BOSCOVICH AND ATOMS AS POINT CENTERS OF FORCE Copyright Val Dusek Department of Philosophy U of New Hampshire Durham NH 03824

USA Roger Joseph Boscovich, known in Italy as Ruggero Guiseppe Boscovich, an d in his native Yugoslavia as Rudjer Josip Boscovic (1711-1787), was a Yugoslav, Jesuit, physicist, philosophe r and poet. He is the source for a theory of matter based on point-atoms which was accepted by many nineteenth-cent ury physicists. These included the founders of field theory: Faraday and Maxwell. Boscovich studied philosophy, wh ich then included physics, astronomy, and mathematics, at the Collegium Romanum in Rome, and taught mathema tics there. He was involved in numerous scientific projects including surveys to determine the shape of the Ear th through measuring a meridian in Italy, and observations on eclipses including a journey via Argentina to Califor nia in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus. He invented various practical instruments such as the prismatic micromet er. He also was the first to develop several geometric procedures such as determining the equation of rotation of a p lanet from three observations and computing the orbit of a planet from three observations. Interestingly, the mos t recent Encyclopedia Britannica article on Boscovich discusses his practical observations and calculations in a half-pag e article, but does not mention his theory of matter. In contrast, the 1801 edition of the same encyclopedia devote d fourteen pages to Boscovich and his theory of matter. Boscovich was unusual in the eighteenth-century physics community in Eur ope both in being a Jesuit and in being a resident of the "backward" southeastern fringe of Europe. It is perhaps significant that the "dematerialization of matter" via the force theory of matter was initiated by Boscovich, from Southeas tern Europe, on the fringe of the Ottoman Empire, and Kant from Königsberg, far in the east of Europe, which became K aliningrad in the Soviet Union. Boscovich was a literary figure as well as a physicist and philosopher. Among his one-hundred or so books and articles are scientific treatises written in verse and a long commentary on a poem by Say which presents the ideas of Descartes and Newton. Stay's poem was an attempt to pen a modern equivalent of the ancient Roman Lucretius's On the Nature of Things. This was the same project that another poet had earlier p lanned to undertake, and for which Leibniz sketched his Monadology. After serving in Rome, and as an astronomer in Milan and other parts of Italy, with the suppression of the Jesuit order in Italy in 1773, Boscovich went to France. In France as a Jesuit and a foreigner he was opposed and despised by such partisans of the Enlightenment as D'Alembert. In part for reas on of his Jesuitical affiliations, Boscovich's theory was for the most part not praised or referred to in France, w ith the exception of the nineteenth century elasticity theorist, Saint Vernant. Various important English physicist s, however, frequently referred to Boscovich. Boscovich was the one of the first physicist in Italy to fully accep t Newton's theory of gravitation. He

