Today In History: Triumph Of J C Bose

Jagadish Chandra Bose
  • After much obstruction, Bose finally had his way.

On this very day in 1902, at the Linnaean Society of London, a presentation was made. It was a historical presentation though its real worth was not appreciated by many. Like all groundbreaking discoveries in the history of humanity, this too had been subjected to scorn, ridicule and fierce opposition. The author of the paper was Jagadish Chandra Bose.

Originally the paper was presented to the Royal Society on 6 June 1901. His work that showed the electrical responses in plants to external stimuli was opposed by then the authority in the field of electrical-physiology Sir John Burdon Sanderson. The opposition was to the term ‘electrical response’. The grand old man of electro-physiology wanted that to be changed to ‘certain physical reactions’. Bose stood his ground. Bose, basically a physicist, had no business using the term ‘response’ which is the monopoly of the physiologists. After all Burdon-Sanderson had for years sought electrical responses from plants and without much success while here the upstart Indian claimed success and he was not even a qualified physiologist. Bose was shocked by the response. He had expected ‘experimental criticism’ he said but not this.

Eminent physicist Lord Rayleigh comforted Bose. He knew exactly how the Indian physicist should have felt. After all Rayleigh had been attacked by chemists when he predicted a new element in the atmosphere (Argon which would later be discovered by William Ramsay). The controversy elicited the interest of famous plant physiologist Prof Sidney Howard Vines who was also the former teacher of Bose. He brought with him eminent botanist T K Howes who was the successor of T H Huxley at British Museum’s botany department. After witnessing the experiments of Bose, Howes had exclaimed that Huxley would have given years of his life to see that experiment.

Even as these events were happening, Bose came to know that Augustus Waller, another physiologist who aggressively opposed Bose at Royal Society, had published a similar paper to a London based scientific society. It was in the Journal of Physiology. And the paper was titled ‘Electrical response of vegetable protoplasm to mechanical excitation‘. While Burdon-Sanderson took the stand that the electrical property exhibited by plants like Venus flytrap were exceptional, ordinary plants could not be said to have ‘response’. Interestingly enough, Waller had used the very same term in the very same context just months after Bose’s paper was archived. Bose demanded an enquiry and had his due acknowledged.

The fact that Bose succeeded in presenting his paper at Linnaean Society without altering the crucial expression ‘electrical response’ is no mean achievement. It has taken almost a century to appreciate the full significance of this and even then not fully so. Years before Bose, Charles Darwin and his son Francis Darwin had proposed what is now famous as ‘root-brain’ hypothesis. Darwin had also suggested Burdon-Sanderson that he investigate whether there was any electrical change in the leaves of Drosera or Dionaea muscipula (the Venus’s-flytrap) when they were excited. That was in September 1873 and the very same month Burdon-Sanderson announced that when the leaf of the plant when stimulated manually did indeed generate a voltaic current which was generated in the leaf. He even concluded that these currents when investigated further would be shown as subject to ‘the same laws as those of muscle and nerve’.

Yet it was the same man who in 1901 was opposing the findings of Bose that suggested that the electric responses in plants might be a more universal phenomenon than a unique one exhibited by one single species. Actually the suggestion by Bose that the electrical responses might be a universal phenomenon of plant kingdom gels well with the gradual evolution, which is very much part of Darwinian evolution of any trait, like in the case of human eye. The electric response that Burden-Samuelson could well record in Venus flytrap may have been built gradually and embodied in the general schema of the physiology of all plants.

A Venus Flytrap A Venus Flytrap

After all the person who taught Bose Botany was Francis Darwin.

Even to this day the attack on Bose continues unabated – for exactly the same reason: prejudice and hatred. Meera Nanda’s attack on J C Bose in her ‘Prophets facing backwards’ (2006) is a classic example:

“Vitalism has a special place in Vedic science. An internationally renowned physicist-turned-botanist, Jagadish Chandra Bose tried to prove the existence of consciousness in plants and metals. After a promising start to his career as a physicist, Bose turned his attention to life sciences. He studied patterns of electric current through metals and plants under different conditions … and claimed that the response was similar to that found in animal muscles. Bose claimed that these results showed the presence of sensations and irritability in plants and metals. Bose went on to interpret his findings as a confirmation of the ‘message proclaimed by my ancestors on the banks of the Ganges thirty centuries ago,’ of the presence of consciousness in all universe, plants and inanimate matter includes. … Bose’s biological discoveries were refuted in his own lifetime and were quickly dropped from the scientific literature as vitalism was discredited in biology. Yet he remains a hero of the Vedic science tradition.”

Now let us look at the facts. If anything, Bose was against Vitalism. Biophysicist V A Shepherd points out:

“(Bose) was actually critical of vitalism. Whilst the vitalists had asserted a dualism between living and non-living things, in which the former were animated by a non-material force… Bose argued against ‘vital forces’ on the basis that there existed no sharp demarcation between the realms of the living and non-living- these were parts of a continuum. … In this, Bose was allied more closely with the later process philosophers including Alfred North Whitehead.”

Far from being ‘disproved’ during his own lifetime, the discoveries and generalizations that Bose made regarding the plant behavior are today receiving much attention. For example, the uniquely Bose-idea that all plants employ electrical signaling as a means of transmitting information about the environment around them, today receives a great support from plant electro-physiologists. Plant electrophysiology is a well-established branch of bio-physics. With regard to the above statement of Bose, Shepherd notes that ‘in 2011 it is understood that most and perhaps all plant cells are excitable, responding to stimuli such as heat, cold, wounding, touch and changes in extra-cellular osmotic pressure with electric signals’. Far from a hindrance to science, Vedantic background of Bose provided him a philosophical tool that allowed him to overcome the dualist debate that often prejudiced the scientific pursuit. V A Shepherd says in conclusion:

“Bose’s insistence on the unity of the living and non-living may have arisen from his deeply held philosophical position, Vedanta in inspiration, a monism that regarded the world as a single unified entity. From this point matter and mind are not separated, intelligence existed as a continuum, in which plants and animals participated … As attempts at uncovering this unity, Bose’s investigations demonstrated that plants integrate their movements and responses to the environment through electrical signals transmitted through the equivalent of a nervous system. (V.A.Shepherd, At the Roots of Plant Neurobiology, in ‘Plant Electrophysiology: Methods and Cell Electrophysiology’ Ed. Alexander Volkov, Springer, 2012)”

Thus today marks the day of triumph of integral science characteristic of Indian mind and civilization at the stage of world science. Far from being discredited Bose still continues to inspire new pathways in the field of biology – both in terms of discovery and its very basic philosophy.

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