Satyendra Nath Bose

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Satyen Bose in Berlin

Purnima Sinha


Between 1950 to 1956 about ten of us were engaged in experimental research in the X-ray laboratory of the Physics Department of Calcutta University College of Science, under the guidance of Professor S.N. Bose. Apart from ourselves, students and teachers of other departments, especially the applied mathematics department, used to come to him and have long discussions with him. But it had not occurred to any of us to record systematically what this man of rare brilliance said in those discussions. He used to work out detailed and distinctly written out steps of calculations on sheets of paper with meticulous care when he gave us courses on X-ray crystallography in our mother tongue Bengali. He would bring out off and on the beauty of the broader perspective of physics, as he talked on and on for hours to the students sitting around his table. We did not keep those papers, which would have been a record of his way of teaching in a branch of physics which was not even his main field of interest. There is no doubt that the people around him were not prepared enough to take full advantage of his off beat genius.

No one in our lab used ready made imported equipment for his work. Every one had to set up instruments from locally available materials and construct them with the help of technicians of our lab workshop. Thus a demountable X-ray unit, differential thermal analyser, fully automatic scanning spectrophotometers for thermoluminescence studies and some other equipment were fabricated in our lab with Professor Bose's active involvement.

In the thirties, in the Department of Physics of Dhaka University under the guidance of Professor Bose, a mechanic in the lab workshop fabricated a Weissenberg Camera, the most modern equipment of an X-ray crystallographer at that time. Professor Bose had built up a full fledged X-ray lb, and the students of his department and other departments of Dhaka University and, even the students of his friends from Calcutta, had utilised that lab for their work.

We had an egalitarian informal atmosphere in our X-ray lab in Calcutta Science College. Professor Bose was a very friendly and approachable to all his students. After completing my Ph.D, I worked in different laboratories, but my association with S.N. Bose continued up to the end of his life. We had discussions on topics covering a wide range in and beyond Science, of our common interest in music, art, philosophic and social aspects of science. He would often get involved in stories of ordinary human life flowing with wit, humour and compassion.

In the summer of 1973 the idea of writing a biography of Professor Bose came to my mind. On July 22, 1973 I went with a tape recorder to Professor Bose's house in north Calcutta. It was apparent that he still had a photographic memory and he talked with a lot of interest. The only regret I had was that we had not begun to record the story of his life in his own words earlier.

It was only possible for me to record three long interviews with him on 22 July, 25 July and 15 August, 1973 before he died on 4 February, 1974.

When he talked about his friends in Paris and Berlin, he especially mentioned two of his very close friends. One was Professor Herman Mark in Berlin and the other was Jacqueline Zadoc Kahn in Paris. Fortunately, I was able to make contact with both of them. I will describe some extracts from interviews and correspondences with them. I hope these records will help terminate the perpetuation of some of the speculative statements about S.N. Bose.

I requested Dr. Jagdis Sharma, my former colleague in Professor Bose's laboratory in the University College of Science, Calcutta who had been working in different laboratories in the U.S.A., to interview Professor Mark on the basis of a few questions sent by me. Dr. Sharma promptly sent me a taped interview in 1974.


Question: Professor Mark, you have met Professor Bose in Berlin and that was about the period about which we know the least. My question would be: When did you meet Professor Bose for the first time, under what circumstances and what do you remember about the initial meeting?

Hermann Mark: In 1924-25 there was in Berlin a famous seminar conducted at the Institute of Physics of the University of Berlin. At that time, the Director of that Institute was Professor Rubens. He is very well known as one of the originators of the infrared spectroscopy. At this seminar, there were such eminent people as (Max) Planck, (Max von) Laue, (Walther) Nernst, Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, (Fritz) Haber and a very large number of younger physicists and physical chemists. At that time, I was a member of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute in Berlin Dahlem [editor: now known as the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry - Otto Hahn Institute], the Director of which was Professor Herzog and we all capitalised on the opportunity to go downtown Berlin and attend the physics seminar. There was a subway ride of about 25 minutes, and at our Institute and at the neighbouring Insitute of Professor Haber there were a number of younger physicists like (Karl Friedrich) Bonhoeffer, (Theodore von) Karman,
(Leó) Szilard, (Eugene) Wigner, (Michael) Polyani, (Karl) Weissenberg and a few others. And we always travelled together and attended the seminars and in one of those seminars Bose gave a report on his work. The seminars were conducted in such a manner that usually two or three talks were given on some very interesting new article or work that was done by one of the members. And Laue conducted the seminar, he distributed the articles mainly among the younger people, and then he would give the talk and the older experienced professors would ask questions. Everything was done in German - I should say almost everything was done in German. Bose gave one of those seminars. That was when I saw him for the first time. That was based on his ideas about nonclassical statistics of a system particularly of low temperature characteristics -- and Nernst was sitting there, Einstein was there (with a hearty laughter) and everyone interested in low temperature and statistics -- and Planck was also there.

