Satyendra Nath Bose. (Wikimedia Commons)
Snapshot
  • Today, decades after Satyendra Nath Bose’s death, his contribution to science which he seeded through Bose-Einstein statistics continues to grow.

As India celebrates the birth anniversary of Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974), it is important for us to look into his contributions to science as well as his thoughts on the society and culture. He grew up during one of the most exciting times – both in the history of his country, India, and in the history of his chosen field – physics. While India was fighting for its freedom from the British, physics was undergoing a quantum revolution.

In 1924, Bose published a crisp four-page paper "Planck’s Law and Light Quantum Hypothesis”. It signifies the birth of Bose-Quantum statistics, also known as ‘Bose-Einstein statistics’. Albert Einstein had already conceptualised the light as quanta – the photons – which successfully explained photo-electric effect and Compton effect (X-ray scattering) . He nevertheless was struggling to integrate this with Max Planck’s Law. He wanted to derive Planck’s Law, based purely on the photon or particle aspect of electromagnetic radiation. Bose resolved this issue through his paper. In 1925, he travelled to Germany to meet Einstein, whom he had addressed in his letter as ‘master’ in typical Hindu tradition of ‘Guru’ bhava. And the ‘master’ had addressed him ‘Herr Kollege’!

Letter of Bose to Einstein addressing the famous physicist as  ‘revered master’. Letter of Bose to Einstein addressing the famous physicist as  ‘revered master’.
Bose and Einstein. Bose and Einstein.

In 1925, Bose met Einstein. Their conversations went beyond the world of sub-atomic particles and into politics. Bose recounts an interesting episode:

One day Einstein confided to me. “I think Englishmen are better than other Western colonial nations, and I feel that they are far better than the French and Dutch. You should not be surprised at a German like me praising the English (after the World War). Now tell me, do you really want that the British should quit your country?” I said, “Of course – we all want to determine our own destinies ourselves”. He was not quite convinced. He raised a hypothetical question. He said, “suppose there was a button near you and all the Englishmen would quit India if you were to press it. So would you press that button?” I smiled and said, “if god were to grant me such an opportunity, I will not hesitate even for a moment to press it”. He said, “Really?” and kept quite for a while. I asked him, “Well, why do you Jews then want to establish a new Israeli state? Even you seem to be fairly inclined in its favour.” He said, “Of course, I can now understand what you are saying – it is an emotional matter and cannot be understood rationally.”
S N Bose, ‘Einstein-3’ (Bengali), Adi Mahakali Pathashala Patrika, March, 1965: translation –S N Bose : The Man and His Work (S N Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Calcutta, 1994)

The Indian physicist always found a deep parallel between the destinies of both Jews fighting for their homeland and Indians fighting for their independence.

He wrote:

Afterwards, both India and Israel became independent states almost at the same time. Unfortunately, the divisive policy of Englishmen has sown the seeds of conflict in two young states. Nobody can say what the final outcome will be. I left Germany in the middle of 1926. Then anti-Semtisim took a serious turn in Germany. Einstein had to leave his own land and take shelter in Princeton before the start of the Second World War. ... He stood for world peace and he unambiguously prayed for it. His immortal words about Gandhi will remain indelible in our history.
ibid.

Einstein was also impressed by the young physicist from Bengal. He wrote in a letter dated 16 March 1926:

The recent works of Mr S N Bose, especially his theory of radiation equilibrium, signify in my opinion an important and enduring progress of the physical theory. Also in personal discussion with Mr Bose, I have got the impression that he is a man of unusual gift and depth from whom science has much to expect.

In a striking parallel as the communal politics of Islamism began to operate in East Bengal, soon Bose had to leave Dhaka. As C K Majumdar et al in their biography of Bose point out , “Bose’s departure from Dhaka was thus inevitable part of the larger processes through which the sub-continent was heading towards a sharp polarisation”.

During Bose’s student days, knowing his patriotic pull, his father was alarmed that his son would spoil a good career in science by being drawn to the then Swadesi movement, which had erupted rather strongly among the Bengali students. He warned his son, reminding him about his duties towards the family, to keep himself away from Swadesi movement. Though Bose tried to be true to his father, he also organised night schools and even provided shelters to ‘fugitives’ running from British ‘justice’. The British suspected that these night schools were bomb-making factories and shut them down.

In Independent India, Bose made a strong case for teaching science through mother tongue. In his reminiscences, he saw a parallel:

Like the more recent ‘Down with English’ movement with which I got involved, we were taken up with the slogan ‘Down with the British’ in those days, and got carried away in various directions by various currents of thought. Some of us were convinced of the need to educate the masses of our country to create in them a sense of belonging. But this feeling had to grow to be part of them through a thorough education...

The love for teaching science through Indic mother tongues and Indic framework remained an abiding passion which we find in the works of Bose.

Acharya Brajendra Seal Acharya Brajendra Seal

The relevance of Bose’s thoughts, in this regard, can be felt acutely in the light of recent protests by a section of medical professionals against the bridge course linking traditional and modern medicines. In a long article titled ‘The Progress of Science in Ancient India’ , written originally in Bengali, he explored the need for studying both history and philosophy of science. He dwelt extensively and appreciatively on the work of Acharya Brajendra Nath Seal – “The Positive Sciences of the Ancient Hindus” (1915).

