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Roger Joseph Boscovich (see names in other languages; 18 May 171113 February 1787) was a physicist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, diplomat, poet, Jesuit, and according to some a polymath from Ragusa (today Dubrovnikmarker, in Croatiamarker), who lived for a time in Francemarker, Englandmarker and some Italianmarker states .

He is famous for his atomic theory and made many important contributions to astronomy, including the first geometric procedure for determining the equator of a rotating planet from three observations of a surface feature and for computing the orbit of a planet from three observations of its position. In 1753 he also discovered the absence of atmosphere on the Moon.


Early years

Boscovich was born in Ragusamarker (Dubrovnik). He was baptized on 26 May 1711 by Marinus Carolis, curatus et sacristia; the name may have been given to him because both his great-grandfather Agostini and his mother`s brother were called Ruggiero, the godparent was his uncle Ruggiero Bettera. He was the seventh child of Nikola Bošković, a merchant born in 1642, at Orahov Do near Trebinjemarker in what was then the Ottoman Empire and is now Bosnia and Herzegovinamarker . He knew his father only as a bedridden invalid with paralysed legs and who died when Roger was a child of 10, was rich in trading experience and knowledge of that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Boscovich's mother, Paola Bettera (1674-1777) was a member of a cultivated Italian merchant family established in Ragusa since the early seventeenth century, to where her ancestor, Pietro Bettera, had come from Bergamomarker in northern Italy. She was a robust and active woman with a happy temperament who lived to 103. She left nothing in writing, but Bošković's aunt, her sister, wrote poetry in Italian. Their sons, Roger’s cousins and playmates, Antun Bošković and Franjo Bošković, grew up into good Latinists. His own brothers and sisters were all older than himself, except his sister Anica Bošković (1714-1804), two years his junior. His eldest sister Mare Bošković, nineteen years his senior, was the only member of the family to marry; his second sister Marija Bošković became a nun in the Dubrovnik Convent of St Catherine’s. His eldest brother Božo Bošković (Boško), thirteen years older, joined the service of the Dubrovnik Republic. His brother Bartolomeo Bošković (Baro), born in 1700 and educated at the Jesuit school in Dubrovnik, left home when Roger was 3 to become a scholar and a Jesuit priest in Rome. He too wrote good verse in both Latin and ‘Illyrian’, but eventually burnt some of his manuscripts out of a scrupulous modesty. His brother Ivan Bošković became a Dominican in a sixteenth-century monastery in Dubrovnik, whose church Roger knew as a child with its rich treasures and paintings by Titian and Vasari, still there today. His brother Pero Bošković, six years his senior, became a poet like his grandfather. He, too, was schooled by the Jesuits, then served as an official of the Republic and made his reputation as a translator of Ovid, Corneille’s Cid and of Molière. A volume of his religious verse, Hvale Duhovne, was published in Venice in 1729.

At the age of 8 or 9, after acquiring the rudiments of reading and writing from the priest Nicola Nicchei of the Church of St. Nicholas, Roger was sent for schooling to the local Jesuit Collegium Regusinum. During his early studies Roger Boscovich showed a distinct propensity for further intellectual development. He gained a reputation at school for having an easy memory and a quick, deep mind.

On 16 September 1725, Roger Boscovich left Ragusa for Rome. He was in the care of two Jesuit priests who took him to the Society of Jesus, famous for its education of youth and at that time having some 800 establishments and 200,000 pupils under its care throughout the world. We learn nothing from Boscovich himself until the time he entered the novitiate in 1731, but it was the usual practice for novices to spend the first two years not in the Collegium Romanummarker, but in Sant'Andrea delle Frattemarker. There, he studied mathematics and physics; and so brilliant was his progress in these sciences that in 1740 he was appointed professor of mathematics in the college.

He was especially appropriate for this post due to his acquaintance with recent advances in science, and his skill in a classical severity of demonstration, acquired by a thorough study of the works of the Greek geometers. Several years before this appointment he had made a name for himself with an elegant solution of the problem of finding the Sun's equator and determining the period of its rotation by observation of the spots on its surface.

Middle years

Notwithstanding the arduous duties of his professorship, he found time for investigation in all the fields of physical science, and he published a very large number of dissertations, some of them of considerable length. Among the subjects were the transit of Mercury, the Aurora Borealis (corona), the figure of the Earth, the observation of the fixed stars, the inequalities in terrestrial gravitation, the application of mathematics to the theory of the telescope, the limits of certainty in astronomical observations, the solid of greatest attraction, the cycloid, the logistic curve, the theory of comets, the tides, the law of continuity, the double refraction micrometer, and various problems of spherical trigonometry.

