Satyendra Nath Bose: The Genius Who Wanted To Take Science To The People In Their Own Language

Swetha Iyer

Jan 01, 2020, 01:01 PM | Updated 02:16 PM IST

Bose at Dhaka University in the 1930s.  (Courtesy of Falguni Sarkar/The S.N. Bose Project via Wikipedia)
Bose at Dhaka University in the 1930s. (Courtesy of Falguni Sarkar/The S.N. Bose Project via Wikipedia)
  • Today is the 127th birth anniversary of physicist Satyendra Nath Bose.
  • Bose, despite being proficient in German, Italian and French apart from Bengali, Hindi and English, was a major promoter of the idea of scientific teaching in the vernacular.
  • Science wouldn’t be where it is today without the invaluable contribution of Satyendra Nath Bose, the genius Indian mathematician and theoretical physicist.

    His contribution to quantum mechanics has been rightly honoured by naming the particle that follows the Bose-Einstein statistics as Boson.

    The hyphenated term Bose-Einstein statistics (or B–E statistics) is also a grim reminder of the racism in the field of science that unless any scientific theory is not accepted or approved by a scientist from the West, it doesn’t get the global recognition it duly deserves.

    Bose’s article ‘Planck's Law and the Hypothesis of Light Quanta’ was rejected by the Philosophical Magazine without citing specific reasons. However, the paper was published in 1924 only when Albert Einstein sent it along with his own reference paper in support of it.

    His admission, as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1958, too came 24 years after his revolutionary discovery.

    1 January 2020 is the 127th birth anniversary of Satyendra Nath Bose or SN Bose as he was popularly called by his peers, students and other scientists.

    While a lot has been written about his scientific achievements, research and inventions, there has been little discussion on what this brilliant scientist was passionate about.

    Prof Bose, despite being a polyglot (he was proficient in German, Italian and French apart from Bengali, Hindi and English), was a major promoter for science to be taught in vernacular languages.

    Having had his initial schooling in Bengali medium at the Hindu school, he staunchly propagated native languages as a medium of instruction for teaching science and mathematics.

    Globally, no country faces this farcical challenge in choosing its medium of instruction of basic education much as India does. It would be unthinkable in countries like Germany, France, China or even Estonia to have an alien language as the medium of primary education from the language of the pupil.

    In India, we would have prime time debates raging on the importance of having English as the medium of education, thus attempting a language standardization in a diverse, vernacular rich country.

    Prof Bose, a champion of mother-tongue based instruction, taught classes at the university in Bengali despite being mocked at and also translated several scientific papers into Bengali.

    He was the principal founder of the 'Bangiya Bijnan Parisad' in 1948, with an aim to establish a society for scientific research in Kolkata.

    Since inception, the Bangiya Bijnan Parishad published a monthly scientific journal profoundly titled 'Jnan-O-Bijnan' [Knowledge and Science] to publish scientific discoveries, provocative articles on science and religion, with a section dedicated to young readers to help them develop a deeper appreciation towards science.

    The Indomitable Bose

    Like another scientific genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, Prof S N Bose was highly in favour of primary schooling to exclusively be taught in the native languages.

    He stressed the importance of learning the appropriate words for science in native language, which could help expand the understanding of complex concepts and stimulate scientific thinking.

    An unassuming man, he was always approachable to students and was always open for thought-provoking discussions.

    Often ridiculed by his peers and critics for giving lectures in advanced courses in Bengali, he was deeply inspired by his visits to Japan, where he saw teachers teaching all subjects and complex concepts in Japanese.

    At seminars and conferences, the discussions took place in Japanese. He returned to India firmly convinced that only a system of education that was based on the principle of dispensing learning through the mother tongue could create better foundation in young minds and help them tap into the vast literature readily available in one’s vernacular language.

    Bose, during his study tour in Europe, had the chance to visit Paris and expressed his interest in working in some of its great laboratories.

    The Vice Chancellor, Hartog, personally wrote to Earnest Rutherford and William Braggs introducing Bose and requesting an opportunity for him to work in their laboratories.

    Rutherford turned down this request because of lack of space, while Braggs remained non-committal.

    Disappointed but not ready to give up, Bose approached Paul Langevin who had read his paper and expressed his desire to work in the field of radioactivity at the Institute of Madame Curie.

    With a letter of introduction from Langevin, he is said to have met Madame Curie who though cordial, wanted to only work with a person who was fluent in French with the assumption that he didn’t know the language.

    She directed him to learn French before being able to work in her laboratory. The humble scientist that he was, Bose did not tell her that he knew French. Later, though he was granted facilities to work in her Institute, he never mentioned any further contact with Madame Curie.

    This incident was first published in Bengali in the Jnan-O-Vijnan, October-November 1967 issue and later translated.

    While there is no conclusive evidence, one can speculate that these experiences could have reinforced his views that learning science and mathematics was not necessary only in the English language.

    As a Professor and Head of the Department of Physics at Calcutta University, Prof Bose brought in several revolutionary changes. Under his able guidance, enrollment of Muslim students went up from a meagre 160 in 1921 to 600 in 1941.

    A renaissance man, he dismissed caste-based dining arrangements and integrated students from all sections of society.

    He transformed the libraries and laboratories into centres of excellence for experimental and theoretical research and upgraded them with the latest facilities so research in fields of X-ray spectroscopy, optical spectroscopy and wireless technology could become a reality.

    Apart from science, the stalwart had varied interests in literature, music and philosophy too.

    When he had to miss the annual entrance examination in 1908 due to chicken pox, he is said to have utilized the time for recuperation by studying advanced mathematics and Sanskrit classics.

    During his final years, most of his speeches, keynote addresses as well as the various articles he penned, lamented the lack of momentum in intellectual awakening that he foresaw for India.

    As an unwavering champion for the mother tongue as medium of instruction in schools, Prof Bose was not averse to English language education.

    In the present political climate, efforts to champion Indic scripts and native languages as media of instruction could be construed as an ‘elitist ploy’ to deny learning and mastering of the English language and in turn preventing the so-called progress of the working class.

    While today, we have data to show that a mother-tongue based instruction leads to a significant increase in educational achievement, it would bode well for policy makers to pay heed to brilliant minds like S N Bose and not undermine of the power of vernacular languages while creating national language policies.

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