Bose wrote:

Now we come to the age of Swadeshi. I will conclude my article with a reference to Acharya Seal’s research. He was a world famous philosopher, born on 3 September, 1864. He was a versatile genius, who had mastered mathematics, science, several languages, poetry and philosophy while still quite young. ... The theory of evolution according to the Sankhya school, the speculations on the chemical and physical qualities of matter according to Vedanta, Mimamsa, Buddhism and Charak have been critically presented by Acharya Seal... The scientific outlook of the Hindus and the logic they used for drawing conclusions deeply influenced both the West and the East, as will be understood if we think of China, Japan or the Saracean Empire. So it is important to make a comparative study of the Hindu and Greek systems and Dr Seal has been quite successful in doing this. ...then again he tells us how the Hindus had classified the plant and animal words. Finally, he draws on the medical texts to describe their conceptions of the human anatomy and the nervous system. From the tantras he draws the notion of the Ida, Pingala and Sushumna. He has also tried to explain their concepts of life and spirit, taking from Charvak, Sankhya and Vedantas. Acharya Seal, in the course of his analysis of HIndu conventions of argument and proof, refers to the Buddhists and the Vedantists and their approaches. The methods the Hindus adopted to reach the truth, how scholars with different views argued with each other, Dr Seal had analysed in his lucid style ...he has singled out this chapter as especially important.
First published in Rachana Sankalan

Only if the agitating medical professionals and the political vested interests would listen to what the great physicist wrote decades ago things will be different. While this writer himself is a strong sceptic of the claims of systems like homeopathy, there is a lot of bio-medical knowledge in Indic systems like Ayurveda and Siddha which can help the modern medical sciences. Similarly, given the vast number of physicians rooted in local bio-medical knowledge, it is essential that they have access to diagnostic methods of modern medicine and understand the basic principles of modern medical sciences. Chinese traditional medicine bridged with modern medical science has earned the country a Nobel prize.

By creating bridge courses between modern medical science and the traditional medical systems, their philosophical frameworks and local knowledge treasures, India has a lot to gain – both in the realm of research and development as well as in ushering in better medical system.

Today, decades after his death, his contribution to science which he seeded through Bose-Einstein statistics continues to grow.

Bose Einstein Condensate : BEC (Courtesy : University of Colorado) Bose Einstein Condensate : BEC (Courtesy : University of Colorado)

The fundamental particles which follow the Bose-Einstein statistics are called Bosons. It is one of the two big families of fundamental particles – the other being Fermions. For example, the electron is a Fermion. Photon – the quanta of light is Boson. Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) is a special quantum state of matter – a state of super-cooled population of Bosonic atoms, a state that was proposed by the extension of Bose statistics. In this special state of matter there is a kind of quantum non-duality in the sense the various particles merge into a single quantum state defined with a single wave function. Initially of theoretical interest, the BEC was soon taken seriously particularly in the context of super-conductivity and super-fluidity. In 1995, BEC was realised in the lab by Eric Cornell and his team at the University of Colorado. In 2001, Nobel prize for physics was shared by Cornell and two other physicists for the creation of BEC.

From left to right,  Herbert Frohlich, Stuart Hammeroff and Roger Penrose From left to right,  Herbert Frohlich, Stuart Hammeroff and Roger Penrose

In 1968, BEC states were still not realised in their material form. Even if they were to be realised, it would be in extremely low temperatures. Yet German-born British physicist Herbert Frohlich made a bold suggestion that BEC could occur in biological proteins. Today, there is a lot of heated debate among the consciousness researchers as to whether consciousness is a quantum phenomenon. Consciousness researcher Stuart Hameroff is of the opinion that the microtubules play an important role in the phenomenon of consciousness. Mathematician Roger Penrose agrees with Hameroff and proposes that the quantum properties of Bose-Einstein condensates inside these microtubules play an important role in the emergence of the consciousness. However, there are scientists, who strongly object to this school of thought. For example, in 2009, researchers from Australia investigated the BEC in biological context as suggested by Frohlich (and hence also called Frohlich condensates) and concluded that the extreme temperatures required for their formation cannot exist in biological systems.

However, in 2015, in a tersely titled paper, "Terahertz radiation induces non-thermal structural changes associated with Frohlich condensation in a protein crystal” researchers from Sweden and Germany reported observing for the first time quantum coherent-like state usually associated with BEC in molecule of biological protein. In 2017, scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory reported observing optical Bose-Einstein condensates called phonons through scanning tunneling microscopy at room temperatures. The authors pointed out that this will help in phonon-based quantum computers and also in understanding the emergence of biological BEC or Frohlich condensates.

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It should thrill us endless when we think that all these stem from that letter written by a Bengali physicist to Einstein in 1924 which addressed the latter thus: "Though a complete stranger to you, I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request. We are all your pupils though profiting only by your teachings through your writings..."

How do we remember such a great son of India fittingly? Sateyndranath himself had given the answer. When writing about Swami Vivekananda whom he admired a lot, Bose said:

In Swami Vivekananda, we find an unprecedented synthesis of scientific temper and spirituality. India needed this sort of education in his times. The need for such education persists even today. ... But we are today faced with new problem arising from unforeseen quarters. For every nation in every situation there is always a need for strong men with strong wills. In our present period of crisis all the more we specifically recall Swami Vivekananda. Today, if we fail to regenerate his ideals, then it is pointless for us to recall Vivekananda. Today, if we fail to regenerate his ideals, then it is pointless for us to feel proud of his heritage. ... Vivekananda said: Plunge into work like an avalanche. Only if we dedicate ourselves to his ideals of vigour and sacrifice can we really honour him.
In Rachana Sankalan (1963: Originally in Bengali)

Bose could not have explained better to us how he should be honoured!

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