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A forgotten legend

Amitabha Bhattacharya |

Of the eminent Indians carrying the surname Bose, Subhas Chandra Bose is the most popular. The rest are all scientists of international fame. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose and Satyendra Nath Bose need no introduction. Some may be familiar with the name Amar Gopal Bose, inventor and professor of acoustics at MIT, for the Bose music system. But very few would know about the quiet physicist Debendra Mohan Bose (1885-1975). A remarkable new book, published in the centenary year of the Bose Institute, illuminates the life and works of perhaps the least known figure amongst India’s leading scientists and institution-builders.

The Foreword notes, “Amongst many outstanding research contributions of DM Bose, special mention must be made of his pioneering use of photographic emulsions as detectors of charged particles in cosmic rays, thereby ushering in cosmic ray and nuclear physics research in India. In fact, it was by using the same experimental technique that CF Powell later confirmed detecting pi mesons thereby winning the Nobel Prize. Arguably, that honour may have been bestowed upon Bose and his student Bibha Chowdhuri, had they not been prevented from improving their measurement precision by use of full-tone emulsion plates, which was impossible to obtain during World War II.”

CF Powell, who won the Nobel Prize in 1950, admitted in his book, “In 1941, Bose and Chaudhuri (sic) had pointed it out that it is possible, in principle, to distinguish between the tracks of protons and mesons in an emulsion… They concluded that many of the charged particles arrested in their plates were lighter than protons, their mean mass being … the physical basis of their method was correct and their work represents the first approach to the scattering method of determining momenta of charged particles by observation of their tracks in emulsion.” In fact, the measured mass of the particle by Bose and Chowdhury was very close to the accepted value measured by Powell who used improved “full-tone” plates.

This is how DM Bose and Bibha Chowdhuri missed the coveted prize. We all know the story of how JC Bose lost out to Marconi in radio communication (now internationally acknowledged), how Satyendra Nath Bose (of Bose-Einstein statistics) and Meghnad Saha (of Saha-ionisation equation) missed the prize despite being nominated time and again by leading scientists for the award. This is not a chauvinistic claim but a curse that colonised India had to live with (Mahatma Gandhi’s is also a case in point).

The authors, Professor Suprakash C Roy, a noted physicist and science populariser with Dr Rajinder Singh, also a physicist and distinguished historian of science, have laboured together to bring out this book that not only summarises the significant role played by DM Bose — as a scientist, a historian of science, a formulator of science policy in independent India and as a builder of scientific institutions — but also contextualises his position against the time, from the twenties to the seventies of the last century, when our country was passing through a transformational phase and the world was witnessing exciting discoveries in science. The book ably captures these currents when nationalistic aspirations in India often found their expression through scientific, literary and cultural pursuits. The great Indian scientists of that generation were rooted to their soil and yet were international in their outlook and reach.

Men like DM Bose were no cloistered scholars; they understood the relationship between science and society. Virtually all of them were involved in the national regeneration in their own way. One is wonderstruck at the number of DM Bose’s scientific papers published in Nature, Philosophical Magazine, Physical Review and noted German journals. But equally interesting and exhaustive are his publications on issues of general concern ranging from “The food problem in India” to “Manufacture of scientific instruments in India”.

Born in an aristocratic Brahmo family and a nephew of JC Bose, he was educated at Calcutta, London, Cambridge and Berlin. As a physicist, he had worked at the Cavendish Laboratory with JJ Thomson and CTR Wilson before he obtained his PhD from Berlin.

The book details his pioneering and fundamental contribution to various branches of physics, including Bose (-Stoner) theory of paramagnetism and discovery of a new photomagnetic effect (Bose effect).

Besides, DM Bose will be remembered as the Chief Editor of A Concise History of Science in India that evoked admiration by the famous historian of science, J Needham. He has also been the force behind and the editor of Science and Culture, a journal of repute from 1935, engaged in “dissemination of scientific knowledge amongst the public.” He succeeded CV Raman as a professor of physics at Calcutta University and then his maternal uncle JC Bose as the director of the Bose Institute, Calcutta. During his long tenure there, the institute expanded and acquired international recognition with DM Bose guiding activities in biological sciences as well.

During the high noon of physics, DM Bose had been interacting with the great scientists of his time — Einstein, Rutherford, Max Plank, Niels Bohr, Max Born, Arnold Sommerfeld, CTR Wilson and others. He was also appointed as a “Nominator for Nobel Prize” in 1929. In addition, he was deeply involved, with other eminent scientists like KS Krishnan, MN Saha and SS Bhatnagar, with the setting up of the National Physical Laboratory and the National Chemical Laboratory and in the working of the Atomic Energy Committee (later Atomic Energy Commission). The book faithfully chronicles all these facets of DM Bose’s genius.

His close association with Rabindranath Tagore and with Visva-Bharati where he had served as a treasurer has been recounted. We also learn that Warner Heisenberg expressed a desire to meet Tagore in Calcutta and “was very much impressed by the poet’s illuminatory personality which reminded him of a prophet of the old days.” Unlike the Tagore-Einstein conversation, there is unfortunately no record of the Tagore-Heisenberg conversation.

Written with love, care and extensive research, this slim volume discusses not just what DM Bose achieved in different fields of activity in his dignified manner but also how science and scientific institutions developed in India in the last century. And what kinds of challenge creative minds faced in pursuing their goals. He may have missed the Nobel Prize, but his immense contribution should not go unacknowledged. Since the book strives to highlight what the nation should gratefully remember, it deserves to be read by anyone interested in this legend and the shaping of scientific study and research in India.

 

The reviewer is a retired IAS officer