The Man Whose Name Boson Honors

In the past several days, the world was waiting agog for the news: is it there or is it not? As the Honorable Beeb reported:

The most coveted prize in particle physics—the Higgs boson—may have been glimpsed, say researchers reporting at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva; Scientists say that two experiments at the LHC see hints of the Higgs at the same mass, fueling huge excitement. But the LHC does not yet have enough data to claim a discovery.

Although we may have to wait another year, the BBC article and the one on CNN, both highly informative, explain the excitement around the possible discovery of the Higgs Boson, a currently-theoretical, elementary subatomic particle that is purported to provide mass to matter, and is the integral part of the theoretical Higgs mechanism by which mass is proposed to be generated.

I, sadly, don’t understand enough of quantum mechanics or mathematics to launch into an extensive discussion of the properties of the elusive Higgs Boson particle. A nice Q&A at the BBC Science & Environment website explains a lot of the concepts. I, on the other hand, want to briefly focus on the person, who introduced the principles of Statistical Mechanics guiding photons in 1924 and after whom physicist/mathematician Paul Dirac named the one of the most elementary of subatomic particles, Bosons. That person is Satyendra Nath Bose, the Indian physicist who made significant advances in the studies of Statistical Mechanics and Quantum Statistics.

Satyendranath Bose

Image courtesy:

Bose, along with another luminary Indian physicist Meghnad Saha, established the foundation of modern theoretical physics in India. And yet, unfortunately, Bose is not a familiar name in India. To quote Dr. G Venkataraman, a distinguished physicist of recent years and author of a volume on Bose:

[…] the name of Satyendra Nath Bose will live forever in physics […]; Unfortunately, most people in India have never heard of him. I would not be surprised if most of our scientists also do not know much about him, although they might have heard his name. Indeed, I am prepared to bet that barring a sprinkling of physicists (mostly theorists), many in our physics community too are ignorant about Bose. Even if they have heard of him, it is quite likely that they are not aware of the significance of his work. (Source: Government of India Science Portal)

Only son amongst seven siblings, Satyendra Nath Bose (last name variant: Basu) was born on January 1, 1894, in the city of Calcutta in Bengal of Undivided India. His academic merits were on display right from high school. At the prestigious Hindu School in Calcutta, he was once awarded 110 marks out of maximum 100 in mathematics by Upendra Bakshi, a legendary teacher of the Hindu School. Asked for an explanation by the Headmaster, Bakshi defended his decision indicating the Bose “had succeeded in the allotted time in correctly solving all the questions without excluding any of the alternatives.” (Source: Government of India Science Portal)

Bose joined the Intermediate Science course (in those days, a bridge course to Bachelor’s degree studies) at the Presidency College, Calcutta (of which I am an alumnus; my vicarious brush with greatness!), where he flourished under the tutelage of luminary scientist/teachers Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1942) and Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1957), and became friends with Meghnad Saha, later his colleague and co-author of scientific papers. In 1913 and 1915, respectively, he earned his Bachelor’s (with Honors) and Master’s degrees in Mixed Mathematics (a modern-day equivalent would be applied mathematics or mathematical physics) from Calcutta University, ranking first in his class in both (while Meghnad Saha came second). Both started teaching in then newly-created University College of Science in the departments of Physics and Mathematics, as well as engaged in research. With Saha as his co-author, Bose published his first research paper in the Philosophical Magazine of London in 1918 (volume 36, Issue 212), titled: On the influence of the finite volume of molecules on the equation of state (Amazingly, a PDF may be available from Taylor and Francis!). The next year Bose published two papers on Pure Mathematics in the Bulletin of the Calcutta Mathematical Society, titled “On the stress equation of equilibrium” and “On herpolhode“.

Einstein and Satyendranath Bose

Image courtesy

Meanwhile, in the world of theoretical physics, it was an exciting time of discoveries and scientific progress, with the appearance of the quantum theory. Bose, in collaboration with Saha, translated Albert Einstein’s paper on the Theory of General Relativity from the original German into English, with gracious permission from Einstein himself (apparently, over the objections of the British publishers). This, together with Saha’s translation of an original paper by Jewish-German mathematician Hermann Minkowski (titled: “Raum und Zeit”—Space and Time), was brought out by the Calcutta University Press in 1920, in the form of a booklet, titled The Principle of Relativity. The same year, Bose published another joint paper with Saha in the Philosophical Magazine of London (volume 39, Issue 232, 1920, pp.456), titled: On the Equation of State (a PDF is available to buy from Taylor and Francis), and a single-author paper in the same journal, (volume 40, Issue 239, 1920, pp.619-627), titled: On the Deduction of Rydberg’s law from the quantum theory of spectral emission (a PDF is available to buy from Taylor and Francis).

