Satyendra Nath Bose

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The Story

Satyendra Nath Bose’s path breaking work won him Einstein’s admiration and a permanent place in the annals of theoretical physics. But few know about his passionate patriotism or his talent as an esraj player. Falguni Sarkar, a grandson, writes a fond account.

Professor Satyendra Nath Bose, the founder of Bose-Einstein statistics and the discoverer of the “Boson,” is well known as a giant in the world of physics and science as the man who, along with Albert Einstein, revolutionized the world of theoretical physics and showed the world a new way to imagine how the world works.

However, many do not know much about the man and his personality.

Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) was our grandfather. My mother is his youngest daughter, and over the last few years I have researched his life and accomplishments. What I have found is a fascinating portrait of a versatile thinker and a remarkable personality, acknowledged by all who knew him to be not only a genius, but a kind and gentle soul. I knew him simply as dadu (grandfather), and faint memories of childhood still remain of a larger-than-life man, with a kind and gentle smile. Looking back at these faint memories, I see not only a man with a passion for science, but also a man who possessed a refined taste for music, and the art of conversation, which Bengalis refer to as adda. He was a firm believer in his nation’s freedom, and struggled passionately for developing the potential of India in the community of nations.

Here is his story.

Rethinking the World

In the early part of the century, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was involved in the quest to reformulate classical physics which was then based on the works of Isaac Newton and other classical theories. Einstein helped develop what was to become known as the quantum revolution in physics. One of the topics that consumed him was the nature of light: was light a wave or a particle? Einstein tried to explain light without using the wave theory of light, but the answer eluded him.

In 1924, Satyendra Nath Bose, then a 30-year-old lecturer at Dhaka University in what was then East Bengal (now Bangladesh), sent a four-page paper to the by then world- famous Albert Einstein in Berlin. Einstein had won the Nobel Prize in 1921, and received hundreds of letters of correspondence from people all over the world.

His biographers have noted that Einstein was deluged with requests from people seeking his opinions on everything from physics to philosophy, culture, and even food. In spite of this, Bose’s letter caught the attention of the great scientist. Bose’s paper was titled “Planck’s Law and the Light Quantum Hypothesis.” In an accompanying letter, Bose wrote that he had derived “Planck’s law independent of classical electrodynamics.” If Einstein thought it worthy of publication, Bose requested him to please have it published in the leading science magazine of the day Zeitschrift für Physik.

Struck by the obvious genius of Bose’s paper, Einstein himself translated the paper into German, and wrote to Bose that he considered it an “important step forward.” In August 1924, Bose’s paper was published in Zeitschrift für Physik, with an accompanying note from Einstein stating: “Bose’s derivation of Planck’s formula appears to me an important step forward. The method used here gives also the quantum theory of an ideal gas, as I shall show elsewhere.” [A. Einstein]

Almost overnight Bose became renowned throughout the scientific world. Indeed, his work is considered a fundamental breakthrough in the development of quantum physics. Einstein himself was inspired enough to publish a number of breakthrough papers where he applied what he first termed “Bose Statistics.”

In order to understand the significance of Bose’s work, it is important to  look back at the beginnings of the 20th century. At that time a major debate was raging in the world of physics that tried to say with certainty if energy flowed in a wave pattern or did light behave as a particle? The wave theory of classical mechanics was then predominant. In 1900 Max Planck (1858-1947), the famous German scientist, derived his well known “Planck’s Constant.” In a paper to the German Physical Society Planck claimed that energy is emitted not in a continuous flow, but in discrete bursts — which he termed “quanta.” However, while the theory opened the way to looking at radiation energy as quanta, he was unable to completely abandon the wave theory of radiation in his argument.

In 1905, a 26-year-old Albert Einstein published an article called “Light Quantum Hypothesis.” In this famous paper, he introduced the photoelectric effect, and argued that light was formed by light quanta, which later became known as “photons.” In 1917, Einstein, using theories presented by Niels Bohr (1885-1962) in 1913 on the emission of radiation, gave a derivation of Planck’s Law that was later experimentally confirmed. However, a complete mathematical derivation of Planck’s law that relied only on the particle nature of radiation continued to elude Einstein.

In Calcutta

All this was happening as Bose was studying mixed mathematics in  Calcutta. In 1917 he began teaching at Calcutta University, where he was involved with the Calcutta Mathematical Society. (This society continues to exist to this day, and houses the S.N. Bose School of Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences). There Bose worked with such famous figures as C.V. Raman (1888-1970), the discoverer of the Raman Effect of the scattering of light, and a Nobel Prize winner in 1930. Bose also had close relationships with Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis (1893-1972) founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, and a lifelong friendship with Meghnad Saha (1893-1956), famous for his pathbreaking theory of ionization, and its application to stellar atmosphere. Together, these men and others strived to make Calcutta University a world-class institution, in spite of poor facilities and a lack of funds.

In 1921, Bose left his beloved Calcutta and took up a position in Dhaka University, where he was a reader of physics. It was there that Bose wrote his famous paper, which he sent to Einstein in 1924. He also sent a second paper to Einstein, which was also translated and published by Einstein. This paper set the world of physics on fire, and things would never be the same again. 

In Europe

In 1925 Bose traveled to Europe on a study leave from Dhaka University. He set sail from Bombay (now Mumbai) and went to Paris. There he met famous scientists and scholars, and worked in Madame Curie’s (1867-1934) laboratory on X-rays and radiation. It was in Paris that Bose became involved with a group of expatriate Indian students who agitated against British rule. Bose was himself questioned by the authorities for his knowledge of these activities, although he was able to escape any persecution due to the support of his close French friends. 

After one year’s stay, Bose traveled to Berlin and met Einstein, who introduced him to all of the eminent scientists of the day, including Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), and many others.

Bose spent a year in Berlin, attending lectures and seminars, and visiting with other scientists and scholars. In a letter to a friend in Paris, he wrote:

Everybody (every physicist) seem to be quite excited in Berlin about the way things have been going on with physics. First on the 28th last Heisenberg spoken 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 of it). 
Everybody is quite bewildered and then there is going to be very soon a discussion of Schrödinger’s paper. Einstein seems quite excited about it.

The other day coming from the colloquium, we 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 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. 
[S.N. Bose, 1926]

Bose was a passionate patriot, and refused to visit England, because he had vowed that as long as he was a member of a subject race in the English colonial empire, he would not visit England. It was not until after independence that Bose visited England.