand the structure of the universe in a single idea. He held that bodies could not be composed of continuous matter, but of countless “point-like structures”. In this work he states that the ultimate elements of matter are indivisible points “atoms”, which are centers of force and this force varies in proportion to distance. What is remarkable is that his works appeared well over a century before the birth of modern atomic theory.
A younger Roger Joseph Boscovich,S.J.
Robert Marsh, the author of Physics and Poets, credits Boscovich with the idea of a FIELD: Faraday and others took the idea from him. His influence on modern atomic physics is undoubted.
Roger was a physicist, geometer, astronomer and philosopher. He had an older brother, Bartholomew, who was also a Jesuit mathematician and on occasion taught in Roger’s place when Roger was needed elsewhere. He taught at the Roman College for 20 years, although the Jesuit General Luigi Centurione, S.J. thought his teachings too avant garde. The next Jesuit General, Laurence Ricci, however, valued Roger and chose him as Visitor of the whole Jesuit Society. He was also a correspondent for the Royal Society of London, and a frequent contributor to the Jesuit Mémoires des Trévoux. The famous astronomer Joseph Lalande said there was no scholar in all Italy like Boscovich nor did he know any geometer as profound. On the anniversaries of his publications, his birth, and his death, symposia are held throughout the world to honor this amazing polymath. Roger was a creative scientist credited with perfecting the ring micrometer and the achromatic telescope. He was the first one to apply probability to the theory of errors. Later mathematicians such as Laplace and Gauss acknowledged their indebtedness to his pioneering work which led to Legendre’s principle of least squares.
A Comemorative Boscovich stamp
Russian scientists have always shown a strong interest in his work and more recently western scientists have become better acquanted with his contributions. This resurgence of interest in his works is evident from a host of recent books and articles. His legacy has been preserved in the special Boscovich Archives in the Rare Boooks library at the University of California in Berkeley. Amoung the 180 items housed there are found not only many of his 66 scientific treatices, but also correspondence (over 2,000 letters) with other mathematicians such as Euler, D’Lambert, Lagrange, Laplace, Jacobi and Bernoulli.
It was assumed then as now that mathematicians have the practical sense to fix intricate things such as clocks, so he was commissioned by popes and emperors to repair the alarming fissures in the cupola of the Milan Cathedral, to reinforce the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, to direct the drainage of the Pontine marshes, and to survey the meridian of the Papal states.
After the Suppression of the Jesuits he became captain of optics in the French navy. Born in Ragusa (now Dubrovnic, Yugoslavia), Roger lived a long, fruitful life and was one of the last renowned polymaths.
Incisive in thought, bold in spirit, and independent in judgement he was a man of the eighteenth-century in some respects, but far ahead of his time in others.
Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu ( AHSI ) Rome: Institutum Historicum
Bangert, William A History of the Society of Jesus. St. Louis: St. Louis Institute, 1972uis, 1810
Boyer, Carl A history of mathematics. New York: Wiley, 1968
Gillispie, Charles. C. ed., Dictionary of Scientific biography. 16 vols. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1970
Sommervogel, Carolus Bibliothèque de la compagnie de Jésus. 12 volumes. Bruxelles: Société Belge de Libraire, 1890-1960
Whyte, Lancelot Law Roger Joseph Boscovich,S.J. New York: Fordham Press, 1961