The newly-formed Dacca (now, Dhaka) University (founded in 1921) in Bengal of Undivided India (now, in Bangladesh) invited Bose to join as a Reader in Physics, which he did. Although constrained by meager professional resources and grossly inadequate research facilities in his new workplace, he didn’t lose his enthusiasm. During his studies, he felt dissatisfied with the existing derivations of Max Planck’s formula for the distribution of energy in black body radiations—in that both Einstein’s and Planck’s quantum mechanical derivations provided valid results, but conflicted with one another. To solve this puzzle, he set about to work out a rigorous and logically consistent derivation based on Einstein’s concept of photon, a quantum of light; he realized the indistinguishability of photons, and essentially proposed a new synthesis between the wave and particle functions of photons. Bose communicated this work in 1924 in a short 4-page article in English, titled: Planck’s Law and Light Quantum Hypothesis (PDF here), to the Philosophical Magazine as usual. Having received no reply from the publisher, Bose took the bold step of writing to Einstein, with a request to facilitate its publication in the German language journal Zeitschrift Für Physic. In his letter dated June 4, 1924, he wrote:

I have ventured to send you the accompanying article for your perusal and opinion. I am anxious to know what you think of it. You will see that I have tried to deduce the coefficient 8p v2/c3 in Plank’s Law independent of classical electrodynamics, only assuming that the elementary regions in the phase-space has the content h3. I do not know sufficient German to translate the paper. If you think the paper worth publication I shall be grateful if you arrange for its publication in Zeitschrift für Physic. Though a complete stranger to you, I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request. Because we are all your pupils though profiting only by your teachings through your writings. I do not know whether you still remember that somebody from Calcutta asked your permission to translate your papers on Relativity in English. You acceded to the request. The book has since published. I was the one who translated your paper on Generalised Relativity. (Source: Government of India Science Portal)

Einstein translated Bose’s paper to German, and it was published in 1924 in Zeitschrift für Physic, with Einstein’s comment: “Bose’s derivative of Plank’s formula appears to me to be an important step forward. The method used here gives also the quantum theory of an ideal gas, as I shall show elsewhere.” Improving upon the concept of Kinetic Theory of Gases propounded by James Maxwell (1831-79) and Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906), Einstein applied Bose’s method to the theory of ideal quantum gas (such as a Bose gas, a quantum-mechanical version of a classical ideal gas, composed on bosons) and predicted the statistical distribution of identical indistinguishable bosons over the energy states in thermal equilibrium, what would come to be known as Bose-Einstein Statistics in quantum mechanics.

The international recognition helped smooth his way when in 1924 he applied to Dacca University for a 2-year leave to visit Europe in order to work with the giants of his field (it appears that he didn’t get permission from the Vice Chancellor of the university until he was able to show an appreciative postcard written by Einstein!). He spent a year in Paris, and got acquainted with Paul Langevin (1872-1946), Marie Curie (1867-1934) and Maurice de Broglie (1892-1967). He proceeded next to Berlin, met with Einstein and with his help, managed to be acquainted with some of the topmost European scientists of that time—Fritz Haber (1868-1934), Otto Hahn (1879-1968), Lise Meitner (1878-1968), Walther Bothe (1891-1957), Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), Max von Laue (1879-1960), Walter Gordon (1893-1940), Eugene Wigner (1902-1995) and others, and later Max Born (1882-1970) and Erich Huckel (1896-1980) in Göttingen. He tried to learn as much as he could, but sometimes circumstances didn’t allow him to get his heart’s fill.

Towards the end of his European sojourn, the post of a Professor fell vacant in Dacca University. Einstein wrote him a recommendation for the post, which, according to some accounts, did not help (Source: Government of India Science Portal). However, eventually, in 1926, Bose was appointed Professor and Head of the department of Physics of Dacca University where he served for nearly 25 years, and initiated studies in experimental physics. He worked to set up an X-ray crystallography unit at the university, even designing and building his own equipment.

