Has history been unkind to Bose? Not quite

Rajesh Kochhar

If we feel aggrieved that the West has not done enough for our heroes of yesteryear, it is because of our present-day inadequacies

EXPERIMENTAL identification of a subatomic particle postulated half a century ago by British Professor Peter Higgs is one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of the century. Never before has technology of such a high order been pressed into the service of basic science. It is extraordinary that scientists and engineers have been able to set up a laboratory that can mimic conditions that prevailed immediately after the big bang creation of the Universe.

An undated photo of a painting of Satyendra Nath Bose provided by the Bangiya Vigyan Parishad, or the Bengal Science Society, Kolkata. The ‘Boson’ in the Higgs Boson particle, whose search and ultimate detection was one of the longest and most expensive in the history of science, owes its name to Bose. — PTI

Higgs’ particle is a Boson, that is it belongs to the category of particles that obey the statistical equation written by Indian theoretical physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) in 1924 at Dacca University. All particles are not Bosons. There are others which are characterised as Fermions after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi.

Whenever a major scientific breakthrough is achieved in the West, which has even a remote Indian connection, the Indian media and the articulate classes start a breast-beating exercise by saying that for racial and cultural reasons, the West is denying due credit to India.

India was the first country outside the Western world to take to modern science. The world’s first non-white modern scientists were two Indian Professors, J. C. Bose and P.C. Ray. Similarly, the first Science Nobel Prize to go out of Europe and North America went to C.V. Raman in India. It is obvious that we have frittered away the initial advantage. If India today were to stop doing science altogether, the world would hardly notice. Instead of finding out why and how we missed the bus, we have taken to pelting stones at every passing vehicle.

That Higgs’ celebrated particle carries a label named after an Indian has provided us with an opportunity to indulge in our favourite pastime of victimhood. It has been said that Bose’s name has deliberately not been highlighted on the occasion, that he “had been historically ignored, both in India and abroad”, and that he should have won the Nobel Prize. No evidence has been provided in support of these allegations. All available facts in fact point to the contrary.

At the level of the Nobel Prize, or even lesser awards, it is much easier to recognise experiments than theory. Einstein did not get the Prize for his theoretical work, while Subramanya Chandrasekhar’s Nobel recognition came half a century after his theory of white dwarf stars. George Gamow who had predicted the existence of cosmic background radiation had long been dead when the radiation was experimentally detected. Nobel Prize-winning identification of Bose-Einstein condensates came only in 2001, a full 77 years after their prediction and 33 years after Bose’s death. It is interesting that while celebrating Raman’s Nobel prize work, which is purely experimental, we do not ask who gave the theory and why the theorist was not honoured. But when it comes to our own theorists, Saha and Satyen Bose,   we demand why their work was not recognized by the Nobel committee.

Eighty-three years old Higgs is fortunate that he has lived to see his theory being vindicated in his own lifetime. He may well get to share the Nobel Prize in Physics next year. If he  had died earlier, he would have missed the honour. His place in history, however, is independent of whether he visits Stockholm or not. It is creditable that the University of Edinburgh commissioned a portrait of him in 2008 in recognition of his contribution to science independently of what the Nobel Prize Committee may or may not do.

It is, therfore, patently wrong to say that Bose has not received due recognition for his work. His name is immortalised in the term “Boson” which is now a textbook stuff. What more honour can a scientist aspire for? Bose was a Reader at Dacca University, when he published his path-breaking paper. As a candidate for Professor’s post, he was advised by his friends and well-wishers to obtain a letter of recommendation from Einstein, which was considered necessary because Bose did not have a doctorate. Einstein was astonished that even after world recognition, Bose could need his personal recommendation. He, of course, did as he was asked. This part of the story is well known. What is not is the fact that even after his authorship of the Bose-Einstein statistics and Einstein’s testimonial, he was not selected for the post. The Professorship was offered to D. M. Bose and Satyen Bose was placed on the waiting list. Since D. M. Bose declined the offer, Satyen got the Professorship in 1927. Later, on the creation of East Pakistan, he was transferred to Calcutta University.

In the early 1950s, when the celebrated British physicist Paul Dirac visited India, he found to his horror that Bose was not a Fellow of the Royal Society. Such a glaring omission showed the Society in poor light. Dirac promptly arranged to have Bose elected as a Fellow, in 1958. Interestingly, at the time, there were already a number of Indian Fellows, but none of them chose to propose Bose’s name. We have here at work what we may call the Sultan’s Harem Syndrome. Inmates of a harem compete with one another to catch the eye of the Sultan, in this case the West.

Even at the best of times, Indian science was never self-assessing. It has always looked up to the West for support, encouragement and recognition. This may have been understandable during colonial times, when India’s own science community was small.

Bose was awarded Padma Vibhushan in 1954. Post-retirement he was appointed the Vice-Chancellor of Visva Bharati University. However, in 1959 he resigned from the post to become a National Professor. As his obituary written by an Indian and published by the Royal Society noted, he “received affection, hero-worship and veneration from his countrymen”. The only discourtesy he ever encountered came from the science establishment of his country. Chandrasekhar has recorded the following incident involving Satyen Bose: “When I was in India in 1961, I was to see M.S. Thacker, the Director-General for the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. When I went to see him, I was led to his office by the back door. Then Thacker said to me, ‘I am sorry I had to ask you to come by the back door. I had forgotten that I had an appointment with Satyen Bose at the same time. If you had come by the front door, he would have seen you since he is waiting outside’.” Chandrasekhar then goes on to record his own comments: “It seems unbelievable to me that an old man of 75 and of the stature of Satyen Bose would be kept outside.”

Satyen Bose’s place in the history of science was assured by a four-page paper that he wrote early in his career. He surely would have had no cause for complaint. If we feel aggrieved that the West has not done enough for our heroes of yesteryear, it is because of our present-day inadequacies. Suppose six months ago, physics students in our colleges and universities as well as their teachers had been asked: “What are Bosons and whom are they named after?” What percentage of respondents would have given the correct answer?

The writer is President-Elect of the International Astronomical Union Commission 41 (History of Astronomy). A former Director of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Developmet Studies, New Delhi, he is currently at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali. 


Corrected 25 July 2012