Roger Joseph Boscovich of the Society of Jesus

  • Article and book chapter
  • Approximately 10 pages each
  • Level: high school and above

Roger Joseph Boscovich (Ruđer Josip Bošković) was a Jesuit scientist with a wide range of interests and accomplishments, ranging from developing better lenses for telescopes, to designing a system to reinforce the dome of St. Peter’s for Pope Benedict XIV, to creating what today might be called a “Theory of Everything” that would explain all physical interactions in the universe. These two articles provide concise overviews of his life and work:

  • “Roger Joseph Boscovich: Forerunner of Modern Atomic Theory” by Sr. Mary Mercy Fitzpatrick and Sr. Antonietta Fitzparick (Incarnate Word College, San Antonio, Texas) in The Mathematics Teacher, February 1968, pgs. 167-175. Click here to read this article via JSTOR (many libraries provide complete JSTOR access):

Who was this individual who, almost two hundred years after his death, has aroused such interest among scientists and mathematicians? Roger Joseph Boscovich was a Serbo-Coation Jesuit and a renowned mathematician, astronomer, and natural philosopher, whose molecular theory of matter antedates by more than a hundred years the birth of modern atomic theory.

The year 1740 was when Benedict XIV succeeded to the papacy. His reign recalled the best years of the Renaissance. Benedict XIV was a profound scholar and a vivid personality, magnanimous and virtuous in his private life, who surrounded himself with the leading intellectuals of Rome. The Papal Secretary of State, the able and versatile Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga, shared Dubrovnik connections with Boscovich, who naturally came to his attention, and Valenti’s residence soon became like a second home to him. During this period of his life he was entrusted with several practical and diplomatic commissions for lay and ecclesiastical authorities, as was not unusual among qualified clergymen of his time.

In 1735 there had been a resurgence of rumours that the long-standing cracks in the dome of St Peter’s basilica – which had been completed in 1590 – presaged an imminent collapse. The new Pope consulted various experts, one of whom recommended demolishing the huge structure and rebuilding it. Others reported that no danger threatened the dome. However, for further reassurance a commission consisting of Boscovich and two French scientists was appointed to investigate the causes and make recommendations. Boscovich drafted the report, which, by analysing the problem in theoretical terms, achieved – despite certain errors – the reputation of a minor classic in architectural statics. He undertook further such work for the Pope later.