In 1742 he was consulted, with other men of science, by Pope Benedict XIV, as to the best means of securing the stability of the dome of St. Peter'smarker, Romemarker, in which a crack had been discovered. His suggestion of placing five concentric iron bands was adopted.[[Image:PjesmeBoscovic.jpg|thumb|left|200px| A Boscovich's poems, written in French and dedicated to the King of France.]]

In 1745 Boscovich published De Viribus Vivis in which he tried to find a middle way between Isaac Newton's gravitational theory and Gottfried Leibniz's metaphysical theory of monad-points. He developed a concept of "impenetrability" as a property of hard bodies which explained their behaviour in terms of force rather than matter. Stripping atoms of their matter, impenetrability is disassociated from hardness and then put in an arbitrary relationship to elasticity. Impenetrability has a Cartesian sense that more than one point cannot occupy the same location at once.

Boscovich visited his hometown only once in 1747. After that, he never went to visit the place where he was born and grew up.

He agreed to take part in the Portuguesemarker expedition for the survey Brazilmarker and the measurement of a degree of the meridian, but was persuaded by the Pope to stay in Italymarker and to undertake a similar task there with Christopher Maire, an English Jesuit who measured an arc of two degrees between Rome and Riminimarker. The operation began at the end of 1750, and was completed in about two years. An account was published in 1755, under the name De Litteraria expeditione per pontificiam ditionem ad dimetiendos duos meridiani gradus a PP. Maire et Boscovicli. The value of this work was increased by a carefully prepared map of the States of the Churchmarker. A French translation appeared in 1770 which incorporated, as an appendix, some material first published in 1760 outlining an objective procedure for determining suitable values for the parameters of the fitted model from a greater number of observations. An unconstrained variant of this fitting procedure is now known as the L1-norm or Least absolute deviations procedure and serves as a robust alternative to the familiar L2-norm or Least Squares procedure.

A dispute arose between Francis the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the republic of Luccamarker with respect to the drainage of a lake. As agent of Lucca, Boscovich was sent, in 1757, to Viennamarker and succeeded in bringing about a satisfactory arrangement in the matter.

In Venicemarker in 1758, he published the first edition of his famous work, Theoria philosophiae naturalis redacta ad unicam legem virium in natura existentium (Theory of Natural philosophy derived to the single Law of forces which exist in Nature), containing his atomic theory and his theory of forces . A second edition was published in 1763 in Venicemarker, a third in 1922 in Londonmarker, and a fourth in 1966 in the United Statesmarker. A fifth edition was published in Zagrebmarker in 1974.

Another occasion to exercise his diplomatic ability soon arose. The British government suspected that warships had been outfitted in the port of Ragusa for the service of Francemarker and that therefore the neutrality of the Republic of Ragusa had been violated. Boscovich was selected to undertake an ambassadorship to London (1760), to vindicate the character of his native place and satisfy the government. This mission he discharged successfully — a credit to him and a delight to his countrymen. During his stay in Englandmarker he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1761 astronomers were preparing to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun. Under the influence of the Royal Society Boscovich decided to travel to Istanbulmarker. He arrived late and then traveled to Polandmarker via Bulgariamarker and Moldavia then proceeding to Saint Petersburgmarker where he was elected as a member of Russian Academy of Sciences. Ill health compelled him soon to return to Italymarker.

Late years

In 1764 he was called to serve as the chair of mathematics at the university of Paviamarker, and he held this post with the directorship of the observatory of Breramarker in Milanmarker, for six years.

He was invited by the Royal Society of London to undertake an expedition to Californiamarker to observe the transit of Venus in 1769 again, but this was prevented by the recent decree of the Spanishmarker government expelling Jesuits from its dominions. Boscovich had many enemies and he was driven to frequent changes of residence. About 1777 he returned to Milan, where he kept teaching and directing the Brera observatory.

Deprived of his post by the intrigues of his associates, he was about to retire to Ragusa when in 1773 the news of the suppression of his order in Italy reached him. Uncertainty led him to accept an invitation from the King of Francemarker to come to Parismarker where he was appointed director of optics for the navy, with a pension of 8000 livres and a position was created for him.