He (Bose) gave this seminar. I do not remember any more whether he gave it in German or English. But I think he gave it in German. Usually, after the presentation, Laue would get up and say, alright fine, this was nice, and is there any question? Then there would be a lengthy discussion on what the issue was. And in this case Laue said immediately, "I am not sufficiently familiar with the topic and I would like to ask Professor Einstein to comment." Then Einstein said, "Well I think this is one of the most worthwhile works of the last few years." He talked about it and asked a few questions and Bose answered the questions and then Nernst asked a few questions. In other words it was a very sensational event on that day. Because the discussion on tis specific seminar took a few hours.

This was the first time I saw him, and I liked him. Then of course Karman, Szilard, Wigner also asked questions. We were young and he was young -- so we quickly became friends and we invited him to come to the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem and give us the same seminar to continue the discussion -- and so he came out a few weeks later and we had there a seminar...

There were a number of people who established an atmosphere of friendship and since at the university it was not quite so lively as it was in the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute then he came to the Institute almost everyday and he was very much interested in our work. I worked together with Weissenberg and Polyani at that time on X-ray structure, study of crystals of metallic materials -- the way they formed -- and then we started to work on polymeric materials like cellulose and rubber and he was very much interested and he always asked sharp questions and kept us thinking. You know, the most real impression we all had was when Bose was facing some new of scientific endeavour or activity, he just sat there, listened for a while and  he had a fantastic grasp over the fundamentals of the specific work and then he would ask questions and he would ask extremely relevant -- not only intelligent -- questions, he would ask questions which were piercing and pointing into future developments. Now, of course, we had a lot of fun when he and Szilard and Wigner argued about statistics. Szilard was a man who worked with Laue on statistics and dynamics and Wigner was another mathematician ... so they argued hours and hours and my wife Mimi, always invited them to come up to us. We lived in the Institute -- we had a little apartment in the Institute. So that was very convenient. "Now why don't you come up for a drink of tea of coffee?" and they all came up ... very informally ... and we had a very wonderful time.

Question: Before that I would like to ask you a question. There is some confusion about his interaction with Einstein. For how long they interacted? When did he come to Berlin?

Mark: During the end of 1924 to 26. Two years. But then in 1926 before he went back to India we invited him to come to Vienna for a few days and stay with my parents and son and we went to visit the University. That time at the University in Vienna there was (Erwin) Schroedinger and there was (Hans) Thirring and there was (Ludwig) Flamm. Three theoretical physicists and there was Smekal also and they invited Bose to give a seminar at the University.

Question: So he interacted with Einstein but at that time he did not publish anything jointly with him.

Mark: I don't remember, I did not read the publication.

Question: Before he went to Einstein he had an intention of working with him. But there was no publication.

Mark: Well you see, because of course they were like Socrates and like Greek philosophers, they did not publish anything. You see Einstein was also the same way. He walked out there -- there was a nice park you know in the neighbourhood of the Institute in Dahlem and there he and Einstein would walk and they would talk (laughing) and I don't think anything was published.

Question: And this question might sound a little strange, but there is some background. An article has been written by a man called Blanpied in this country and he thinks that Bose was a withdrawn and shy person in Europe...

Mark: No! No! No! (laughing). Full of humour and always with good jokes and then he would be singing German songs -- of course, when we were having a party singing German songs and he was conducting!

Question: How did he impress his colleagues in Europe as a thinker in theoretical physics and as a person?

Mark: Well, as I said, Bose had to do with (Paul Peter) Ewald, Wigner, Szilard, Karman -- they were very much impressed and all of them established with him life long friendship -- all of them!

Question: Do you know anything about Bose's association with Madame Curie and de Broglie? He was associated with X-ray work done my Maurice de Broglie in Paris.

Mark: I think before he came to Berlin he was in Paris a year or so or a few months -- and we were in Paris at the same time but I did not meet him then but of course we met Maurice de Broglie. We met Trillat and Thibaud ... I think he worked with them.

Question: So this question is unnecessary. While Bose was there in Germany and Europe he did utilise his time and it helped him to develop his scientific research interest later on.

Mark: Yes, yes.

Question: But one thing, after coming back to India in 1926 or so for a very long period he did not produce any papers of any kind. He had been teaching but he did not produce any papers. Do you think there is some reason behind?

