SN Bose — The Ignored Genius

There has been no other scientist in the world whose name is so indissolubly linked with Einstein in all the textbooks of physics. Still, many do not know much about the man or his personality.

Satyendra was born in 1st January 1894 to a middle-class Bengali family in Calcutta. He was the eldest of seven children with six sisters after him. At an early age Bose showed an aptitude for learning and a thirst for knowledge. His father was an accountant by profession who encouraged his son’s mathematical skills. For example, each morning he would leave arithmetic problems scribbled on the veranda floor and the young Satyendra would sit and do his sums and proudly showed his father when he returned.

When he was 15 years old in 1909, Satyendra began attending the Presidency College during when he came under the guidance of noteworthy professors such as Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose and Sir Prafulla Chandra Ray.

Meanwhile, in the far west, Albert Einstein had been collecting great praise for his theory of special relativity. The news of which had spread across the world. Like many others, Satyendra was deeply influenced by Einstein’s work.

At the age of 21, Satyendra earned a master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Calcutta and he did so by securing 92% marks a record which stands unbroken up to this date. Meghnad Saha, his peer, stood second. This was 1915, the year in which Einstein published the theory of general relativity a successor to his previous work. Little did he know that a certain young man in India had his theoretical work translated and published in Bengali.

As a polyglot, Satyendra was well versed in many languages like Bengali, English, Hindi, French, German and Sanskrit. Any modern scholar after their master’s degree would prefer to enroll for PhD. This would have been a straight-forward process. But Satyendra was certainly more interested in teaching, which was why from 1916 onwards he, along with Meghnad Saha, began to work as a lecturer.

Satyendra believed teaching to be a powerful tool to learning and he turned out to be right because when he was giving a lecture in Dhaka he felt dissatisfied with the existing derivations of Planck’s radiation law.

After much thought, he wrote a paper deriving the same result without the use of classical physics as Planck himself had done. Even though Bose had made a breakthrough, his method was instantly rejected by all those around. Despite this, he was not disheartened. He sent the paper directly to Albert Einstein in a letter writing:

Respected Sir,

I am anxious to know what you think of it. Though a complete stranger to you, I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request because we are all your pupils, thoroughly profiting only by your teachings and through your writings.

Einstein was hooked. He translated the paper into German and had it published under Bose’s name in 1924. He wrote back to Bose saying,

…your paper is a beautiful step forward…

Hence a new type of statistics was born, thanks to the collaboration between the East and the West.

Pic Credit: K C Wali

But there was more to the genius of Einstein that recognized the further importance of Bose’s paper when he predicted from it the existence of a new state of matter which we call today the bose-einstein condensate.

Just like there is solid, liquid and gas; there is also Bose-Einstein-Condensate or BEC in which every atom becomes indistinguishable from the others forming a giant super atom. In a normal gas, atoms move randomly at very high speeds but in the case of BEC the atoms stayed together in perfect harmony. This just goes on to show that not even Bose himself had realized the true potential of his own work.

Credit: Akhilesh K (learnpick.in)

Bose was appointed the head of the Department of Physics in Dhaka University, thanks to the letter of recommendation written by Albert Einstein.

Pic Credit: K C Wali (Reference of Bose by Einstein for Dhaka University)

During this phase of his life, he created a center of research in unified field theory at the University. He continued to teach there until 1945 but when the partition of India became imminent, Bose returned to Calcutta University as the Khaira Professor of Physics. He felt it like a deep wound in his heart on the division of his nation.

During 1953–54 Bose published five important papers on the Unified Field Theory. Although these papers were quite important but they did not create a great stir as earlier papers in 1924. He sent these papers to Einstein. Einstein was not sure how precisely Bose’s solution was to be used in physics and he discussed it in detail in one of his papers. Bose wrote down his reply in detail and he was supposed to discuss it personally with Einstein at Bonn on the occasion of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the theory of relativity. It did not happen. Einstein died in 1955. When Bose came to know the death of his master (as Bose addressed Einstein in his letters to Einstein) he was so overwhelmed with grief that he tore and threw away the only copy of his important paper. And that was the end of his work on the unified field theory

Bose continued teaching at the University of Calcutta until his retirement at age 62 in 1956. During this time, Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum mechanics visited the Calcutta University facility along with his wife. They were sharing the same car with Bose. Bose let them have the pleasantly warm backseat. The front seat which he occupied with the driver did not have much room.

Nevertheless, he requested two more of his students to get in. Dirac worried if it wasn’t too crowded at the front seat. Bose turned around and said in his disarming fashion:

“we believe in the Bose-Einstein statistics”

Dirac went on to explain to his wife in Bose-Einstein statistics, things are crowded together. The Name Boson was coined by Paul Dirac to honor the contributions of Bose in theoretical physics. Bose was also made the fellow of the Royal Society, a membership he long deserved, in 1958, at the request of Dirac.

Credit: gfycat

It is quite unfortunate that Bose was never awarded the Nobel Prize despite him making groundbreaking discoveries in physics and earning admirations from the likes of Einstein and Dirac. Rajinder Singh, physicist and historian of science, records that the Nobel Committee asked its expert Oskar Klein in 1956 to evaluate Bose’s work. Taking note of Bose’s nomination for his work on quantum statistics and for his contribution to Einstein’s unified field theory later, Klein appreciated the former contribution as important but “not so distinguished as the work of other physicists” who won the prize. Furthermore, he commented about the latter that it “would even fit less to spirit for the Physics Nobel Prize,” since “It is on the mathematical contribution to Einstein’s long-standing attempt for a universal field theory — whose physical meaning as well as the whole Einsteinian program in any case, is still quite obscure.” Bose’s case was not nominated in time and that the Nobel Committee had not been particularly in favour of theoretical physics. No wonder Einstein did not receive the prize, even for his most important work, the theory of relativity.

Yet, half the particles in the universe obey Bose’s Statistics and that in itself is a remarkable achievement. Today there is an institute at Kolkata named after Bose — the S. N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences. Bose died on February 04, 1974. As S. D. Chatterjee has written, “With Professor Satyen Bose’s death an era ended — an era of great men who created science in India.”

Meme Credit: Soumendu Jana

References:

  1. Bose Satyendra Nath | Home. (2021). Vigyanprasar.Gov.In
  2. Amitabha Bhattacharya, Remembering the Life of Satyendra Nath Bose. (2015). Economic and Political Weekly, 7–8.
  3. Wali K. C. (2009). Satyendra Nath Bose: his life and times. World Scientific.

Numbers alone don't get standing ovation; narratives does. Narratives inform, illuminate, and inspire. So, I tell more of them.