potential diagrams in the theory of solid-state physics (see diagram 3). Collisio ns of Newton's atoms. For some other atoms. molecular structure. however. Leibniz had. There should be a gradual transition from any velocity to any other. which collided. In addition. Boscovich's curve of force can be used to explain a vast number of pheno mena in chemistry and physics. Boscovich's diagrams bear a striking resemblance to the contempo rary. could be explai ned by this simple curve of force. It does not involve the appeal to separate attractive and repulsive forces although it can and was used by theorists who wished to supplement Newton's theory of gravitation at long distances with a the ory of repulsive forces at short . the Newtonian atom possesse d two velocities simultaneously. Although Boscovich based himself on Leibniz's principle of continuity. but they did not correspond to material atoms. as elastic or soft because they were indefinitely divisible. Furthermore. At the point where the atom existed. rejected Newton 's conception of the absolutely hard atom. and presented the view of matter as ultimately continuous. which prevented atoms from penetrating each other with the attractive force. Thus. Boscovich noted that the instantaneous reversal of velocity in collision of Newtonian atoms was inconsistent with the principle of continuity. This was the conception from which Boscovich began his criticism and revision of the Newtonian atom. oscillates back and force between fairly strong attraction and repul sion near the atom (see diagram 2). This curve produced by Boscovich by a priori reasoning corresponds al most exactly in shape to the potential curve of the hydrogen atom in contemporary quantum mechanics. Boscovich reconciled the need for a repul sive force. Boscovich believed that at the instant of collision. he accepted Newton's conception of gravitational force. He did this by presenting a curve of force which started as infinitely repulsive at the point of the atom and rapidly declined to a force somewhat attractive at a short distance from the atom and then became prog ressively more weakly attractive (see diagram). or spiritual atoms. while accepting Newton's conception of force. Newton presented atoms as indivisible and absolutely hard. Leibniz's monads were not material but spiritual. Boscovich. Leibniz had rejected the idea of indivisible atoms.combined adherence to Leibniz's Principle of Continuity with Newton's conception of force exerted by atoms. its incoming velocity and its recoil velocity. In the case of metals. involved absolutely hard bodies and the instantaneous reversal of velocity. They were "metaphysical points". as we would call it. Boscovich developed a theory of atoms as point-centers of repulsive force . instead of making the transition from r epulsion to gradually decreasing attraction. as we saw earlier. Boscovich claimed that this was cont radictory. Leibniz claimed that all gravitational attraction had to be accounted for by contact action of the material aether (the very fine material which supposedly filled all space) in the manner of the Cartesians. This could account for the fact that other atoms would be stably attracted to an atom at a certain distance or distances from the first atom. the curve. the repulsive force went to infinity. rejected Newton's gravitational force as "occult". Lei bniz conceived of any bodies. which accounted for gravitatio nal attraction at great distances.

Ne wton did not believe that atoms were literal. However. and considered it together with his for ce curve to solve the problems raised by Newton's notion of hard-sphere atoms.distances. there is a significant role of Boscovich' s ideas. was trained in scholast icism. Joseph Henry. One might think of his "atoms" as sim ply singularities in the distribution of force where the repulsive force goes to infinity. and as the formal c onceptual apparatus of analytical mechanics became more and more familiar. it is Kant who presented atoms as pure singu larities in a field of force. but his science is certainly up-todate Newtonian in nature. However. Sir Robert Greene in the early eighteenth-century. For Kant. mathematical points. This idea was not totally original with Boscovich insofar as the representation of atoms as mathem atical points was used by Newton himself and by numerous physicists in the early eighteenth-century. In other cases. such as those of William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). Just as Newton's reference s to Hermes or Pythagoras need not mean that he actually found physical principles in them. This view is more like the co nception. but of space. We shall discuss Kant's theory in the next section. Some commentators have claimed that Boscovich is not an atomist at a ll. William Rowan Hamilton.and early nineteenthcentury habitually represented atoms as mathematical points. Actually. The question can be raised as to whether Boscovich was genuinely an atom ist at all. Greene's work is extremely p rimitive and in places more Aristotelian than Newtonian. such as that of Faraday. being a Jesuit. Boscovich. the extent to which ideas of Boscovich are genuinely present in their thought and the extent to which their r eferences to Boscovich are merely historical decorations are more difficult to assess. Bos covich took the notion of atoms as points quite literally in a metaphysical sense. The mathematical physicists who developed rational mechanics during the eighteenth-century often used hypotheses of point-atoms as well as hypotheses of continuous matter. and not as genuine "things". but rather that they were tiny. Boscovich endowed his point-atoms with inertia as well as with attractive and repulsive force. T his makes his points into point-atoms and not into pure singularities in a field of force. and Saint Venant. presented a view of this sort in his Philosophy of the Expansive and Contractive Forces in 1726. the frequent references to B oscovich in the nineteenth century may simply be a placeholder for any view of atoms different from that of the hard sp here or elastic sphere models. His atoms have no spatial dimensions. Indeed. as for Faraday. Boscovich's theory is commonly referred to in the nineteenth-century as "Boscovichian atomism. this technical device came to more lite rally believed. the forces are properties of space." Part of the theory that was widely accepted and referred to was the conception of atoms as m aterial points. In the ca se of the hypotheses of continuous . Many mathematical physicists in the late eighteenth. hard spheres. Boscovich's forces are propert ies of the atom. In field theories. forces are properties not of matter . which Faraday took from Boscovich. the forces are matter. and have no material content. and others. Maxwell. However. In some cases. A number of physicists in the nineteenth-century referred favorably to B oscovich.