Mark: I would think -- this is my opinion -- that he was not ... too much of a practical man interested in detail. We were after details of structural themes -- whether the atom is here or the atom is there and what would be the consequences ... he was not interested in that. He was interested in the very broad line of development of the fundamental physics and specifically of quantum mechanics that existed at that time and of quantum theory -- the quantum hypothesis that existed. That was really what attracted him.

Question: Would you make some comments about him as a man?

Mark: Oh! He was very friendly. He was a real gentleman. And he would tell his jokes to everybody and had excellent sense of humour. Ah! Wonderful! He was very benevolent! He could only do good things! We always called him our Buddha (laughter). He was sitting there on the couch and ...

Question: Is there any special incident which you would like to mention?

Mark: Well, maybe, when he was in Vienna you know, that was in 1926 and he gave a seminar and I mentioned that there was Schrödinger , and many very good physicists in Vienna. And that was already when Schrödinger was thinking on wave mechanics you know, because his paper came out in '26, there was a very interesting conversation. (Louis) De Broglie's thesis was published ... then of course, everybody realised that it was Bose that was the forerunner ... it was the statistical expression of the wave nature of an electron and then the question was "Okay, what are we going to do now?"

Question: Was Heisenberg also involved at that time?

Mark: No, he was not in Vienna at that time.

Question: The application came with electron diffraction later.

Mark: Well, the theoretical expression came with the Schrödinger equation -- and the experimental proof came with the electron diffraction.

Question: Blanpied, who wrote the article a couple of years back, said that Bose had failed to fully grasp the significance of his own discovery.

Mark: If somebody makes such a statement, one must ask him, "alright, give us the reason for the statement," and then he may say, "Well, after these two papers for a long time Bose did not publish any thing." Then I will answer him, "you can just as well say, what an idiot was de Broglie that he did not derive the Schrödinger equation!" (laughter). Of course, he wrote his thesis and lost interest in it. This does not prove that de Broglie completely missed the importance of his own discovery! After all a lot of people have to contribute to progress, one single mind cannot do everything."


This was the end of the interview with Professor Mark.

I met Professor Bose's friend Madame Jacqueline Eisenmann (a retired scientist of CNRX) in Paris in the summer of 1980. In the course of my interview with her she gave me the following letter which she had received from Bose from Berlin in 1926.

Unter der Eichen 88
Bei Ehlert
Berlin Dahlem
...I am in my new rooms since the first day I arrived here; it is very nice and comfortable and I am really in love with the balcony ... my firiends live very near me, about 5 minutes walk from here, in the very buildings of the laboratory and I go there almost every day...

Everybody (every physicist) seems to be quite excited in Berlin, about the way things have been going on with physics, first on the 28th last, Heisenberg spoke in the colloquium about his theory, then in the last colloquium, there was a long lecture on the recent hypothesis of the spinning electron (perhaps you have heard about it). Everybody is quite bewildered and there is going to be very soon a discussion of Schroedinger's papers. Einstein seems quite excited about it. The other day coming from the colloquium, we suddenly found him 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 are all silent but he talked almost all the time, unconscious of the interest and wonder that he is exciting in the minds of other passengers". Bose

Although the letter is undated, it must be just after April 1926, because Heisenberg presented his lecture in Berlin colloquium on that date.

Madame Eisenmann wrote in a letter to me:

I was then a young girl who had just finished her 'licence de sciences physiques' and who had just begun to work in Professor Cotton's lab ... Sylvain Levi, the great Indianist and Sanskritist was a friend of my father (Dr. Leon Zadoc-Kahn who was in 1943 assassinated by the Germans with my mother). Learning from my father that I intended to work in Physics, Levi said he would make me know 'un jeune physician genial'.
I was very impatient to meet this genius. When he came to my lab, accompanied by another Indian named Tendulkar, he did not tell me so as to tease me, who was the physicist. Bose was so unassuming that I didn't find out immediately who was who! From that day I saw him very often. He always went to [Paul] Langevin's lectures. Langevin gave many lectures. Louis de Broglie came later, Langevin told Madame Curie about him. Bose worked in Madame Curie's lab and in Maurice de Broglie's lab for sometime. He went very much to the museum, loved nature, particularly the alps, went to see and live in the countryside.
He talked much about Bengali ... writing science in Bengali -- to teach the students in Bengali. He impressed me very much by his great love for his country. He never went to England until India was free. In 1953 he went to England and lived with Dirac.

He went to Germany in October 1924. Perhaps Bose could communicate more with scientists in Germany.

