Roger Joseph Boscovich

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Roger Boscovich, or Ruder Josip Boscovic, was a talented scientist who was an astronomer, diplomat, Jesuit, mathematician, philosopher and physicist. Though he was from what is now Dubrovnik, Croatia he lived his later life in England, France and in Italy. While he was the seventh child of a merchant father, who died when he was only ten years old, his mother had two more children.

By nine years of age, he had mastered reading and writing from a local priest, and was then sent to a Jesuit school where he excelled at his studies. In 1725 he accompanied two priests to Rome where he studied at the Society of Jesus, well known then as it is today for it’s schools.  While there he mainly studied mathematic and sciences and in 1740 became a professor of mathematics there.

While working as a professor at the Society of Jesus, he also continued his own studies and research. He published works on the Transit of Mercury, the Aurora Borealis, earths shape, the inequality of terrestrial gravity, logistic curves, comets, continuity, and designed the ring micrometer, and the fluid filled telescope. In astronomy, he developed the geometric method for finding the equator of a planet in rotation by observing three surface features, and then he developed the method of determining the orbit of a planet based on only three observations of its position. He found the sun’s equator and determined its speed of rotation by observing its sunspots.

He was part of other scientists who were consulted by Pope Benedict XIV on how to secure the cracking dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He came up with the solution, which was to place concentric bands of iron around the dome. His contribution helped the pope to decide to remove Copernicus from the List of Forbidden Books in 1757.

In 1745 he published “De Vivibus Vivis” which melded the gravitational theory of Newton and Leibnitz’s metaphysical Monad points (an indestructible entity that is the basic or ultimate constituent of the universe). Boscovich came up with Impenetrability for hard bodies and explained their behaviors in terms of Force instead of Matter. Boscovich believed that more than one point could not occupy the same location at the same time.

He then assisted Christopher Mare in measuring the meridian between Rome and Rimini (A town on the North-East coast of Italy). This was made to test the theory that the Earth was not ellipsoid due to its revolution. This resulted in a publication of a map of the Papal States.

In 1757, Boscovich was sent to Lucca, Italy to negotiate a dispute between the republic of Lucca and the Grand Duke of Tuscany. They were at odds over the drainage of a lake. Boscovich’s diplomatic skills shone as he settled the dispute.

In 1758 Boscovich published his ‘Theory of Natural Philosophy Derived to the Single Law of Forces which exists in Nature’. This contained both his Theory of Forces and his Atomic Theory, postulating the existence of forces between molecules, whose direction and intensity are distance-dependent. Boscovich’s ideas on matter, natural movement, time and space helped define the modern concept of atomic theory.  His works on atomic theory based on Newtonian Mechanics enabled Michael Faraday to develop his theory of electromagnetic interaction, and Albert Einstein reportedly used Boscovich’s atomic theorem for his research into the Unified Field Theory, which he never fully developed.

In 1759 he journeyed to France where he became a member of the French Royal Academy of Sciences. While there, he gave diplomatic talks for Dubrovnik to the French Court in Versailles. As a result, Boscovich was sent to England in 1760. Within 7 months in England, he learned English well enough to read and write scientific papers. He was sent to London to act as an ambassador on special mission to set straight the assertion of England that warships were being built by France in Dubrovnik. If true, this would have been a violation of the neutral status Dubrovnik held at that time. Not only did his diplomacy shine again in England, but he was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society, a society for science founded in 1660.

In 1761 he traveled across Europe on a scientific study based on observing the transit of Venus. He eventually made it to St. Petersburg where he was honored with the election as a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences (Now the Russian Academy of Sciences). In 1764 he became Chair of Mathematics at the University of Pavia, Italy, where he also served as the director of the Observatory of Brera in Milan, Italy. 

Over his career, Boscovich seemed to make more than a few enemies and he was eventually removed from his position at Pavia and Milan in 1773. He then accepted a position with King Louis XV of France to be the Director of Optics in Paris for their navy, where he stayed for 10 years. While in Paris, he developed his method of determining the orbits of comets based on three observations, and his designs of micrometers and telescopes.  

In 1783 he returned to Italy and had published his ‘Works Pertaining to the Optics of Astronomy’ in 1785. He moved once again to Brera in 1786 where he was again a professor. He died in Milan in 1787. During his travels, he remained in contact with his family in Dubrovnik, writing them in his native language and sending them poetry written in Latin.