March 29, 2020
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The Spark In A Crowded Field

S.N. Bose’s work on quantum physics is a direct ancestor of the ‘breakthrough’ at CERN

The Spark In A Crowded Field
The Spark In A Crowded Field

There has been great excitement recently over the discovery of the so-called ‘God particle’, but the term itself is misleading. Nobel laureate Leon Lederman confesses that he originally called it the ‘goddamn particle’, because it was so goddamn difficult to isolate, but a conservative editor edited it to make it less profane, thus giving it an unintendedly mystical and exalted connotation. Physicists wince with embarrassment at the name and the Guardian even ran a contest to suggest a more appropriate alternative: it considered names like ‘non-existon’, ‘bajingo’ and ‘the duh particle’ before awarding the prize to ‘the champagne-bottle boson’, after its shape.

Given all the recent global newspaper headlines about the ‘God particle’, it’s interesting to look at its Indian connection—and at Satyendranath Bose, the legendary Indian physicist. For the ‘God particle’, of course, is more correctly called the Higgs boson. And the boson itself happens to be named after Bose, for his work on “Bose-Einstein statistics”, which defines the boson’s behaviour. Serious physicists scoff that this connection is tenuous and naive, but there does seem to be a connection.

Bose was one of the great physicists of our time, and his name is clubbed together with Einstein, Niels Bohr and Max Planck. Many scientists express surprise that he never won a Nobel Prize for his work, especially since various other later physicists won a Nobel for work on concepts that had been pioneered by him. And, as some would ask, if Enrico Fermi (after whom the fermion was named) could win a Nobel, why didn’t Bose (after whom the boson was obviously named) do so?

Bose, remarkably, was self-taught in physics (his MSc was in mathematics and he never did a PhD). He started out as a child math prodigy, and the legend goes that at Calcutta’s famous Hindu School, his teacher gave him 110 in a maths exam, explaining that he’d correctly answered all of the alternative questions too. Bose went on to study at Presidency College, whose galaxy of teaching stars included Jagadish Chandra Bose in physics and Prafulla Chandra Ray in chemistry. Bose stood first in the BSc (Hons) examination (while Meghnad Saha, later known for his famous ‘Saha Equation’ of thermal ionisation, came second). In their MSc examination, the two of them again came first and second, respectively. They’d remain friends and colleagues for the rest of their lives.

A bit of trivia: ‘over-qualified’ for a job after finishing his MSc, Bose briefly gave private tuitions in maths to a zamindar’s son, Pramathesh Barua, who later became a pioneer among Indian film-makers, and who made the original Devdas in 1935. By then, of course, Bose got an appointment at Calcutta University. As a young man, Bose had to overcome enormous hurdles to teach himself physics: he had no access to modern textbooks on the concepts that were revolutionising physics at the time, like the theory of relativity and the quantum theory. He finally made friends with P.J. Bruhl, a German scientist living in Calcutta, who lent him the latest textbooks—but they were in German, so Bose had to first teach himself German in order to study them.

Many are amused how the discovery of the Higgs boson has triggered talk of Bose’s role in discovering the boson.

In 1924, Bose—then only 30 years old—sent a paper to Albert Einstein, titled Planck’s Law and the Light Quantum Hypothesis, which had been turned down by an English scientific publication. Einstein was deluged with mail, but Bose’s paper caught his attention. Realising its importance, Einstein himself translated it into German, and submitted it to the prestigious Zeitschrift fur Physik, with a note saying, with obvious understatement, “Bose’s derivation of Planck’s formula appears to me an important step forward”. Bose’s work was acknowledged as a breakthrough in quantum physics, and Einstein himself was sufficiently influenced by it to work on a series of papers on what he termed ‘Bose statistics’. As a result, Bose became a celebrity worldwide. He spent two years in Europe, rubbing shoulders—and ideas—with greats like Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger. Bose’s name, interestingly, figures in Einstein’s biography, Subtle is the Lord, which notes, “The paper by Bose is the fourth and last of the revolutionary papers of the old quantum theory (the other three being by, respectively, Planck, Einstein, and Bohr).” An elite quartet, indeed.

Somehow, however, Bose has acquired the reputation of being a genius who didn’t work hard enough to make full use of his talents. Perhaps it was because he was known to be happiest in front of a blackboard with his students (which was why he wrote so few papers in his prime). Or perhaps it was his typical Bengali love of ‘adda’, which he and his group of friends perfected to a fine art, discussing everything under the sun, from physics to economics, politics and musicology, over endless cups of ‘cha’. Perhaps it was because he was such a diffident person (when he wanted to work with Marie Curie in Paris, for example, she informed him he needed to first learn French; he was too shy to tell her that he spoke French, as well as German, fluently).

Or perhaps it was simply because of his overly casual exterior. When Nobel laureate Paul Dirac visited Calcutta, for example, Bose was driving him around and insisted on piling some of his students into the car as well. When Dirac irritatedly hinted that the car was getting too crowded, Bose laughed, “Oh, we believe in Bose statistics here, Paul!”—a witty reference to the fact that in Bose statistics things tend to crowd together. There is also, it must be said, a group of scientists who believe that Einstein let Bose down: if he had helped Bose get his brilliant second paper published, they allege, he’d have almost certainly won the Nobel.

In his later years, Bose, perhaps remembering how inaccessible scientific knowledge had been in his own young days, devoted his time to promoting scientific study in Bengali, to reach the widest possible audience. He helped set up the Bangiya Bijnan Parishad, and made it a point—in response to critics who said Bengali was not a suitable language for science—to lecture on esoteric scientific subjects in Bengali (people who heard his scintillating Saha Memorial Lecture on cosmology talked about it for years after).

Many physicists seem amused today at the way the discovery of the Higgs boson has triggered discussions about Bose’s role in discovering the boson. “It’s like applauding Rod Laver for a victory by Rafael Nadal,” remarks one physicist, and he may be right. But the debate about whether Bose should have rightfully won a Nobel Prize for his work continues. When Bose himself was once asked that question, he simply replied, “I have got all the recognition I deserve”— probably because in the realms of science to which he belonged, what is important is not a Nobel, but whether one’s name will live on in scientific discussions in the decades to come. And it’s clear that bosons, Bose statistics, Bose-Einstein condensates, and the name of S.N. Bose will live on in the annals of science for a long, long time. Which is all that the great man really wanted, anyway.

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