Fr. Boscovich Bettera, S.J. (1711 – 1787) Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC
On January 11th, 2011, the Croatian Parliament proclaimed 2011 a National “Boscovich Year” to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Croatian Jesuit Fr. Rogelio Joseph Boscovich Bettera. Fr. Boscovich was a noted physicist, astronomer, mathematician, architect, philosopher, poet and diplomat.
Even a slight acquaintance with the achievements of this extraordinary Jesuit should be enough to dismiss the spurious claims made by John William Draper (1811- 1882) in his book, A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science which was published in 1874. In the book he claims that science and religion, especially Catholicism, were mortal enemies. Despite Draper’s fallacious arguments and “contrived” historical facts, his views are still widely held by many people, even in the academia today.
The life, work and achievements of Fr. Regilio Boscovich are a testimony to the fact that science and religion have worked very closely together, despite celebrated cases such the condemnation of Galileo in 1633.
Fr. Boscovish was born in Dubrovnik on May 18th 1711. He was the seventh child of Nikola Boscovich and Paola Bettera. His father was a merchant, though Rogelio would only have known him as a bedridden invalid who died when Rogelio was 10 years old. His mother belonged to a cultivated Italian merchant family in Dubrovnik. She lived to the ripe old age of 103. Her Italian culture and identity played a very significant role in his life. This does not mean, of course, that he rejected his Croatian identity.
His earliest education was at a Jesuit school in Dubrovnik. Because he showed such potential, the Jesuits suggested that he should go to Rome to further his education. He arrived in Rome in 1725.Though he was intending to join the Society of Jesus, he first enrolled in the college Sant’ Andrea della Fratte. It was a this college that he was introduced to mathematics and physics. His talents and achievements in both disciplines were recognised by the fact that he was appointed professor of mathematics at the college in 1740. It was during his time there that he published scientific papers on a variety of topics. These included papers on the transit of Mercury, the Aurora Borealis, the observation of fixed stars and the application of mathematics to the theory of the telescope. He also published tracts on comets, the tides, the law of continuity and the double refraction micrometer. He and his fellow Jesuit, Christopher Maire, did survey work in Italy and he was requested to take part in a Portuguese expedition to survey Brazil.
In one of his best known books, De Viribus Vivis, he attempted to find a middle way between Isaac Newton’s gravitational theory and Gottfried Leibniz’s metaphysical theory of monad points. In this book, he developed the concept “impenetrability” as a property of solid, hard bodies, as a way of explaining their behaviour in terms of force rather than matter. His ideas in this area had a impact on latter natural philosophers, such as Joseph Priestly, Michael Faraday and William Rowan Hamilton. Some people claim that Boscovish’s atomism influenced Albert Eintein’s quest for the unified field theory.
His architectural and engineering skills were of such a high quality that the reigning pontiff, Pope Benedict XIV, consulted Fr. Boscovish about the best way to deal with a crack which appeared on the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. His suggestion that 5 concentric iron bands be placed around the dome was adopted.
He also undertook very important diplomatic missions. In 1757, a dispute arose between Francis the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the republic of Lucca about a draining project on a particular lake. He was sent to Vienna as an agent of Lucca to negotiated a favourable settlement. In 1760, the British government claimed that warships, which were destined for the French navy, were being fitted-out in the port of Dubrovnik. The British government claimed that this was a breach of neutrality of the Republic of Ragusa. Fr. Boscovish was selected to lead the delegation to London to sort out the matter. Once again, his skills as a diplomat led to a favourable solution.
While he was in London he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society. This was quite an achievement for a Catholic priest since the Penal Laws were still in force in England. Because of his scientific reputation, he was invited by the Royal Society to take part in an expedition to California to observe the transit of Venus in 1769. He was prevented from joining the expedition by the fact that the Spanish government had recently expelled the Jesuits from their territories. His latter years were marked by ill-health. He died in 1787 and is buried in the Church of St. Maria Podone in Milan.