BOSCOVICH, Ruggero Giuseppe (1711-1787). Philosophiae naturalis theoria redacta ad unicam legem virium in natura existentium. Vienna: in officina Libreria Kaliwodiana, 1758.
4o (221 x 161 mm). Collation: a-c4 d2 A-C4 Aa-Rr4 Ss2 2a-2b4 s1. 185 leaves. "Adnotanda, et corrigenda" leaf from the 1759 edition bound in (with recto and verso reversed) between 2b4 and . 4 folding numbered engraved plates, woodcut head- and tailpieces and initials. (Small mark from removed inscription on title, quire 2b supplied from another, shorter copy, very slight uniform discoloration intrinsic to the paper.) 19th-century olive-stained calf, covers panelled in blind with gold tooled crowned monogram "CAR" at center, smooth spine gilt panelled in an 18th-century style, red morocco lettering-piece, marbled edges (slightly rubbed, some worming along joints, spine a bit faded); modern folding morocco case.
VERY RARE FIRST EDITION OF A FUNDAMENTAL WORK IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT, A PRECURSOR OF MODERN ATOMIC THEORY. The son of a cultured Dubrovnik merchant family, Boscovich (or Boskovic) became a Jesuit, and, like many intellectual Dalmatians of the period, emigrated to Italy. He spent most of his career there, as professor of mathematics at Rome and Pavia and as director of the observatory at Milan, teaching also in Paris and Vienna, and publishing widely in an astonishing variety of scientific disciplines. "Boskovic was perhaps the last great polymath to figure in an important way in the history of science, and his career was in consequence something of an anachronism and presents something of an enigma. He stands between Newton and Leibniz at one extreme and Faraday and field theory at the other... A somewhat isolated figure, he belonged to no definite eighteenth-century tradition... [H]e published in the mode of an earlier time. He wrote treatises on whole sciences, and at certain periods in his life composed several such works in the course of a year. Nevertheless, his reputation has been rather that of a forerunner than a survival..." (DSB).
The Theory of natural philosophy was Boscovich's masterpiece. In it he expounds a theory of matter as a series of discontinuous indivisible points (puncta), interacting in pairs, with each point surrounded by a field of force alternately attractive and repulsive (or positive and negative) depending on the distance between them. Boscovich's "point-atoms" were "distinguished from geometrical points only by their possession of inertia and their mutual interaction. Extended matter then becomes the dynamic configuration of a finite number of centers of interaction" (DSB). This universal law of forces, which evolved from Boscovich's attempt to build a comprehensive physics based on but going beyond the ideas of Newton and Leibniz, anticipated many features of modern atomic and nuclear physics. Its importance was immediately recognized, especially in Britain, but Boscovich's theory was generally regarded as pure speculation. Although Boscovich's view of matter was "akin to that of recent physics, in that it is relational, structural and kinematic... it is not certain how far the Theoria influenced the development of atomic theory. It was widely studied, and Michael Faraday, Sir William Hamilton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Lord Kelvin (to mention only English scientists) stressed the theoretical advantage of the Boscovichian atom over rigid atoms. In any case, Boscovich's work marked an important stage in the history of our ideas about the universe, and his system will remain the paradigm of the theory of point particles" (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edwards, New York 1972, I, pp. 350-351).
The work was reprinted in 1759, and a revised edition appeared in Venice in 1763. Copies of this first edition are notoriously rare, and are rarely found in the fine condition of the Norman copy. PMM 203; Riccardi 1:180, no. 53.1; Whyte, pp. 41 and 127-152; Norman 277.