He naturalized in France and stayed ten years, but his position became irksome, and at length intolerable. He, however, continued to work in the pursuit of science knowledge, and published many remarkable works. Among them was an elegant solution of the problem to determine the orbit of a comet from three observations and works on micrometer and achromatic telescopes.

In 1783 he returned to Italy, and spent two years at Bassanomarker, occupying himself with the publication of his Opera pertinentia ad opticam et astronomiam, etc., published in 1785 in five volumes quarto.

After a visit of some months to the convent of Vallombrosa, he went to Brera in 1786 and resumed his work. At that time his health was failing, his reputation was on the wane, his works did not sell, and he gradually fell prey to illness and disappointment. He died in Milan and was buried in the church of St. Maria Podone.

Further works

In addition to the works already mentioned Boscovich published Elementa universae matheseos (1754), the substance of the course of study prepared for his pupils, and a narrative of his travels entitled Giornale di un viaggio da Costantinopoli in Polonia (A diary of the journey from Constantinoplemarker to Poland) (1762), of which several editions and a French translation appeared.


His atomic theory, given as a clear, precisely-formulated system utilizing principles of Newtonian mechanics inspired Michael Faraday to develop field theory for electromagnetic interaction. Other nineteenth century physicists, such as William Rowan Hamilton, Lord Kelvin, and the elasticity theorist Saint Vernant stressed the theoretical advantages of the Boscovichian atom over rigid atoms. Some even claim that Boscovichian atomism was a basis for Albert Einstein's attempts for a unified field theory and that he was the first to envisage, seek, and propose a mathematical theory of all the forces of Nature; the first scientific theory of everything.

Croatian scientist Nikola Tesla, a critic of Einstein, claimed in an unpublished interview that Einstein's theory of Relativity was the creation of Boscovich:

For his contributions to astronomy, the lunar crater Boscovichmarker was named after him.

The Ruđer Bošković Institute was named in his honour.

Competing claims for Boscovich's nationality

The modern concept of nationality, based on ethnic concepts as language, culture, religion, custom, etc., was developed only in the 19th century. For this reason the attribution of a definite "nationality" to personalities of the previous centuries, living in ethnically mixed regions, is often indeterminable; Boscovich's legacy is consequently celebrated by several states: Croatiamarker, Italymarker, and Serbiamarker..

Boscovich on a Croatian dinar banknote from the early 1990s
Croatian sources stress that he referred to his Croatian identity. In writings to his sister Anica (Anna), he told her he had not forgotten the Croatian language. When he was in Vienna in 1757, he spotted Croatian soldiers going to the battlefields of the Seven Year's War and immediately rode out to see them, wishing them 'Godspeed' in Croatian. While living in Paris and attending to a military parade where he saw a Croatian unit from Ragusa, his words were: "there are, my brave Croats". The largest Croatian institute of natural sciences and technology, based in Zagrebmarker bears his name. His picture was on Croatian dinar banknotes valid from 1991 until 1994, when the dinar was replaced by the Croatian kuna.

Serbs claim that his family origins were in Montenegro (Crna Gora). . The Astronomical Society Ruđer Bošković based in the Serbia's capital Belgrademarker bears his name.

In Italy Boscovich is remembered as an Italian. He was born in a city of mixed language and culture (Italic and Croat), strongly influenced by the Italian Culture and where the upper classes had an Italic/Latin (Romanic Dalmatian) identity. His mother's family was from Italy, and he was also largely Italian both by culture and career; he moved to Italy at the age of 14 where he spent the greater part of his life. In several sources and encyclopedias he is described as an Italian scientist.He used Italian for his correspondence and private matters and Voltaire always wrote to Boscovich in Italian as "a sign of respect". Furthermore, Boscovich always said that Italy was "his real and sweet mother". However Boscovich himself also denied being Italian: when it was suggested he was an Italian mathematician, he responded in a note to his Voyage astronomique et geographique that "our author is a Dalmatian from Ragusa, and not an Italian."

