I devote a certain amount of time and effort on this blog to countering the popular misconception that the Jesuits functioned as a sort of theological Sturmtruppe leading the offensive against modern science in the name of the Pope in the Early Modern Period, as I have pointed out in several earlier post exactly the opposite is true. The Jesuits as the best educated and most intellectual
monastic Apostolic order in the Catholic Church actually made many significant contribution to the evolution of the modern sciences in this period and any list of the Jesuit and Jesuit trained and educated scientific researches is impressive by any standards. One of these was the leading figure in the science of the 18th century the Croatian1 Jesuit polymath Ruđer Josip Bošković (English: Roger Joseph Boscovich) who was born in Dubrovnik 300 years ago on 18th May 1711.
Boscovich was an astronomer, physicist, mathematician, geodesist, philosopher, theologian, poet and diplomat whose influence on the development of the mathematical science was immense. Major conferences and exhibitions to celebrate this anniversary are planned in both in the land of his birth Croatia and Italy where he worked for most of his life.
Boscovich was initially educated in the Jesuit academy in Dubrovnik and moved to Rome where he joined the order at the age of 14. He was educated at the Collegio Romano in mathematics and physics and in 1740 became professor for mathematics at his alma mater.
Over his long life Boscovich wrote and published 70 papers on optics, astronomy, gravitation, meteorology and trigonometry as well as devising a method to strengthen the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, which was in danger of collapsing, and contributing to the production of an accurate map of the Papal States. He observed a transit of Mercury in 1743 and in 1759 he travelled to London, via Paris, where he was made a member of the Royal Society. In 1761 he took part in an expedition to Istanbul to observe the transit of Venus but due to delays on route too late for the event. He continued his travels to Russia where he was appointed to the Russian Academy of Science in St. Petersburg.
In 1764 he was appointed professor for mathematics in Pavia and director of the observatory in Brera. In 1769 he was invited by the Royal Society to lead an expedition to observe the transit of Venus in California however a Spanish Government ban of the Jesuit Order prevented his participation. The same church political movement against the Jesuits led to his moving to Paris in 1773 where the King provided him with a substantial pension to pursue his scientific work. He returned to Italy in 1783 where he died in 1787.
Boscovich made important contributions to spherical trigonometry, geodesy, optics and astronomy but his most important work was his Theory of Natural philosophy derived to the single Law of forces which exist in Nature, which combined Leibniz’ monad theory and Newton’s Principia and developed the theory of physical force and the atom concept. This work enjoyed five editions and was read widely and was highly influential on succeeding generations of scientists.
Boscovich made important contributions to the evolution of the sciences in the 18th century and deserves to be much better known than he is and to be more widely honoured on this his 300th birthday.
1) I have made Boscovich a Croat but both Italy and Serbia claim him as one of theirs and for the tens years that he lived in France he was a naturalised French citizen. As usual in such cases the argument has rumbled on for most of the last 200 years; my calling him a Croat is purely practical and if any reader prefers to see him as Italian, Serbian, French or simply European please feel free to do so.