particularly in France. Later. As was noted earlier. Voltaire and D'Alembert ridiculed Boscovich fo r his Jesuitical and "scholastic" ideas. Also Lagrange is famous for his boast that his Mechani que Analytique does not possess a single picture. D'Alembert was highly anti-metaphysical and made such statements as "the essence of matter and the ide a we form of it will always be wrapped in obscurity". Boscovich used the more old-fashioned geometrical method of rea soning. Since D'A lembert was an influential philosopher and literary figure as well as a physicist. one can interpret these either as a rejection of atomism or as the ident ification of the atoms in the continuous substance as mathematical points. his accounts of the history of physi cs were extremely influential in their own right. This work was a major intellectual work in the combat against the Roman Catholic Church in France. he would be prone to dismiss Boscovich's metaphysical theorizing even if Boscovich had not been a Jesuit and a "crude" Eastern European. Lagrang e was a friend of D'Alembert and held enlightenment attitudes. D`Alembert. and "if you strip it of all attributes. On the other hand the poi nt atom can be taken realistically as a genuine physical object. part of the reason for lack of reference to Boscovich among the French purveyors of rati onal mechanics lies in the cultural conditions in France at that time. However. Thu s. were considered to be definitive. On the one hand the mass point can be a calculational device. such as the so-called vis viva controversy. It is often difficult to assess how seriously in a realistic sense these hypotheses are meant. being both a physicist and an important salon figure of the French Enlightenment. D'Alembert rejected analyzing force as such. Although Boscovich used the geometrical rather than the analytical metho d for both the investigation and . nor need they do so. historians of science were inordinately influenced by D'Alem bert's claims. substance will be nothing but a word". "that is what we make up our minds not to know". following Newton's use of the point center of mass as the locus of all mass of a planet or an atom. Boscovich was also quite international in his outlook. The giants of Continental rational mechanics do not refer to Boscovich. Boscovich the Jesuit w as opposed and ridiculed by the supporters of the Enlightenment. understood Boscovich.matter. influenced the way in which posterity. Lagrange presented mechanics as a purely formal structure. Nu merous articles. Boscovich is not referred to at all in the Encyclopedia of the French ph ilosophes. This was due to his acting as an agent of the church. His own assessments of the debates of the day. and had even planned to travel in an astronomical expedition to the Ame ricas. Boscovich was actually quite up to date in his awareness and advocacy of contemp orary scientific ideas. and as a poet and writer was part of the literary scene of the day. cast doubt on religion and emphasized the advances of the sciences a nd technology. The influence of Lagrange on the general French ignoring of Boscovich du ring the nineteenth century (with the noted exception of Saint Venant) was similar to that of D'Alembert. and having lived all over Europe. indirectly or not so indirectly. f rom as far as Constantinople and England.

