The Most Famous Bengali that Nobody Knows
An interview with Falguni Sarkar, grandson of Satyendra Nath Bose
* This interview appeared in The 27th North American Bengali Conference Brochure (English Language) held in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A., June 29 to July 1, 2007. p.77-79
The name S.N. Bose stands as a monument in the world of science, especially quantum physics. The group of elementary particles called boson, Bose Statistics, and Bose-Einstein Condensation – awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the creation of a new form of matter – are all named after him. Albert Einstein called Bose's work “a beautiful step forward”.
In Bengal Satyen Bose is steeped in myth and legend. A leading Bengali magazine voted Satyen Bose the Shatabdir Bangali (Bangali of the Century) over other great luminaries as Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar, and others. Rabindranath dedicated his only book on science to Bose referring to him as “a man of genius with a taste for literature and who is a scientist as well.”
Yet very few people know much about the real Satyendra Nath Bose. While numerous writings in Bengali, and few biographical works in English are available, few provide an in depth portrait of the man. It was this realization that led one of Satyen Bose's grandsons to set upon a quest to learn more about Bose's life, his work, and, it turns out, his art!
Falguni Sarkar is a son of Professor Bose's youngest daughter. He is writing a book about his famous grandfather. Falguni grew up in America, as he says, “outside of the shadow of his famous ancestor”, so knew very little about him, except what he had heard from his parents and family. He has now moved to India, isearch of a grandfather he barely knew. Well, we'll let you hear it from him...
Interviewer: Tell us what got you interested in Satyen Bose?
Falguni: Well, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had always heard about my famous dadu. But none of my friend's parents had heard his name, or even knew what a boson was, so I thought he must not have been that famous. Then early one morning in July 1995 I received a phone call from a friend saying that my grandfather was on the front page of the New York Times! Scientists had verified a prediction Albert Einstein made using Bose statistics 70 years earlier. Einstein predicted that if particles known as bosons were cooled to a low enough temperature, a new and bizarre form of matter would be created. This new matter, called Bose-Einstein Condensation (BEC), follows the statistical laws of probability of photons, or light, that my grandfather discovered. Einstein extended these laws to gasses, and predicted the BEC, which is currently the hottest area of low temperature atomic physics, with impacts in areas such as quantum computing, superconductivity, and atom lasers! In 2001, these same physicists won the Nobel Prize in Physics! So I decided to find out more about him. That was 12 years ago!
Interviewer: You've moved to India! What have you learned so far? And what material did you find?
Falguni: Yes, I have never lived in India for more than a few months. Moving there has been very interesting. There is so much going on there. In terms of my research, it is well known that Bose was not very organized when it came to his papers. Interestingly he did not seem to have that sense of self-importance that many famous people have. It's as if he didn't care about his fame or notoriety. But, I have gathered a large number of photographs and letters. I have also interviewed people who knew him personally, my uncles and aunts, his students, and of course my mother, Aparna.
Interviewer: Talk about the conversations you've had.
Falguni: My most fascinating interviews were with people who knew him personally. Speaking to them, hearing stories, listening to their voices and seeing their eyes water as they remember has been very moving. I also found notes and writings of my late father, Bimal Sarkar. It turns out he was also researching and writing about Bose. So it's a multi-generational effort in all sorts of interesting and emotional ways.
Aside from being a genius scientist and educator, he was the National Professor of India, he was Vice-Chancellor of Santineketan, he was close to Tagore, Nehru, artists like Jamini Roy and Bishnu De, and his beloved students in pre-independent Dacca University. His classrooms in Calcutta University in the 1950s were packed with students on the floor listening to him lecture, even if they understood very little. He supported the revolutionary underground during the freedom movement. He knew multiple languages including Sanskrit, loved French literature, knew the philosophy of the Buddha, and was an expert esraj player. He even composed some ragas! It is very clear he has somehow achieved a mythic status in people's imagination.
Interviewer: What kind of letters are there?
