A Croatian Polymath

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.


Roger Joseph Boscovich Portrait by Robert Edge Pine, London, 1760. Source: Wikipedia Commons

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.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of science

17 responses to “A Croatian Polymath

  1. Pingback: A Croatian Polymath | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Interesting!

    PS. Joseph Ashbrook described him a Slovene, with the caveat that he is “uncertain about the nationality”; the DSB calls him Croatian by birth, but Ashbrook points to an article in l’Astronomie which “says that he was born of Slovene parents and was a citizen successively of Ragusa, the Italian republic of Lucca, and France.” (Ashbrook, p. 458.)

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  4. Rob Marsh, SJ

    Good post — just don’t call us monks …

  5. I apologize! The Society of Jesus is not a monastic order but an Apostolic order!

  6. tasha

    Bošković’s mother, Paola Bettera (1674–1777) was a member of a cultivated Italian merchant family established in Dubrovnik since the early seventeenth century, to where her ancestor, Pietro Bettera, had come from Bergamo in northern Italy and his father was Nikola Bošković, a merchant born in 1642, at Orahov near Ravno in what was then the Ottoman Empire and is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of their children were born in Dubrovnik in the Republic of Ragusa (also known as the Republic of Dubrovnik, “Ragusa” being the Latin name for Dubrovnik) that centered on the city of Dubrovnik in Dalmatia (today in southernmost modern Croatia), that existed from 1358 to 1808. :)))

    regards from Croatia ;)))

  7. My impression, admittedly largely based on Jonathan Israel’s books on the Enlightenment*, is that the 18th Century Jesuits mostly bought into Newtonian science as a version of physics/cosmology that could be harmonized with Catholic orthodoxy and yet was intellectually defensible. I don’t know much about Boscovich or whether his ideas fit into this narrative entirely though Israel points out that it was the reforming pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) who appointed Boscovich to the Collegio Romano in 1740. (Benedict also tried to call off the Inquisition’s sporadic campaign against intellectuals who supported heliocentrism.)

    *especially Enlightenment Contested 2006.

  8. Will Thomas

    Right now I’m reviewing Helge Kragh’s latest, Higher Speculations, which is mostly about 20th-century speculative physics (big bang vs. steady state, the multiverse, the anthropic principle, string theory…). However, he begins with a chapter that functions as a sort of pre-history of speculative physics. Rather than trying to do a full history, he picks out Descartes, Boscovich, and the German Naturphilosophie movement. He doesn’t give much biographical background, though, so I was pleased to see you do a post on Boscovich (whom I hadn’t heard of before picking up Kragh’s book).

  9. Ivan

    Italian? No. When d’Alembert in one edition of Voyage astronomique et geographique called him Italian, Bošković said that he was Dalmatian from Dubrovnik, and not Italian. Bošković also said; “In Italy they don’t think of me as their own so they didn’t include me in any of their work.”

    Serbian? No. This theory dates back to 1922 when Serbian philosopher Branislav Petronijević declared Bošković’s grandfather a Serb from village Orakovo, but it is not true. There isn’t any village by that name, and the whole story is a made up. You would have to know something about serbo-croatian relations in 20. century to understand serbian claims about “serbian ragusa-dubrovnik” and other nonsense.

    French? No. But it is very interesting, they did gave him citizenship, great job in the navy, and guess what? Lot of people weren’t happy about it. Madam de Pompadur couldn’t stand him, and you can only imagine the reactions of d’Alembert when that Jesuit got great job and position(hint: In letter to Antoine Condorcet he writes; jesuit a bruler)

    Croat? Yes. 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”.

    European? Yes. One of the last true ones. He liked Latin as universal language, he liked Europe, travelled a lot, he wasn’t happy about new trends in Europe.

    There is a lot to be said about Bošković, especially his french period when jesuits and foreigners weren’t welcome. His contribution to relativity;(Boscovich’s Principle: foundation of relativity, by Roger J. Anderton -http://www.wbabin.net/science/anderton14.pdf). from wiki: Tesla also believed that much of Albert Einstein’s relativity theory had already been proposed by Ruđer Bošković, stating in an unpublished interview:”…the relativity theory, by the way, is much older than its present proponents. It was advanced over 200 years ago by my illustrious countryman Ruđer Bošković, the great philosopher, who, notwithstanding other and multifold obligations, wrote a thousand volumes of excellent literature on a vast variety of subjects. Bošković dealt with relativity, including the so-called time-space continuum.”

    Sorry for my english, my excuse is “Ode to the Glory of Roger Boskovich” – text in description; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAgXczOuBV0

    and a short video; (english subtitles); http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IM5PY9H2d_o

    • The Anderton pdf link you gave is a 404.
      It surprises me that a mathematician from the 1700s could write about the relativity and the space time continuum. I had thought Minkowski and Einstein owed a lot to Michelson and Morley as well as James Clerk Maxwell.

  10. Ivan

    + Here is one interesting paper in croatian(google translate: croatian -> english) abut all his contribution; http://public.carnet.hr/zuh/do1874/nv18/nv18_1.htm#X

    Translation isn’t perfect, but maybe it helps someone. For example, Bošković gave formulation of “all knowing spirit” 50years before Laplace, today we call it “Laplace’s demon”.

  11. In L. Pearce Williams’ bio of Faraday, he suggests that Boscovich’s atomic theory significatly influenced both Humphrey Davy and Faraday.

    Williams’ hypothesis is controversial, but he did a pretty fair job defending it both in the footnotes and in his reply to Kuhn’s unfavorable review of the biography.
    Kuhn’s review: British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 18:2 (Aug 1967), pp. 148-154.
    Williams’ reply: British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 18:3 (Nov 1967), pp.230-233.

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  13. Pingback: The vexed problem of nationality in the history of science | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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