Boscovich, Roger Joseph (1711–1787)

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Roger Joseph Boscovich (or Rudjer Josip Bošković) was a Jesuit scientist whose originality and advanced views have only recently been appreciated. A natural philosopher, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, geodesist, engineer, and poet, Boscovich was, in the words of the physicist John Henry Poynting, "amongst the boldest minds humanity has produced." Boscovich published about one hundred books and papers, most of them in Latin. These works display an unusual combination of enthusiasm and logic as well as a passionate conviction that simple fundamental assumptions and precise reasoning can lead to the understanding of natural phenomena. The French astronomer Joseph Jérôme Le Français de Lalande said that in each of these works there are ideas worthy of a man of genius.

Boscovich was born at Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) of Serb and Italian parentage. He entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Rome in 1725 and the Collegium Romanum in 1727. At the Collegium stress was laid on clear logical thought and on the development of a way of thinking that combined religious convictions with the results of science. Boscovich devoted himself chiefly to mathematics and physics and published his first scientific paper in 1736. He became professor of mathematics at the Collegium in 1740, and in 1744 he took his vows as a priest. Since his gifts were scientific, Boscovich was left free to apply himself to teaching, research, and tasks designated by the religious authorities. In 1734 Pope Benedict XIV appointed him, with others, as a technical adviser concerned with cracks in the dome of St. Peter's, and in 1750 commissioned him with Christopher Maire, an English Jesuit, to measure an arc of the meridian through Rome. Later, Boscovich was designated to arbitrate a dispute between the Republic of Lucca and Austrian Tuscany over the drainage of a lake. This task took him to Vienna, where he already enjoyed a high reputation as a scholar and a diplomat. From 1759 on, Boscovich was engaged in extensive travels as far away as Constantinople. In 1760 he met Benjamin Franklin and many other leading personalities in London and Cambridge, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1761. He became professor of mathematics at Pavia in 1765, but his health was failing and he grew restless. A chair was created for him at Milan in 1769, and he pursued studies at the Brera observatory. In 1775 Boscovich was appointed director of naval optics for the French navy and went to Paris, where he was made a subject of France by Louis XV. He returned to Italy in 1783. During his last years he suffered from melancholia.

Despite these activities Boscovich continued to publish. Each of his numerous works in pure and applied mathematics presented either a new method for or a survey of some branch of mathematical inquiry. Among the topics he discussed were spherical trigonometry, the cycloid, conic sections, infinitely great and infinitely small quantities, the accuracy of astronomical observations, the telescope, sunspots, eclipses, the determination of the sun's rotation and of the orbits of planets and comets, the aurora borealis, the transit of Mercury, the shape of Earth, the variation of gravity, the center of gravity, and optical problems. His last major publication was a five-volume work on optics and astronomy, Opera Pertinentia ad Opticam et Astronomiam, published at Venice in 1785.

Boscovich's masterpiece, and his work of greatest interest to philosophers, is Philosophiae Naturalis Theoria Redacta ad Unicam Legem Virium in Natura Existentium (A theory of natural philosophy reduced to a single law of the actions existing in nature), published in Vienna in 1758 and, in an improved edition, at Venice in 1763. In this work Boscovich presented an atomic theory on which he had been working for fifteen years. The importance of this theory was widely recognized, especially in Britain, where the Encyclopaedia Britannica devoted fourteen pages to it in 1801. Boscovich had been the first supporter in Italy of Isaac Newton's theory of gravitation, and the Theoria was looked upon in Britain as an interesting speculative extension of the Newtonian system.

Boscovich's atomic theory arose, as he himself stated, from an attempt to build a comprehensive physics based on the ideas of Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz but going beyond both to obtain new results. Boscovich developed the idea that all phenomena arise from the spatial patterns of identical point particles (puncta ) interacting in pairs according to an oscillatory law that determines their relative acceleration. This view of matter is akin to that of recent physics in that it is relational, structural, and kinematic. It contains three original features:

(1) Material permanence without spatial extension: Quasi-material point-centers of action are substituted for the rigid finite units of matter of earlier atomists.

(2) Spatial relations without absolute space: Internal spatial coordinates (the distances between the two members of pairs of puncta ) are used instead of external coordinates.

(3) Kinematic action without Newtonian forces: In modern dimensional terms, Boscovich's theory is kinematic rather than dynamical. It uses only two-dimensional quantities (length and time) rather than the three (mass, length, and time) used by Newton. Since all particles are identical, the number of particles in a system, which is an integral pure number obtained by counting, is employed in place of Newtonian mass.