Falguni: There are letters to my mother when I was growing up, personal letters, and professional correspondence. For instance here is a letter that Bose wrote while he was with Einstein in Berlin, in 1926. He writes about a very exciting time in history:
Everybody (every physicist) seems to be quite excited in Berlin about the way things have been going on with physics...The other day coming from the colloquium, we found Einstein jumping in the same compartment where we were, and forthwith he began to talk excitedly about the things we have just heard. He has to admit that it seems a tremendous thing, considering the lot of things which these new theories correlate and explain, but he is very much troubled by the unreasonableness of it all. We were all silent, but he talked almost all of the time, unconscious of the interest and wonder that he is exciting in the minds of the other passengers!
We all know that till his dying days, Einstein did not accept a probabilistic interpretation of the physical world, famously saying that the “lord does not play dice with the universe”. But to hear about his ambivalence, and the excitement that everyone felt at the height of the golden era of quantum theory, is fascinating! Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Planck, all these names appear in this story. The great stalwarts of Bengal science like Meghnad Saha, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, Prasanta Mahalanobis, Sir Prafulla Chandra Roy, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose also are present.
People tend to think that the history of western science is “great” science, yet we Bangalis have a great history too. In some ways it is even greater, given the struggles and sacrifices that many of our forebearers made for freedom, and even just for the right to pursue knowledge!
Interviewer: What makes him interesting to Bengalis?
Falguni: Bose is an uniquely Bangali figure. He spent 25 years in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I visited Dhaka, and found that Bose is a great hero in Bangladesh, in many ways more than in Kolkata. In Dhaka there is still a great reverence for intellectuals, especially since Bose put Dhaka University on the world map. Satyen Bose is a rare figure that transcends our national boundaries and makes you remember a time when the struggle was for all of Bengal!
Interviewer: What do you have in mind to do with all this data?
Falguni: Well, we want people, especially young people, to want to know more about Satyen Bose. It is their own history, and can be a strong source of identity for them. We also want older people, especially those that have succeeded in the West, to remember what their forefathers and mothers went through so that their generation could achieve great things. We want to help them share this experience with their children. We want Westerners to know about the contributions to science by scientists of color, and share it with their friends.
Interviewer: Where can we get more information?
Falguni: There is lots information on the internet, and we have published material at the S N Bose Project website, including a Bose timeline, Bose links, information about the Nobel Prize and a lengthy bio-story. We are also publishing a book tentatively titled Satyendra Nath Bose in His Own Words and Pictures, due out next year. It will be a beautifully produced book narrating Bose's story through his writings, speeches, interviews, and pictures. We've also produced a brochure introducing The S N Bose Biography project, and showcasing the upcoming book.
We hope to have the book out by the Kolkata Book Fair, and have it widely available in the Spring of 2008, just in time for NABC 2008!
Interviewer: This sounds like something that is very close to your heart.
Falguni: Yes it is! Bose has been called an “integrated personality”, a “polymath”, and a “complete man”. There are very few people, if any, one can say that about these days. Yet, it is consistently and emphatically repeated when people speak and write about Bose. While I am trying to be objective in my research, it's hard not to be emotionally involved. But I think that's been a plus. For an objective story, I recommend people read a dictionary – a scientific dictionary, of course! (laughs) I think people are interested in real stories about real people, told in a personal way. Especially as Bangalis, since so much of this story is our history!
Falguni Sarkar is an IT Marketing Professional, last with Sun Microsystems in California. He has left his job, and moved to India to research his grandfather and write. He encourages people to visit the S N Bose Biography Project website to find out more about the his project. He welcomes emails of encouragement, as well as those who have stories or pictures of Bose and his Bengal. Persons interested in the The S N Bose Project brochure Satyendra Nath Bose in His Own Words and Pictures, can visit www.snbose.org or email us.
All pictures copyright Falguni Sarkar, The S N Bose Project, 2006-7.
Postscript: Readers interested in the S N Bose Brochure can send us an email for a copy. Allow a few weeks for delivery from India.
At the time of this interview (Spring of 2007) we were on schedule for the publication of Satyendra Nath Bose in His Own Words and Pictures. Since then, fate and circumstance has conspired against me, and forced a shift in schedule. It does not look like our book will appear by the Kolkata Book Fair (January 2008), but we hope to have it available sometime during the upcoming year. To be kept informed as to our progress, please send us an email and ask to be added to our mailing list!