Where honour is due

The recent detection of the Higgs boson is as much about it being a boson, named after the eminent Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, as it is about Peter Higgs. Bose, however, remains unmentioned in most news stories about this discovery.

Scores of physicists, including me, stayed up all night on July 4 for the historic announcement and seminar live-cast from CERN in Geneva. The Higgs boson has been at the top of physicists’ most-wanted list for more than four decades now.

Two independent teams, comprising about 3,000 scientists and engineers from 40 countries, came up with the result confirming the finding. Science is now a big enterprise: large teams and expensive facilities supported by many nations. The credit for discoveries, therefore, is shared.

The issue of how to credit discoveries is understandably fraught in the era of big science. However, even in the era of scientists working away in isolation, there have been some big lapses in acknowledging appropriate individuals. A case in point is Bose, after whom the term boson was coined by the British mathematical physicist Paul Dirac.

Who was Satyendra Nath Bose? How is it that he is not a household name like Albert Einstein with whom he is credited for formulating Bose-Einstein statistics  — a key under-pinning of quantum mechanics? Bose’s fate shows how awarding credit in science is anything but fair and impartial.

Bose was isolated in an obscure and new university in colonial India. It is harder for scientists to be recognised if they are seen as outliers and if their gender, race or work do not let them belong. Research work done in Europe or the United States is more visible and more readily acknowledged.

Born in 1894, Bose studied at Calcutta’s Presidency College. His circle included eminent physicists of the generation Meghnad Saha - a contemporary and Jagadish Chandra Bose - his teacher. Part of this cohort of brilliant physicists, he began publishing his research work with Saha and moved to the newly established University of Dacca in 1921. It is while he was there that he wrote his seminal paper deriving the statistics of light that can be thought of as particles (photons) as well as waves. Bose derived a novel method by which to count the number of states a photon could occupy. He sent it to Einstein, requesting his support for publication in the prestigious German physics journal Zeitschrift fur Physic. It was translated into German by Einstein himself, and published in the August 1924 issue of that journal. Einstein applied Bose’s method to give the theory of the ideal quantum gas, and predicted the phenomenon of Bose-Einstein condensation.

In the two years he spent in Europe from 1924-26, Bose met many top physicists including Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, Eugene Wigner and Max von Laue as well as prominent French scientists Marie Curie, Paul Langevin and Maurice De Broglie. 

Bose was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and his work was widely recognised by the scientific community. After 1947, Bose was honoured by the Indian government as well: he was awarded a Padma Vibhushan, was elected president of the Indian Science Congress, the Indian Physical Society and the National Institute of Science. In his memory, the SN Bose Centre for Physics was established in 1986. His work transformed the field of quantum mechanics.

It is puzzling that Bose did not manage to garner international acclaim and recognition at the level he deserved. Working in colonial India, two Indians — CV Raman for Physics in 1930 and Rabindranath Tagore for Literature in 1913 — had won the Nobel Prize. Bose’s work, too, deserved a Nobel, and his case has become one of the many instances of glaring oversight by the Nobel Prize Committee. Two other omissions come to mind — Rosalind Franklin for the structure of the double helix and Jocelyn Bell for the discovery of quasars. Now Stephen Hawking has called for awarding the Nobel Prize to the 83-year-old Higgs.

Bose’s omission rankles because as many as 10 Nobel Prizes in Physics have been since awarded for work that draws upon Bose’s research in the field of solid state physics. Of course, the intellectual legacy and impact of Bose’s work remains for posterity. Those delving into the history of science can always excavate the truth about those really responsible for major discoveries and give them the credit they may have been denied in their own lifetimes.

Priyamvada Natarajan is professor, department of astronomy and physics, Yale University

The views expressed by the author are personal


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