Although all of these features are of interest, the first is most important, for by it Boscovich helped emancipate physics from naive atomism's uncritical assumption that the ultimate units of matter are small, individual, rigid pieces possessing shape, size, weight, and other properties. The alternative point atomism assumes that the ultimate units are persistent quasi-material points, all identical, which form stable patterns or interact to produce changes of pattern and relative motion. Between 1710 and 1760 such other thinkers as Giambattista Vico, Leibniz (whose theory of monads and relational conception of space influenced Boscovich), Emanuel Swedenborg, John Michell, and Immanuel Kant had produced atomic theories based on points, but Boscovich was the first scientist to develop a general physical theory using point particles.

Boscovich preferred the concept of puncta to that of rigid pieces of matter because they were simpler and, since they avoided the awkward discontinuity at the surface of a piece of matter, were better adapted to mathematical treatment. His law of oscillatory change from attraction to repulsion enabled him to posit points of stable equilibrium at finite distances and thus to account for the finite extension of gross matter, as Kant did also. The complexity of the world, according to Boscovich, arises from two factors: the varied arrangement of different numbers of particles, and the parameters determining the law of oscillation.

To a modern reader, the impressive feature of the Theoria is Boscovich's interpretation of the universe as a three-dimensional structure of patterns in equilibrium or change determined by points and their mutual distances. There is no distinction between occupied and empty space, for space is only the relation between puncta. Space, time, and motion are all relative; the puncta form a vast variety of stable patterns; the laws of the universe are simple, but their consequences are complex; the laws contain several natural units of length, as do the laws of modern physics since the introduction of Planck's constant; there is a pervasive continuity in nature permitting inference from the macroworld to the microworld; geometry is in part a creation of the human mind and can to some extent be chosen at will; the ability of atomism to account for the forms and processes of the natural universe is unlimited, and even organic forms are easy to understand, because complex patterns of particles will adhere to one another in figures of certain shapes.

As a speculative vision of a universe of changing structure supported by an appropriate philosophy of physics, Boscovich's system is brilliant, but as a scientific theory it is incorrect because it does not allow for the highly complex properties of the wave-particles of present-day physics. No data concerning the atomic world were available to provide a quantitative basis for Boscovich's theory, and he was able to give only a qualitative description of simple mechanical and physical properties. The physical world is more complex than the world Boscovich created from his imagination. Nevertheless, his philosophy of physics was in some respects near the truth, for he predicteda century and a half before the facts were knownthat matter is penetrable by high-speed particles and that relative motion affects the measurement of space and time. Moreover, these predictions were necessary consequences of his mathematical conception of three-dimensional structure. Boscovich's standard of simplicity remains a challenge to physics, and only a future, fully unified, particle theory will be able to show precisely where his assumptions were mistaken. Boscovich postulated that there is only one fundamental particle; we do not yet know how many must be assumed. Modern conceptions of molecular structure have much in common with Boscovich's ideas, but since the development of the physical concept of a field, it can be seen that the Boscovichian particle is inadequate even to account for electromagnetic processes.

It is not certain how far the Theoria influenced the development of atomic theory. It was widely studied, and Michael Faraday, Sir William Hamilton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Lord Kelvin (to mention only English scientists) stressed the theoretical advantages of the Boscovichian atom over rigid atoms. In any case, Boscovich's work marked an important stage in the history of our ideas about the universe, and his system will remain the paradigm of the theory of point particles.

See also Faraday, Michael; Franklin, Benjamin; Hamilton, William; Kant, Immanuel; Laws, Scientific; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Maxwell, James Clerk; Newton, Isaac; Philosophy of Physics; Swedenborg, Emanuel; Vico, Giambattista.


The second edition of the Theoria was republished in a Latin-English edition, with the English translation by J. M. Child, as Theory of Natural Philosophy (Chicago and London: Open Court, 1922).

For literature on Boscovich, see L. L. Whyte, ed., Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J., F.R.S., 17111787: Studies of His Life and Work on the 250th Anniversary of His Birth (London: Allen and Unwin, 1961; New York: Fordham University Press, 1961), which contains a biographical essay by Hill and eight papers on aspects of Boscovich's work by English, American, and Yugoslav scholars. Its extensive bibliography of works by and about Boscovich does not, however, cover Yugoslav studies. See also H. V. Gill, Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J., 17111787: Forerunner of Modern Physical Theories (Dublin, 1941), and L. Pearce Williams, Michael Faraday (New York: Basic, 1965).

Lancelot Law Whyte (1967)

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Boscovich, Roger Joseph (1711–1787)

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