Names in other languages


Boscovich published eight scientific dissertations prior to his 1744 ordination as a priest and appointment as a professor and another 14 afterwards. The following is a partial list of his publications:

  • The Sunspots (1736)
  • The Transit of Mercury (1737)
  • The Aurora Borealis (1738)
  • The Application of the Telescope in Astronomical Studies (1738)
  • The Motion of the Heavenly Bodies in an Unresisting Medium (1740)
  • The Different Effects of Gravity in Various Points of the Earth (1741)
  • The Aberration of the Fixed Stars (1742)
  • On the Ancient Villa Discovered on the Ridge of Tusculum (1745)
  • De Viribus Vivis (1745)
  • On the ancient Sundial and Other Certain treasures found among the Ruins (1745)
  • "The Theory of Natural Philosophy (1758) - link to full text


  2. Remarkable Physicists by Ioan Mackenzie James
  3. "Roger Joseph Boscovich". Studies in His Life and Work on the 250th Anniversary of His Birth
  4. The Conflict between Atomism and Conservation Theory 1644 - 1860 by Wilson L. Scott, London and New York, 1970
  5. Cohesion by John Shipley Rowlinson
  7. '"Roger Joseph Boscovich'" SJ FRS, 1711 -1787 Studies of his life and work on the 250th anniversary of his birth, edited L L Whyte, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1961. This is disputed by Harold L. Burstyn in this review.
  8. New theories of everything, John D. Barrow, Oxford University Press, UK 2007 p.21
  9. Dadić, Žarko. Ruđer Bošković (Parallel text in Croatian and English). Zagreb: Školska Knjiga, 1987
  10. Harris, Robin. Dubrovnik, A History. London: Saqi Books, 2003. ISBN 0 86356 332 5
  11. Slobodan Šćepanović, О поријеклу породице и коријенима предака Руђера Бошковића, Историјски записи 3/1995, Podgorica 1995
  12. Biography of Boscovich (in Italian)

Further reading

  • Boscovich, Ruggero Giuseppe. A Theory of Natural Philosophy. Translated by J. M. Child. English ed. Cambridge, Mass.,: M. I. T. Press, 1966.
  • Brush, Stephen G. The Kind of Motion We Call Heat : A History of the Kinetic Theory of Gases in the 19th Century. Vol. 6 Studies in Statistical Mechanics. New York: North-Holland Pub. Co., 1976.
  • Brush, Stephen G. Statistical Physics and the Atomic Theory of Matter : From Boyle and Newton to Landau and Onsager Princeton Series in Physics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Bursill-Hall, Piers, ed. R.J. Boscovich; Vita E Attivita Scientifica; His Life and Scientific Work. Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1993.
  • Dadić, Žarko. Ruđer Bošković (Parallel text in Croatian and English). Zagreb: Školska Knjiga, 1987
  • Dimitric, Radoslav. Ruđer Bošković (Serbian, with English summary, Bošković works in original, and translations into English and Serbian). Pittsburgh: Helios Publishing Company, 2006, ISBN 978-0-9788256-2-1
  • Feingold, Mordechai. "A Jesuit among Protestants: Boscovich in England C. 1745-1820." In R.J. Boscovich; Vita E Attivita Scientifica; His Life and Scientific Work, ed. Piers Bursill-Hall, 511-526. Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1993.
  • Franolić, Branko. Bošković in Britain, Journal of Croatian Studies Vol. 43, 2002 Croatian Academy of America, New York US ISSN 0075-4218
  • Justin, Rodriguez. "Scientific Revolution Atomic Projects." Stevens Journal of Oral Traditions, no. 1 (200?): xlv-xc.
  • Kargon, Robert. "William Rowan Hamilton, Michael Faraday, and the Revival of Boscovichean Atomism." American Journal of Physics 32, no. 10 (1964): 792-795.
  • Kargon, Robert. "William Rowan Hamilton and Boscovichean Atomism." Journal of the History of Ideas 26, no. 1 (1965): 137-140.
  • Katritsky, Linde. "Coleridge's Links with Leading Men of Science." Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 49, no. 2 (1995): 261-276.
  • Priestley, Joseph, and Robert E. Schofield. A Scientific Autobiography of Joseph Priestley, 1733-1804; Selected Scientific Correspondence. Cambridge,: M.I.T. Press, 1966.
  • Scott, Wilson L. "The Significance Of "Hard Bodies" In the History of Scientific Thought." Isis 50, no. 3 (1959): 199-210.
  • Whyte, Lancelot Law, ed. Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J., F.R.S., 1711-1787: Studies of His Life and Work on the 250th Anniversary of His Birth. London,: G. Allen & Unwin, 1961.
  • Williams, L. Pearce. Michael Faraday, a Biography. New York,: Basic Books, 1965.
  • Williams, L. Pearce. "Boscovich, Mako, Davy and Faraday." In R.J. Boscovich; Vita E Attivita Scientifica; His Life and Scientific Work, ed. Piers Bursill-Hall, 587-600. Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1993.

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