sardonically notes "he who would learn the ideas of mechanics in the Age of Reason must look elsewhere than in this book. L agrange attempted to replace the mysterious infinitesimals by Taylor series even in places where the Taylor serie s have since been found not to exist. the founder of truly rigorous approaches to the calculu s. Many works such as those of the philosophe and prophet of progress Condorcet and many calculus t exts of the period such as those of Arbogast." Lagrange's contempt probably stemmed from his rejection or apparent rejection of pictorial models. thus being. and Clairaut.exposition of problems. however. in his introd uction to the Theory of Natural Philosophy. D'Alembert was ahead of his time in attempting to replace infinitesimals with li mit processes. That is. was an advocate of the Boscovich's point atom as well. as well as to his nationalism. such as Carnot (of the Carnot cycle in thermodynamics) an d Lacroix. Langrange's work is ofte n taken as: "a final summary and authority for what was known concerning mechanics before 18 00. as Todhunter notes. Child. "the work of a professor for the purposes of instruction. include most of the references consulted by Mach. he was familiar with the calculus. However. attempted to replace infinitesimals with a clumsy and incorrect mixture of finite differences (finite distances) and series. Boscovich does refer to the work of D'Alembert . uses purely geo metrical presentations but these are. To a reader of 1958 as well as one of 1788 almost any handful of pages from Newton's Principia contains more of mechanics than Lagrange's whole treatise. and claims that his theory will be useful in accounting for their work. doubly. and his French Enlightenment opposition to Jesuits. However many other French mathematicians. Boscovich used the geometrical method even in his more specialized works. and Brasseur used this unrigorous and eclectic hodgepodge. Truesdell claims that the Analytica l Mechanics "reflects the extreme formalism of the moribund ancien regime. Euler. Lagrange's text Analytical Mechanics influ enced later interpretations of the history of mechanics. infinitesimally short distances or meas ures of the sort which Leibniz had used. Boscovich's Supplement s to Stay. Even more than to D'Alembert. however. his commentary on Stay's sastronomical poem. Kargon. It may be that the French rejection of the infinitesimal supported the rejection of the point-atom as well. as well as in his De Litteraria Expeditione. According to Clifford Truesdell. was to popularize his new theory among a wider range of students. According to R. and for mech anics more generally. his purely formal approach to mechanics. but also its historical sections constitute the first history of the mechanics of continuous bodies. Nevertheless. the ultimate source of the historical beliefs commonly infused along with instruction in mechanics today"( ) Truesdell. Servois. claims that Boscovich's geometrical exposition." Also the French mathematicians of the late eighteenth century attempted to dispense with infinitesimals." Indeed. Lagrange "had nothing but contempt for Boscov ichian atomism. Mechanics. will not be reduce d to differential algebra. H. It is interesting that Cauchy." . they rejected the notion of genuine. without the aid of c alculus.

Hamilto n was an Irishman and was probably in part influenced by the Scottish appropriation of Boscovich. was himself an advocate of Boscovich's atomism. Bishop Berkeley's idealism is quite foreign to the spirit of Boscovich's Theoria. late in his life. Thus the physicist and philosopher public thinks of Dirac as someone who reasons without pictures. without any figure or dimension. physical properties or relations. of connection wi th. merely to mark its conceived possession of. which insofar as it is not supposed to be independent of metaphysics. being called an atom instead of a point.. merely a personal . later was drawn to Boscovich's theory as an alternativ e to materialistic atomism. and consists in representing all phenomena of motion as produced by the action of localized energies of attraction or repul sion. When Dirac was asked if his talk could be published. Lagrange's intellectual successor in the process of the ab straction of rational mechanics. Boscovich dematerializes matter in the direction of ssmathematical realism of points.Oddly enough.. although objectively and in the truth of things. In a letter to Coleridge Hamilton says that he plans to do for Boscovich what La grange had done for Newton." Addendum: Visualization and Point Particles: Lagrange is frequently quoted for his boast that his treatise makes no u se of illustrations. while Lagrange probably dismissed Boscovich for his crude. in a letter to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1832. William Rowan Hamilton. wrote: "I regard a certain atomistic theory as having subjective truth. while in fact he did use diagrams. Hamilton notes that the new mechanics ".has become more dynamic by having dismissed the conceptions of solidity and cohesion and those other materially imagined ties to geometrical conditions which Lagrange so happily reasoned upon. the power at tributed to atoms belong not to them but to God. and this centre. like Hutton. is strongly realistic and dualist. g eometrical and pictorial approach. and himself bragged that he used no diagrams. However. but they do so in quite different directions. Dirac ga ve a talk at Boston University on how he made use of diagrams from projective geometry in making his inferences in quantu m mechanics. and being a fit medium between our understand and certain phenomena. Hamilton criticizes Lagrange himse lf as being too much guided by pictorial considerations. each energy having centre in space. Hamilt on. while Berkeley dematerializes matter in the di rection of sensations ("ideas of sense"). who early read Berkeley's criticism of materialism. he shamefacedly said that his diagrammatic techniques were not sufficiently technical for publication. Is this claim of Hamilton's concerning the geometrical aspect of Lagrang e's mechanics. unified his Boscovich with his Berkeley. Hamilto n. which is suppose to be a mathematical point... Ironically. The atomistic theory of which I speak is nearly that of Boscovich. A similarly famous claim is made by Dirac early in his Principles of Quantum Mechanics that the pur pose of science is not to provide pictures but to make numerical predictions. Kargon notes tha t both Boscovich and Berkeley "dematerialize matter"." Hamilton..

