Satyendra Nath Bose: Untold story of the Indian Father of the ‘God Particle’!

Satyendra Nath Bose was an Indian physicist specializing in theoretical physics. He is best known for his work on quantum mechanics in the early 1920s, providing the foundation for Bose–Einstein statistics and the theory of the Bose–Einstein condensate. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he was awarded India’s second-highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan in 1954 by the Government of India.

The class of particles that obey Bose-Einstein statistics, bosons, was named after Bose by Paul Dirac.

polymath, he had a wide range of interests in varied fields including physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, mineralogy, philosophy, arts, literature, and music. He served on many research and development committees in sovereign India.

Bose was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), the eldest of seven children in a Bengali Kayastha family. He was the only son, with six sisters after him. His ancestral home was in the village Bara Jagulia, in the then district of Nadia, in the Bengal Presidency. His schooling began at the age of five, near his home. When his family moved to Goabagan, he was admitted into the New Indian School. In the final year of school, he was admitted into the Hindu School. He passed his entrance examination (matriculation) in 1909 and stood fifth in the order of merit. He next joined the intermediate science course at the Presidency College, Calcutta, where his teachers included Jagadish Chandra BoseSarada Prasanna Das, and Prafulla Chandra Ray. Bose chose mixed (applied) mathematics for his BSc and passed the examinations standing first in 1913 and again stood first in the MSc mixed mathematics exam in 1915. His marks in the MSc examination created a new record in the annals of the University of Calcutta, which is yet to be surpassed.

After completing his MSc, Bose joined the University of Calcutta as a research scholar in 1916 and started his studies in the theory of relativity. It was an exciting era in the history of scientific progress. Quantum theory had just appeared on the horizon and important results had started pouring in.

His father, Surendranath Bose, worked in the Engineering Department of the East Indian Railway Company. In 1914, at age 20, Satyendra Nath Bose married Ushabati Ghosh, the 11-year-old daughter of a prominent Calcutta physician. They had nine children, two of whom died in early childhood. When he died in 1974, he left behind his wife, two sons, and five daughters.[11]

As a polyglot, Bose was well versed in several languages such as Bengali, English, French, German and Sanskrit as well as the poetry of Lord TennysonRabindranath Tagore and Kalidasa. He could play the esraj, an Indian musical instrument similar to a violin. He was actively involved in running night schools that came to be known as the Working Men’s Institute.

Bose attended Hindu School in Calcutta, and later attended Presidency College, also in Calcutta, earning the highest marks at each institution, while a fellow student and future astrophysicist Meghnad Saha came second. He came in contact with teachers such as Jagadish Chandra Bose, Prafulla Chandra Ray and Naman Sharma who provided inspiration to aim high in life. From 1916 to 1921, he was a lecturer in the physics department of the University of Calcutta. Along with Saha, Bose prepared the first book in English based on German and French translations of original papers on Einstein’s special and general relativity in 1919. In 1921, he joined as Reader of the Department of Physics of the recently founded University of Dhaka (in present-day Bangladesh). Bose set up whole new departments, including laboratories, to teach advanced courses for MSc and BSc honors and taught thermodynamics as well as James Clerk Maxwell‘s theory of electromagnetism.

Satyendra Nath Bose, along with Saha, presented several papers in theoretical physics and pure mathematics from 1918 onwards. In 1924, while working as a Reader (Professor without a chair) at the Physics Department of the University of Dhaka, Bose wrote a paper deriving Planck’s quantum radiation law without any reference to classical physics by using a novel way of counting states with identical particles. This paper was seminal in creating the very important field of quantum statistics. Though not accepted at once for publication, he sent the article directly to Albert Einstein in Germany. Einstein, recognizing the importance of the paper, translated it into German himself and submitted it on Bose’s behalf to the prestigious Zeitschrift für Physik. As a result of this recognition, Bose was able to work for two years in European X-ray and crystallography laboratories, during which he worked with Louis de BroglieMarie Curie, and Einstein.

The Indomitable Bose- The Genius Who Wanted To Take Science To The People In Their Own Language!

