Roger Joseph Boscovich SJ, polymath, philosopher and priest

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Boscovich

On 18 May 1711, Roger Joseph Boscovich (1711 -1787) was born in Dubrovnik, Croatia. A Jesuit priest and mathematician, he adopted the heliocentric system into his teaching. As a result of his intervention and influence, Pope Benedict XIV removed Copernicus’ book “De Revolutionibus”* from the index where it has been since 1616.

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’s, Rome, in which a crack had been discovered. His suggestion of placing five concentric iron bands was adopted.

His scientific contributions were numerous: he wrote a landmark treatise on atomic theory that influenced Maxwell, Faraday, Kelvin, Priestley, Ampère, Cauchy, and even Nietzsche. Therefore, Lancelot Law Whyte called Boscovich ‘the creator of fundamental atomic physics as we understand it’. He established the first geometric procedure for computing the orbit of a planet from three observations of its position. He determined that the Moon lacked an atmosphere.

In Vienna in 1758, he published the first edition of his famous work, Philosophiæ naturalis theoria 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.

Here he wrote:

“…as for the Divine Creator of Nature, my theory distinctly shows the need that He should be fully recognized, and also His Supreme Power, Wisdom, and Providence … There is no room for the worthless phantasms of those who think that the world appeared by chance, or that it has always existed by itself, governed by its own laws of necessity.”

He was a member of London’s Royal Society and professor of mathematics at the University of Pavia. He founded the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Milan.

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* The book was never properly put on the index of forbidden books, but was to be “corrected” to present the heliocentric system as hypothesis. These corrections were presented to Rome and approved by Rome, but never printed. In 1757, the book was officially accepted in its original version by Pope Benedict XIV.

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