On 25 July 1973, I asked Professor Bose why he had gone to Paris in the first place. He answered, "I was informed that my friend Abani Mukherjee (a terrorist nationalist leader who was absconding) was in trouble. I had taken some money for him from the country. After meeting Abani, I  thought that I will stay in Paris for a while. I had many friends there. They asked me to stay on, I got the idea of doing some experiments so that I would teach these to students in our country. I worked for a while in Maurice's lab. He had already read my paper. He told me that his brother did the kind of work that I did."

When I asked him about his encounters with Einstein in Berlin, he said, "... You know that Einstein was included towards "red" -- so that chauvinistic German students used to create trouble for him. This made him abandon class lecture. We used to go to his house. He had no research student either. He used to tell us what he thought and some times gave lectures too."

Madame Eisenmann said: "It was a great joy to know Bose at all. He was so wonderful, so gifted, knew so much about Hebrew literature and religion. He had an extraordinary heart! He had nearly feminine reaction! He had no ambition for himself, too modest and humble a young man." Referring to a letter by Bose she wrote, "The letter written in 1951...was sent a few days after we met in Paris after being entirely without news since 1929. This encounter was a wonderful shock for me and the first happiness after the death of my gather an dmy mother in 1943."

"He (Bose) told me in Paris, after the war (in 1951), as I asked him whey he had not published more work, that his surroundings were not favourable. He added, he had spent a great deal of time in preparing experimental research work for his pupils in Dhaka."

"Moreover, he said another time that he threw away most of his works that he judged not good enough."

Among his total 24 [sic] published papers, Professor Bose had published 17 papers after coming back from Europe, between 1936 and 1955. The context and content of these papers have not yet been analysed. The topics range from mathematics, theoretical and experimental physics to biochemistry. Why some of them were not of fundamental important towards the progress of physics? They were the outcome of resolving obstacles in handling problems by his students and friends, and also on problems which are of practical use for our country.

Sometimes he used to spend days after days in chemical laboratories. Under his guidance students were able to prepare some useful medicines and also to make significant contributions in the synthesis of important chemical compounds.

During the fifties, Bose followed Einstein in his research on 'Unified Field Theory'. Several other very eminent scientists such as Herman Weyl, Kaluza, and Schrödinger were also involved in the field for many  years. Bose was drawn into this movement of handling very difficult mathematical problems and contributed five papers during 1953-55 which were published in French scientific journals.

Self taught Meghnad and Satyendranath were teaching untrained students in newly established Departments of Science. one of them knew the art of getting an aim and building up towards it, and the other expressed ideas like flashes of lightening from clouds spread all over in random clusters. Before their partnership could gather sufficient momentum, one was transferred to Allahabad and the other to Dhaka. Ours is a large country and each region has its own specific demands. Only a handful of men had to cope with the growing demands. They were always under pressure concerning everything. In the West the scene was different.

Following 'is an extract from an interview with Professor
André Weil, Professor of Mathematics, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, taken by my friend Professor R. Bannerjy (Chemistry Department, Sorbonne) in Paris on 13.6.1979:

André Weil: I have known Bose in Dhaka in 1932. I left for India in 1930, with an appointment as head of the Department of Mathematics of Aligarh Muslim University. T. Vijayaraghavan, a brilliant young student of G. H. Hardy, left in 1931 for Dhaka University. I agreed to stay with Vijayaraghavan as his guest for a period of some weeks. We had become very close friends ... Apart from Vijayaraghavan, there was no one in the mathematics department in Dhaka who would have qualified as a mathematician.

I soon met Satyen Bose, and saw him quite frequently during my stay there. It was clear that Bose possessed a very brilliant and penetrating intelligence, he as unwilling to take an interest in any but the deepest problems, working in almost complete isolation. (K.S.) Krishnan was a brilliant experimentalist, but he was not much of a theoretician. As to Vijayaraghavan, he was a typical product of the school of G.H. Hardy, very deep but narrow, and could be of little use to Bose.

At that time, Bose was chiefly interested in "general theory". I do not agree with those who suggest that his career and reputation was based on a piece of luck viz., the fact that Einstein took up his early contribution to theoretical physics. The quality of is intelligence was such that he deserved whatever position and honours came to him. One can only deplore that, for lack of a suitable environment, he was unable to realize his potentiality fully. There is no doubt in my mind that, given more favourable circumstances, he was well fitted to play a most important role in laying the foundations for scientific research in India.

Reprinted from The Physicist Bulletin of the Bangladesh Physical Society, January-February 1995, p. 17-21

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* Editor: This article has been slightly edited for spelling and content from the original. Links to names of those mentioned in this article are placed by the Editors of the S N Bose Project, and do not necessarily reflect those of the author or the interviewee. Any errors are the responsibility of the S N Bose Project editors. Photo of Science College and Herman Mark copyright Falguni Sarkar.




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