Satyendra Nath Bose at Dacca University (now Dhaka) in Bangladesh in the 1930s.

As a Professor and Head of the Department of Physics at Calcutta University, Prof Bose brought in several revolutionary changes. Under his able guidance, enrolment of Muslim students went up from a meagre 160 in 1921 to 600 in 1941.

A renaissance man, he dismissed caste-based dining arrangements and integrated students from all sections of society.

He transformed the libraries and laboratories into centers of excellence for experimental and theoretical research and upgraded them with the latest facilities so research in fields of X-ray spectroscopy, optical spectroscopy and wireless technology could become a reality.

Apart from science, the stalwart had varied interests in literature, music, and philosophy too.

When he had to miss the annual entrance examination in 1908 due to chickenpox, he is said to have utilized the time for recuperation by studying advanced mathematics and Sanskrit classics.

During his final years, most of his speeches, keynote addresses as well as the various articles he penned, lamented the lack of momentum in intellectual awakening that he foresaw for India.

As an unwavering champion for the mother tongue as medium of instruction in schools, Prof Bose was not averse to English language education.

In the present political climate, efforts to champion Indic scripts and native languages as media of instruction could be construed as an ‘elitist ploy’ to deny learning and mastering of the English language and in turn, preventing the so-called progress of the working class.

While today, we have data to show that a mother-tongue based instruction leads to a significant increase in educational achievement, it would bode well for policymakers to pay heed to brilliant minds like S N Bose and not undermine of the power of vernacular languages while creating national language policies.

The Indian Father of the ‘God Particle!

In the word “boson,” as media reports have plentifully pointed out during the past two days, is contained the surname of Satyendra Nath Bose, the Calcutta physicist who first mathematically described the class of particles to which he gave his name. As was common with Indian scientists in the early 20th century, however, his work might easily have eluded international recognition. Like the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujam, Mr. Bose was saved from obscurity by a generous and influential mentor in Europe. In Mr. Bose’s case, that mentor turned out to be one of the greatest physicists of them all: Albert Einstein.

A passport photograph of Satyendra Nath Bose taken before he left for Europe in 1924 where he met Albert Einstein.

In 1921, Mr. Bose moved from the faculty of the University of Calcutta to that of the University of Dhaka. He had already published papers with his friend and colleague Meghnad Saha, working particularly equations of state, which describe how matter behaves under differing sets of physical conditions. Mr. Bose was not entirely happy in Dhaka at first. A month after he moved, he wrote to Mr. Saha:

“Work has not yet started. [The university has] quite a few things but due to utter neglect they are in a bad way. Perhaps I need not elaborate. On the table of the sahibs are scattered lots of Nicol prisms, lens and eye-pieces. It would require a lot of research to determine which one belongs to which apparatus. We do suffer from a lack of journals here, but the authorities of the new university have promised to place orders for some of them along with their back numbers. Talk is going on about having a separate science library.”

After he settled in, Mr. Bose began to worry away at the intricacies of black-body radiation. In 1918, Max Planck had won the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that objects emit radiation in discrete packets of energy, called quanta; he had also set down an equation governing this process. But as C.S. Unnikrishnan, a professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research told me, Mr. Bose was troubled by a perceived inconsistency in Mr. Planck’s process. “These quanta were treated as particles of light, but the equation simultaneously assumed that radiation was behaving like waves,” Mr. Unnikrishnan said. “Somewhere this was cheating – that was Bose’s impression. So he had to invent a way of counting the particles in a ‘gas’ of light, at various possible energy states, and still have Planck’s law hold good. He was reverse-engineering Planck’s equation, in a way.”

Much later, in 1970, Mr. Bose would tell an interviewer named Jagdish Mehra:

“As a teacher who had to make these things clear to his students, I was aware of the conflicts involved and had thought about them. I wanted to know how to grapple with the difficulty in my own way. It was not some teacher who asked me to go and solve this little problem. I wanted to know. And that led me to apply statistics.”

