Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Unsung Scientist of the Nation, Satyen Bose

Brief Bio:

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. In 1937, Rabindranath Tagore dedicated his only book on science, Visva-Parichay, to Satyendra Nath Bose. He was honored with title Padma Vibhushan by the Indian Government in 1954. In 1959, he was appointed as the National Professor, the highest honor in the country for a scholar, which he held for 15 years. In 1986 S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences was established by an act of Parliament, Government of India, in Salt Lake, Calcutta in honour of this world renowned Indian scientist.

He was the President of Indian Physical Society and the National Institute of Science. He was elected General President of the Indian Science Congress. He was the Vice President and then President of Indian Statistical Institute. He was also nominated as member of Rajya Sabha. 

Untold History

When his meticulously researched paper sent for publication was returned by the Philosophical Magazine from London with not-so-flattering remarks, Satyendranath Bose did not lose heart. He was so sure of his finding. This was in 1924. 

Born on January 1, 1894, Bose studied in Calcutta and was brilliant in his studies. His classmate was the other great (also forgotten) Meghnad Saha, and the legendary Jagdish Chandra Bose was his teacher. 

At 22, Bose was appointed lecturer in Calcutta University, along with Saha. In 1921, he joined the then newly created Dacca University as Reader in Physics. He had a couple of papers published by the same journal earlier, co-authored with Saha. It was here while teaching that he wrote this paper for deriving the Planck's Law. His paper was titled ‘Planck's Law and Light Quantum Hypothesis.'

Golden period

The early decades of 1900 were a golden period in the growth of science. It was teeming with great scientists in the western world competing with one another creditably. This was the period when classical sciences such as physics, chemistry, astronomy and medicine were outpacing one another, despite little and inefficient communication. The Moore's law of today would pale into insignificance if we apply it to that period.

In 1900, Max Planck explained in the theory of black body radiation that light is emitted in discrete amounts (quanta) rather than as a continuous wave. But his derivation of this formula was not satisfactory to other scientists, in fact even to himself. However, his formula held true to everyone's surprise.

Albert Einstein's Nobel Prize-winning paper explained the photoelectric effect based on Planck's quanta as photons in 1905. (Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for this paper, not for his papers on Relativity!) But many of his colleagues were not fully convinced of his yet-to-be-developed photon theory. The world was waiting for a new theory on fundamental particles to fill the gaps.

Under these circumstances, Bose re-sent the paper to Albert Einstein in June 1924, with a fervent appeal for his perusal and opinion. “Though a complete stranger to you, I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request,” he wrote. (He was being modest; he had earlier translated Einstein's Relativity papers into English with Einstein's permission). Little could he have foreseen the impact this was going to have.

Einstein immediately recognised the significance of this paper. This paper was going to substantiate and revolutionise his theory of photoelectric effect. Einstein himself translated Bose's paper into German and sent it to Zeitschrift für Physik with his endorsement for publication. With his demigod status, Einstein's words carried much weight. It was promptly published, and immediately Bose shot into prominence.

Seminal phenomenon

Einstein personally invited Bose to work with him, and their efforts culminated in the Bose-Einstein statistics, an important and seminal phenomenon in quantum physics.

His work was wholeheartedly supported and appreciated by the leading lights in quantum theory, such as Louise de Broglie, Erwin Schroedinger, Paul Dirac and Heisenburg.

In honour of Bose' (and every Indian), Paul Dirac coined the word ‘Boson' for those particles which obey Bose's statistics. In atomic theory, only Fermions (named after Enrico Fermi) and Bosons were named after physicists. What a wonderful distinction conferred on our great scientist.

He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1954 — and forgotten afterwards.

This is not intended to be a scientific article, but a grim reminder of our apathy to our eminent scientists who had toiled with great shortcomings, yet came out with flying colours. J.C. Bose, P.C. Ray, M. Saha, C.V. Raman and countless other yesteryear scientists, who had achieved so much, were acclaimed internationally, yet ignored and were in oblivion at home.

Is it not a shame that Bose is known more to westerners (even now) than to Indians? How many of us are aware of his communication to Einstein and the subsequent events. It is perplexing why this little incident of Bose sending his paper to Einstein has not found a place in our school books! 

We overlook scientists and their achievements. Yet we don't fail to adulate and elevate Tendulkars, A.R. Rahmans, Kamal Hasans and Khans for their achievements on the screen/ in entertainment. No complaints. Just why don't we extend this courtesy to our real achievers? 
We, Indians, are blessed with many festivals to celebrate. Quite a few are new years! Apart from January 1, we have many new years, Assamese, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, etc. Of these, we chose unanimously to celebrate the astronomically insignificant date of January 1 as our own, and bash up our streets with unrestrained celebration with booze, dance and gaiety.

Why cannot January 1, birthday of Satyendranath Bose, be celebrated also as a National Scientist Day? Our National Science Day falls on February 28 in remembrance of the Raman Effect. 

In his book, The Scientific Edge, the noted physicist Jayant Narlikar observed:
S. N. Bose’s work on particle statistics (c. 1922), which clarified the behaviour of photonsparticles of light in an enclosure) and opened the door to new ideas on statistics of Microsystems that obey the rules of quantum theory, was one of the top ten achievements of 20th century Indian science an (the d could be considered in the Nobel Prize class.