Celebrating an Indian’s breakthrough science

Ashok Parthasarathi

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose finally gets his due around his 150th birth anniversary.

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose made seminal scientific discoveries and technological inventions in electromagnetism and plant physiology.

Despite being free people for more than 60 years now, Indians are yet to develop the tradition of remembering and honouring their great savants of pre-Independence times. One example of such neglect relates to Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858-1937), arguably the first ‘modern’ scientist to have emerged from India. This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of J.C. Bose, who made seminal scientific discoveries and technological inventions at the world level, in two s eemingly unconnected areas of science and technology — electromagnetism and plant physiology. This was unique for a modern scientist.

In 1895, Bose successfully demonstrated in public in colonial Calcutta the wireless transmission of electromagnetic waves. Generating waves using a self-designed and built transmitter at one end of a link and sending them to a similarly built detector located 75 feet away, through intervening obstacles such as the body of Lieutenant General Mackenzie who commanded the British troops in the Calcutta garrison, he set off an explosion in a cache of gunpowder at the other end.

That Bose built all the equipment in the abysmal conditions that existed at the University of Calcutta then, and the country as a whole, in the 1890s makes the achievement even more mind-boggling and creditworthy. Over the next decade, Bose obtained four U.S. and U.K. patents for his invention with the aid of friends.

It took some five years more for a technician of mixed Italian-Irish parentage, Guglielmo Marconi, to make a similar public demonstration. In the heyday of imperialism, the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to 35-year-old Marconi and a 59-year old German physicist from Strasbourg, Karl Ferdinand Braun, “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.”

Bose was not given the prize although he had published his results in leading international journals and lectured at the Royal Institution in London in 1897 at the invitation of his teacher, Lord Rayleigh, one of the most distinguished British scientists of the time. In 1899 Bose read a paper at the Royal Society in London, ‘On a Self-Recovering Coherer and the Study of the Cohering Action of Different Metals,’ on his invention of the coherer which used conductors separated by mercury. In the paper, which was published in April 1899, he wrote: “For very delicate adjustments of pressure, I used in some of the following experiments an U-tube filled with mercury, with a plunger in one of the limbs; various substances were adjusted to touch barely the mercury in the other limb. … I then interposed a telephone in the circuit; each time a flash of radiation fell on the receiver the telephone sounded.” Performing a series of experiments, Bose concluded that“there can be no doubt that the action was entirely due to electric radiation.”

More than two years later, Marconi transmitted radio waves across the Atlantic, using Bose’s coherer — with nary a mention of Bose. Academic honours such as a D.Sc. by research from London University, a knighthood in 1917 and a membership of the Royal Society of London in 1920 that were conferred on Bose did little to affirm his pioneering status as the father of wireless. Ironically, in a book by Orrin Dunlap, which Marconi personally edited, a page and a half is devoted to Bose, who is acknowledged by Marconi to have provided crucial support at a critical juncture when he needed it most.

Partial amends were made in 1998 when the Institution of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), New York, a global professional academy in the field, announced: “Our investigative research into the origin and first major use of solid state diode detector devices led to the discovery that the first transatlantic wireless signal in Marconi’s world-famous experiment was received by Marconi using the iron-mercury-iron-coherer with a telephone detector invented by Sir J.C. Bose in 1898.”

With these revelations, belated though they are, we may safely say that Bose, and not Marconi, was the discoverer and demonstrator of wireless radio propagation through free space and thus the father of radio, television and all other forms of radio communication including the Internet. The IEEE inducted Bose into its Wireless Hall of Fame.

Against this background, the Centre for the Philosophy and Foundations of Science, New Delhi, led by its Director Ranjit Nair, teamed up with Christ’s College Cambridge (of which Dr. Nair is an alumnus) to organise at the college a symposium titled “Beyond Frontiers: From Physics to Plant Sciences,” on December 6, 2008 to mark Bose’s 150th birth anniversary. At the symposium, Cambridge scientists expressed their appreciation of Bose’s pioneering contributions. The physicist E.C.G. Sudarshan spoke on Bose’s work in electromagnetism, while distinguished plant geneticist M.S. Swaminathan (also a Cambridge alumnus), spoke on green genes to combat global warming.

A bust of Bose made by a Kolkata sculptor was unveiled by India’s High Commissioner in London, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee. Two Kolkata physicists, Bikash Sinha and Sibaji Raha, respectively Directors of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and the Bose Institute (founded by Bose in 1917), spoke.The Master of Christ’s College, Frank Kelly, welcomed the gathering and Dr. Ranjit Nair proposed a vote of thanks. Leading scientists from the U.K. such as David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government; Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College Cambridge; and Partha Dasgupta, Professor of Economics at Cambridge, were present. (So was this writer.)

In a curious twist to the tale, Marconi’s grandson, the space physicist Francesco Paresce Marconi, while on a visit to Kolkata in 2006, expressed his astonishment on finding at the Bose Institute the coherer that his grandfather had used to receive the trans-Atlantic wireless signal. “The instrument was critical to radio communication,” he said. On another visit to Kolkata some weeks ago, the grandson is reported to have said that while Bose was a Professor of Physics of international repute, his grandfather was a technician, who nonetheless deserved credit for turning Bose’s discovery and the equipment he invented into an industrial innovation. He admitted it was unfair that Bose was overlooked by the Nobel Committee.

By crossing the boundaries of physics into plant physiology, Bose seemed to some of his dogmatic contemporaries a dangerous heretic. But the more perceptive among them saw him to be a visionary. One must not forget that the distinction between living and lifeless matter was by and large taken for granted among his scientific and lay contemporaries. It required courage and belief in oneself to demonstrate similarities in the electrical responses of living matter and lifeless matter. His theory of the ascent of sap as being due to electromechanical processes involving pumping within living plant cells took six decades to be verified experimentally.

The symposium, and the unveiling of a bust of Jagadis Chandra Bose in his Cambridge alma mater, mark a milestone in the way Indian scientific capabilities are perceived worldwide. It is perhaps the only case so far when an iconic British institution like Cambridge University saw it fit to commemorate an outstanding Indian scientist of colonial times 150 years after his birth in British India. Can we say that at long last, the prowess and international image of our country are changing among scientific circles? We have every reason for cautious optimism.

(Ashok Parthasarathi is a former scientific adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and was Secretary to various scientific departments of the Government of India. He acknowledges the contribution made to this article by Dr. Ranjit Nair, Director, Centre for the Philosophy and Foundations of Sciences, New Delhi.)



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