Returning to Calcutta in 1945 to a named professorship in Physics in Calcutta University, Bose published during 1953-54 five important papers on the Unified Field Theory; this term was coined by Einstein, who endeavored to unify the general theory of relativity with electromagnetism. However, when Bose sent these papers to Einstein (whom he considered, and referred to as, his intellectual master), Einstein differed with him on some aspects of interpretation and discussed it in detail in one of his papers. Bose prepared a detailed reply, and would have discussed it with Einstein—but for the latter’s death in 1955. Bose, overwhelmed with grief, destroyed the only copy of his reply and did never resume his work on Unified Field theory. But his deep and abiding interest continued into many other different branches of science, including organic chemistry, mineralogy and soil science, biology and archeology, as well as philosophy, fine arts and literature. He was keenly interested in popularizing science in the vernacular and inspired the setting up of a society, Bangiya Bijnana Parishad (Science Association of Bengal), with the sole objective of promoting and popularizing science through Bangla (Bengali) language. He was also a great connoisseur of music, ranging from folk music to classical, as well from Indian to Western, and played Esraj (an Indian stringed instrument with a bow, like a violin) and the flute consummately (Source: Satyendranath Bose by Santimaya Chatterjee and Enakshi Chatterjee, National Book Trust, India, New Delhi, 1976).

A versatile scientist, he also served in many academic leadership positions. He was the president of the physics section of Indian Science Congress in 1939; the general president of the Indian Science Congress in Delhi in 1944; president of the Indian Physical Society during 1945-1948; and president of the National Institute of Science of India in 1949. He was awarded the second highest civilian honor in India, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1954, and in 1958 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 1959 he was appointed as National Professor, a post he held till his death on February 4, 1974 — the end of an era of great men of modern science in India. A lot of Indian scientists feel that Satyendranath Bose should have been awarded the Nobel Prize. The late physicist Professor PK Kabir wrote:

Bose’s paper not only had an immediate and far-reaching impact on several basic problems in physics but it also provides the fundamental explanation of phenomena whose elucidation and elaboration has been the subject of at least three Nobel Prizes. It is a great pity that this token of honor was not accorded to SN Bose, whose work is undoubtedly the most important contribution to science made by any Indian so far. (Source: “Satyendranath Bose” by Santimaya Chatterjee and Enakshi Chatterjee, National Book Trust, India, New Delhi, 1976)

Be that as it may—the lack of Nobel Prize notwithstanding —Bose, a brilliant scholar throughout his life time, continues to inspire many even today, while his name lives on in Bosons, and inextricably linked with Einstein’s in Bose-Einstein Statistics and Bose-Einstein condensates, in the annals of the history of science in the 20th century and beyond.


  1. Austin Elliott

    Nice exposition on Bose, Kausik. I hadn’t really grasped that Bosons were named for someone, so had never come across Bose, but them I’m not a physicist and my Chemistry degree didn’t include very much quantum mechanics (for which I’m quite grateful).

    The late Victorian era seems to have been a good one for producing notable Indian physicists and mathematicians. I was trying to think of others and the two that sprang to mind were the physicist C.V. Raman, who actually did win the Nobel, and the self-taught mathematical genius Ramanujan, both of whom, like Bose, were elected FRS. When I looked them up I found Raman was born in 1888, and Ramanujan in 1887, so both within a half dozen years or so of Bose.

    PS There’s a picture of a much younger (30-ish) Bose on the Wikipedia page.

    Austin Elliott

  2. Kausik Datta

    Thank you, Austin. There are about 6-7 different prominent Indian scientists who flourished around that time, the golden era of Indian science. There is an interesting anecdote about Bose and Raman; apparently, Bose attended the first lectures by Raman on his work, and was impressed enough to pull Raman aside and say that his work would come to be known as the Raman Effect, and that he would win the Nobel Prize. Bose turned out to be prescient!

    I did find the younger Bose’s images on the web, but somehow thought that the photos of the older man conveyed a certain… gravitas, a je ne sais quoi quality. 😀

  3. Tine Janssens

    An inspiring story Kausik, thank you for sharing!

  4. Kausik Datta

    I am glad you liked it, Tine.

  5. Remigius de Souza

    I had read of Bose, Raman, Ramanujan… Indeed Golden Era of Indian science: It was Vocation for them, neither occupation nor profession as it is now. But I never really knew more tan elementary information. Thanks for such comprehensive information. I would twit this post.

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