He is famous for his atomic theory, given as a clear, precisely-formulated system utilizing principles of Newtonian mechanics. This work inspired Michael Faraday to develop field theory for electromagnetic interaction. Boscovich also gave many important contributions to astronomy, including the first geometric procedure for determining the equator of a rotating planet from three observations of a surface feature and for computing the orbit of a planet from three observations of its position.
He was born in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) as the seventh child of his Serb father Nikola and Italian mother Paula Bettera. His father was a merchant from the Serb family of the Pokrajcici from Orahov Do in Eastern Hercegovina, his mother from a noble Italian family. When Rudjer was ten, his father died. In his fifteenth year, after passing through the usual elementary studies, he entered the Society of Jesus. On completing his novitiate, 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.
He was especially appropriate for this post due to his acquaintance with recent advances in science, and 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 a name for himself with an elegant solution of the problem of finding the Sun's equator and determining 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 agreed 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 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 pontificiam ditionem ad dimetiendos duos meridiani gradus a PP. Maire et Boscovicli. 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 Vienna, 1758, he published his famous work, Theoria philosophiae naturalis 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. The second edition of his book was published in 1763 in Venice, the third with English translation in 1922 in London, the fourth just in English language in 1966 in the United States and the fifth one with Serbo-Croatian translation in 1974 in Zagreb.
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 warships had been outfitted in the port of Dubrovnik for the service of France, and that the neutrality of Dubrovnik (then known as Ragusa) had thus been violated, Boscovich was selected to undertake an ambassadorship to London (1760), to vindicate the character of his native place and satisfy the government. This mission he discharged successfully -- a credit to him and a delight to his countrymen. During his stay in England he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
In 1761 astronomers were preparing to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun's disc. Under the influence of Royal Society Boscovich decided to travel to Istanbul. He came late and he returned over Bulgaria and Moldavia to Poland. He wanted to proceed to Saint Petersburg where he was elected as a member of Russian Academy of Sciences. Ill health compelled him soon to return to Italy. In 1764 he was called to serve as the chair of mathematics at the university of Pavia, and this post he held, together with the directorship of the observatory of Brera near Milan, for six years.
He was invited by the Royal Society of London to undertake an expedition to California to observe the Venus transit in 1769 again, but this was prevented by the recent decree of the Spanish government of the expulsion of the Jesuits from its dominions. Boscovich had many enemies; in hope of peace he was driven to frequent change of residence. About 1777 he removed to Milan, where he continued to teach and to hold the directorship of the observatory of Brera. Deprived of his post by the intrigues of his associates, he was about to retire to his birthplace 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 navy, an position created 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 Brera in 1786 and resumed his literary labours, but his health was failing, his reputation was on the wane, his works did not sell, and he gradually fell prey to illness and disappointment. He died in Milan where he was buried in the church St. Maria Podone.
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 (A diary of the journey from Constantinople to Poland) (1762), of which several editions and a French translation appeared.
The Institute of Theoretical Physics in Zagreb, founded in 1950 bears his name upon the proposal of physicist Ivan Supek. The Astronomical Society in Belgrade also bears his name. A crater on the Moon as well.
Originally from 1911 Encyclopedia