. denounced Fe ynmann when the latter first presented his diagrams at the Shelter Island conference where quantum field theo ry was first introduced. . Todhunter.R. Life of W. Lagrangian mechanics seems less abstract than Hamiltonian me chanics. Concepts of the Calculus. Opera Omnia. Roger. . pp 91-103. M. Letter to Coleridge. cit. and the Revival of Boscovichian Atomism. Vol. p. R. 1964. Oxford: Oxford University Press. â Michael Faraday." American Journal of Physics. vol. 169. p. Lancelot Law Whyte. p. Oct. one possible insight into the geometrical quality of the Lagrangian is in Feynman's "sum over histories" formulation of quantum mechanics. New Jersey: Princeton Univer sity Press. 2 40." in Paul Edwards. p. 60. Kargon. 351. Boscovich. vol. 85. "William Rowan Hamilton. January 1965. . Grove Press. 1. 309. 259. See Boyer. Jean D'Alembert. the new intuitive approach to quantum mechanics. Ronald Grimsley. Clifford Truesdell. p. op. Faraday as Natural Philosopher. R. p. fig. Chicago: University of Chicag o Press. Richard Olson. 409. pp. No. . . in Graves.. 168.. vol . Princeton. ibid. Kargon. citied by Kargon. 257-266 for a survey of texts of th e period. 411. ibid. Hamilton. 1. that is. 412.A. BOSCOVICH: ENDNOTES "Boscovich. Encyclo pedia of Philosophy. . 1971. 32. . Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science. Princeton. 1970. Leonardi Euleri.. Ibid. Joseph Agassi.. . who earlier had opposed the pictorial approach of Schrödinger's wave mechanics. p. 32. . Dover. Hamilton and Boscovichian Atomism". Hermann Weyl. 1949. vol. H." Bohr.. Agassi. apparently in a compromise to the partisans of intuition. said that Feynm ann diagrams might be the "Neue Anschaulichkeit". . Ibid. 137-138. Cecil Schneer. the Lagrangian is developed as a prolegomena to the Hamiltonian. "The Rational Mechanics of Flexible or Deformable Bodies 1638-1788". Ibid. .. but both use multidimensional spaces and in elementary texts on quantum mechanics. who opposed visual models in quantum mechanics. 1960. Roger Joseph. 26. . 1 969. Heisenberg. Series Secunda. 12 caption. p. ." Encyclopedia. X-XI. 13 October. . Britannica. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. "The Reception of Boscovich's Ideas in Scotland. 1975. . ed. 1962. Volume 1. See also Olson's Scottish Philosophy and British Physics. and found the latter "disgusting" later. Vol. p. 311. Kargon.foible? After all. "W. Feynman used his diagrams as a means of "keeping track of the Lagrangian. ." Isis. pp. Mind and Matter. However. reprinted 1963. . p. "Boscovich. New York. A History of Mathematical Theories of Attraction and the Fi gure of the Earth. American Journal of Physics. Journal of the History of Ideas.1963. 10. 137-141. 86. pp. Theory of Natural Philosophy. 1986. 593.. p. 1832. p.

cited by Kargo n. cit.. Miller. personal communication. vol. MIT. Hamilton. . . p. Hist. . See also. Marx Wartofsky. Mathematical Papers. "Visualization Lost and Regained. R. Massachus etts: Birkhauser. Hamilton. 2. 793. op.1964.On Aesthetics in Science. 1984." J. Miller's Imagry in Scientific Thought. . Arthur I. Boston. 1978. 104. "W. in greater scope. Ideas. William Rowan. p." in Judith Wechsler.

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