The wrong Bose at Como

Economic Times 31May 1994

Rajesh Kochhar

The 70th birthday celebration of the noted physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) in Calcutta was witness to an unusual event. One of the invited speakers in the function was Debendra Mohan Bose (1885-1975) the nephew of the famed Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858-1937) and a well known physicist. He was the grand old man of Calcutta science. In the course of his speech he referred to the 1927 international conference at Como in Italy which he had attended when S N Bose interrupted him by pointing out that D M Bose had gone on an invitation that was actually meant for him. The interrupted by the mild-mannered and usually reticent Satyen Bose caused a flutter, especially because the reference was to a 37-year old incident.

In the year of S N Bose’s birth centenary it is of historical interest to recount what led to this confusion. At the time of the Como conference, S N Bose was a professor at Dacca University where he had moved in 1921. He wrote his famous paper on ‘Planck’s constant. ‘The Como conference, held during 11-20 September 1927, had been billed as a ‘meeting of exceptional interest’ in commemoration of the first centenary of the death of Volta. At this international congress of physics, 14 countries were represented by about 60 invited participant, including 11 Noble laureates. India was represented by two scientists: D M Bose and M N Saha. But, it turned out at the meeting that the organizers had intended to invite S N Bose, the co-founder of Bose-Einstein statistics.

When S N Bose wrote his paper providing statistical mechanical basis for Planck’s radiation law, he very boldly decided to send is to Albert Einstein. In the covering letter dated 4 June 1924, Bose requested Einstein to evaluate his paper, and if found worthy, arrange for its translation into German and publication in the Zeitschrift fuer Physik. Einstein promptly acknowledged Bose’s latter, translated the paper himself, and sent it to the journal with a laudatory note at the end. The paper was received by the journal on 2 July 1924 and published in the August issue.

Einstein remarked in his note that “The method used here gives also the quantum theory of an ideal gas, as I shall show else where” and Einstein’s paper ‘Quantum theory of monatomic ideal gas’ appeared in print on 20 September 1924. Bose’s epoch making work and Einstein’s prompt follow-up gave rise to Bose-Einstein statistics (now shortened to Bose statistics) which applies to elementary particles that are indistinguishable from each other and these, in turn, are termed bosons. Unwittingly, Einstein applied the ‘indistinguishability principle of bosons to the two Boses themselves: S N Bose who corresponded with him and D M Bose who spent time at Berlin.

Bose’s covering letter to Einstein had been signed as S N Bose. However, the paper sent to the Zeitschrift by Einstein is credited simply to Bose (without initials), Dacca University, India. Einstein compounds the mistake by his carelessness in his own follow-up paper. Here he refers to Bose’s epoch-making work but attributes it to Hrn (Mr) D Bose. So what must have happened is when the Como conference decided to invite S N Bose, they went by Einstein’s paper rather than S N Bose’s own. Accordingly the invitation went to D M Bose who made his appearance at Como.

It is not known in which archive the original invitation exists. It is, however, mildly amusing to note that truth was revealed not by the beneficiary D M Bose, but by the victim S N Bose whose next visit abroad was to occur only 27 years later, in July 1954.

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