The paper he wrote, titled “Planck’s Law and the Light-Quantum Hypothesis,” was first rejected by a referee at the London-based journal named Philosophical Magazine, which had published some of Mr. Bose’s previous papers. Undeterred, Mr. Bose sent it, in the summer of 1924, to Berlin, to the desk of Mr. Einstein, who had won his own Nobel three years earlier. Mr. Einstein received dozens of such manuscripts every day, and he was already turning away from the field of quantum mechanics to work out larger unified theories. (In “Subtle is the Lord,” Abraham Pais noted that “Einstein said of his work in quantum statistics, ‘That’s only by the way.’”) But perhaps something about Mr. Bose’s accompanying letter caught Einstein’s eye:

Respected Master,

I have ventured to send you the accompanying article for your perusal and opinion. I am anxious to know what you think of it… I do not know sufficient German to translate the paper. If you think the paper worth publication I shall be grateful if you arrange for its publication in Zeitschrift fur Physik. Though a complete stranger to you, I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request. Because we are all your pupils though profiting only by your teachings through your writings. I do not know whether you still remember that somebody from Calcutta asked your permission to translate your papers on Relativity in English. You acceded to the request. The book has since been published. I was the one who translated your paper on Generalised Relativity.

Yours faithfully

S. N. Bose

Mr. Einstein did indeed think the paper worth publication. Within a month, he had translated and submitted it to Zeitschrift für Physik, appending a note at the end of its four concise, equation-filled pages: “In my opinion Bose’s derivation signifies an important advance.” Mr. Einstein would take Mr. Bose’s work further still, applying his statistical techniques to “count” atoms in an ordinary gas, and to discover the low-energy states of particles in the supercooled gases known now as Bose-Einstein Condensates.

The publication of this paper – and Mr. Einstein’s championing of it – earned Mr. Bose a two-year leave of absence to conduct research in Europe. His university had been reluctant to grant him this leave, but when Mr. Einstein sent him a hand-written postcard acknowledging the importance of his contribution, “it solved all problems,” Mr. Bose told Mr. Mehra, who wrote a short biography of him for the Royal Society in 1975. “That little thing gave me a sort of passport to the study leave. They gave me leave for two years and rather generous terms. I received a good stipend. They also gave a separation allowance for the family, otherwise, I would not have been able to go abroad at all. … Then I also got a visa from the German Consulate just by showing them Einstein’s card. They did not require me to pay the fee for the visa!”

In Paris, Mr. Bose worked with Maurice de Broglie and Marie Curie, armed with letters of introduction from a French physicist named Paul Langevin. “She was very nice,” he told Mr. Mehra about Ms. Curie. “I told her that I would remain in Paris for about six months and learn French well, but I wasn’t able to tell her that I knew sufficient French already and could manage to work in her laboratory. She preferred to have her own ideas and told me that I better be around a long time, not hurry, and concentrate on the language.” Mr. Bose met Mr. Einstein only in late 1925, in Berlin. That meeting, he recalled, “was most interesting. He wanted to know how I had hit upon the idea of deriving Planck’s law in this way. Then he challenged me. He wanted to find out whether my hypothesis…did really mean something novel about the interaction of quanta, and whether I could work out the details of this business.” These were momentous meetings for Mr. Bose. In 1972, in the American Journal of Physics, William Blanpied wrote after an interview with Mr. Bose: “Even more than forty years later, one still has the impression that the young Bose was terribly intimidated by Europeans… The nature of British rule in India…had the effect of making the subject people believe that they really were inferior.”

Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, left, and Satyendra Nath Bose at the Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal. Mr. Bose was the vice-chancellor of the university between 1956-1959.

Returning to Dhaka in 1926, Mr. Bose earned a professorship in physics, but he did not publish for a long time thereafter. His interests wandered – over the constantly shifting terrain of physics, but also into other fields, such as philosophy, anthropology, literature and the surging Indian independence movement. Only in 1937 did he publish his next physics paper; in the early 1950s, he worked on unified field theories, into which Mr. Einstein had thrown himself so completely, but these were hardly ground-breaking. “I was not really in science anymore,” Mr. Bose would tell Mr. Mehra, “I was like a comet, a comet which came once and never returned again.”

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