Boscovich, Roger Joseph
BOSCOVICH, ROGER JOSEPH (1711?-1787), Italian mathematician and natural philosopher, one of the earliest of foreign savants to adopt Newton's gravitation theory, was born at Ragusa in Dalmatia on the 18th of May 1711, according to the usual account, but ten years earlier according to Lalande (Eloge, 1792). In his fifteenth year, after passing through the usual elementary studies, he entered the Society of Jesus. On completing his noviciate, which was spent at Rome, he studied mathematics and physics at the Collegium Romanum; and so brilliant was his progress in these sciences that in 1740 he was appointed professor of mathematics in the college. For this post he was especially fitted by his acquaintance with recent advances in science, and by his skill in a classical severity of demonstration, acquired by a thorough study of the works of the Greek geometricians. Several years before this appointment he had made himself a name by an elegant solution of the problem to find the sun's equator and determine the period of its rotation by observation of the spots on its surface. 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, on a wide variety of subjects. Among these subjects were the transit of Mercury, the Aurora Borealis, 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, various problems of spherical trigonometry, etc. In 1742 he was consulted, with other men of science, by the 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 was adopted. Shortly after he engaged to take part in the Portuguese expedition for the survey of Brazil, and the measurement of a degree of the meridian; but he yielded to the urgent request of the pope that he would remain in Italy and undertake a similar task there. Accordingly, in conjunction with Christopher Maire, an English Jesuit, he measured an arc of two degrees between Rome and Rimini. The operations were begun towards the close of 1750, and were completed in about two years. An account of them was published in 1755, entitled De Litteraria expeditione per pontificam ditionem ad dimetiendos duos meridiani gradus a PP. Maire et Boscovich. The value of this work was increased by a carefully prepared map of the States of the Church. A French translation appeared in 1770. A dispute having arisen between the grand duke of Tuscany and the republic of Lucca with respect to the drainage of a lake, Boscovich was sent, in 1757, as agent of Lucca to Vienna, and succeeded in bringing about a satisfactory arrangement of the matter. In the following year he published at Vienna his famous work, Theoria philosophiae naturalis redacta ad unicam legem virium in natura existentium, containing his atomic theory (see Molecule). Another occasion for the exercise of his diplomatic ability soon after presented itself. A suspicion having arisen on the part of the British government that ships of war had been fitted out in the port of Ragusa for the service of France, and that the neutrality of Ragusa had thus been violated, Boscovich was selected to undertake an embassy to London (1760), to vindicate the character of his native place and satisfy the government. This mission he discharged successfully, with credit to himself and satisfaction to his countrymen. During his stay in England he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He soon after paid this society the compliment of dedicating to it his Latin poem, entitled De Solis et Lunae Defectibus (London, 1764). This prolix composition, one of a class which at that time was much in vogue - metrical epitomes of the facts of science - contains in about five thousand lines, illustrated by voluminous notes, a compendium of astronomy. It was for the most part written on horseback, during the author's rides in the country while engaged in his meridian measurements. The book is characterized by G.B.J. Delambre as "uninstructive to an astronomer and unintelligible to any one else."
On leaving England Boscovich travelled in Turkey, but ill-health compelled him soon to return to Italy. In 1764 he was called to the chair of mathematics at the university of Pavia, and this post he held, together with the directorship of the observatory of Brera, for six years. He was invited by the Royal Society of London to undertake an expedition to California to observe the transit of Venus in 1769; but this was prevented by the recent decree of the Spanish government for the expulsion of the Jesuits from its dominions. The vanity, egotism and petulance of Boscovich provoked his rivals and made him many enemies, so that in hope of peace he was driven to frequent change of residence. About 1770 he removed to Milan, where he continued to teach and to hold the directorship of the observatory of Brera; but being deprived of his post by the intrigues of his associates he was about to retire to his native place, when the news reached him (1773) of the suppression of his order in Italy. Uncertainty as to his future led him to accept an invitation from the king of France to Paris, where he was naturalized and was appointed director of optics for the marine, an office instituted for him, with a pension of 8000 livres. He remained there ten years, but his position became irksome, and at length intolerable. He continued, however, to devote himself diligently to the pursuits of science, and published many remarkable memoirs. Among them were an elegant solution of the problem to determine the orbit of a comet from three observations, and memoirs on the micrometer and achromatic telescopes. In 1783 he returned to Italy, and spent two years at Bassano, where he occupied himself with the publication of his Opera pertinentia ad opticam et astronomiam, etc., which appeared in 1785 in five volumes quarto. After a visit of some months to the convent of Vallombrosa, he went to Milan and resumed his literary labours. But his health was failing, his reputation was on the wane, his works did not sell, and he gradually sank a prey to illness and disappointment. He fell into melancholy, imbecility, and at last madness, with lucid intervals, and died at Milan on the 15th (13th) of February 1787. 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 Constantinopoli in Polonia, of which several editions and a French translation appeared. His latest labour was the editing of the Latin poems of his friend Benedict Stay on the philosophy of Descartes, with scientific annotations and supplements.
(W. L. R. C.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)