Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937) was much more than a scientific genius. While we know of his work on radio waves and on plant ‘communication’, it was the road to getting there that was just as remarkable.
His postulation that the line dividing the living and the non-living was artificially provoked outrage in the scientific community but Bose stayed true to his beliefs and used physics to demonstrate his hypothesis.
It was the eventual acknowledgement of the international scientific community, albeit grudging, that was Bose’s crowning achievement, for the recognition had been hard-fought. The sheer magnitude of his achievements is best understood in the context of the times he lived in.
J C Bose was born on 30th November 1858, only a few months after the Revolt of 1857-58 had been crushed and the subcontinent passed from the British East India Company to the British Crown. This was the heyday of the British Empire.
He was raised in Faridpur in Eastern Bengal, now Bangladesh, and studied in a vernacular school as his father wanted him to feel connected to his native language and his people. His house was a stone’s throw from a branch of the mighty Padma River, giving the lad easy access to nature, something that kindled his life-long interest in nature and the life sciences.
Moving to Calcutta for higher studies, Bose’s interest in physics was kindled by his professor at St Xavier’s College, Father Lafont. The other big influence was the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist society, of which his father was a follower.
Bose received a firm grounding in spiritual philosophy as a Brahmo and combined it with his scientific research, which was based in Western-style on observation and experiments.
After college, he travelled to England and obtained a natural sciences tripos from Christ College, Cambridge, on a scholarship. He earned an additional BSc degree from London University, which was so impressed with his research that it took the extraordinary step of conferring a doctorate on him without an examination.
But that honour was to come later. When Bose returned to India in 1884, he confronted many obstacles that thwarted the pursuit of scientific research. Despite recommendations from the highest academic quarters in England for an appointment in the education service, Bose had to struggle to get his due from the British in India, who were reluctant to encourage Indians for fear that it might ‘turn their head’.
Beginnings of Research
After three years, Bose was appointed as a full-time professor of physics at Presidency College in Calcutta. His teaching position kept him very busy and it was not until the end of 1894 that he was able to turn to serious research, kicking off the most fruitful phase of his life as a scientist.
Patrick Geddes, botanist-turned-sociologist and town planner, and a contemporary of Bose, in a biography of the scientist, commented on Bose’s ingenuity and resourcefulness during this period: “Within three months of this resolve, with no laboratory to speak of and with the help of an untrained tinsmith, he was able to devise and construct new apparatus for his first research on some of the most difficult problems of electric radiation.” (An Indian Pioneer of Science: The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis C. Bose, 1920). The results of his research were far-reaching but Bose went way beyond, laying the foundations of scientific research by building institutions for that purpose.
Bose’s scientific research was unusual because it covered phenomena that are usually compartmentalised into mutually exclusive disciplines. He postulated the interconnectedness of the living and the non-living at a time when scientists and technologists looked at things in quite the opposite way.
It was his work in physics, however, that brought him into the spotlight for Bose had devised equipment that could not only produce electromagnetic waves but even allow the scientist to study their properties with accuracy. His findings were found worthy of publication by The Royal Society.
This was no mean achievement as it was the culmination of the work of great scientists from Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell to Heinrich Hertz. Electromagnetic radiations generated by Hertz had a wavelength of 66 centimetres (well over half-a-metre) and therefore difficult to study and handle. Bose succeeded in producing, for the first time, electromagnetic waves with much shorter wavelength – five millimetres – that were called millimetre waves and now known as microwaves. He had developed the instruments to generate, manipulate and detect them. Before he appeared on the scene, each of those tasks was very difficult. He invented the ‘spiral spring coherer’ to receive these waves, and with its help, demonstrated at a public lecture in 1895 in Calcutta that these millimetre waves, longer than infra-red waves, could not only pass through space but also through walls. Impressed with Bose’s demonstration of wireless communication, Sir Alfred Croft, Director of Public Instruction of Bengal, strongly recommended that the government sponsor Bose’s visit to England to enable him to deliver Friday Lectures at the Royal Institution, for which he had been invited. Later, in England, Bose demonstrated the working of the device developed by him, drawing praise from top scientists like Lord Kelvin and Sir J J Thomson.
Bose’s ‘coherer’ later played a crucial role in wireless communication, and was used by Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun to establish wireless or radio communication. They were awarded a Nobel Prize.
Despite inventing this crucial part, Bose was left out in the cold as he had not patented his invention.
But his work did not go unnoticed. It forced a grudging acknowledgement of the value of the ‘Eastern mind’, with whose imagination and persistence it would be possible to “wring from nature some of her closely guarded secrets”. Thus went the conservative London weekly Spectator, which conceded that the Asiatic mind could be the “greatest addition ever made to the sum of the mental force of mankind”.
Bose’s research took him into uncharted areas of thought when he noticed interesting parallels in the way inorganic substances and living things responded to a particular stimulus. He discovered this while studying the impact of electromagnetic waves on various substances.
The apparent fatigue exhibited by receivers of electromagnetic waves and how this fatigue was removed after a period of rest set Bose thinking. It made him challenge the existence of the dividing line between living and non-living things, following a series of experiments in which he showed remarkable similarities in the response to a stimulus between animal muscles and materials like iron oxide and potassium.
He explained it in a lecture he delivered in August 1900 in Paris, saying, “It is difficult to draw a line and say, ‘here the physical phenomenon ends and the physiological begins,’ or ‘that is a phenomenon of dead matter, and this is a vital phenomenon peculiar to the living.’ These lines of demarcation would be quite arbitrary.”
His hypothesis earned the hostility of physiologists, who resented the invasion of what they considered their exclusive domain by an ‘intruder’ from physics. They tried to discredit him and belittled his work but this only strengthened his resolve to continue with his chosen field of research and prove that he was right.
So Bose turned his attention from the physical sciences to the life sciences, in particular, to plant response.
He built extremely sensitive instruments, like the optical pulse recorder and the crescograph, to study the mechanical responses of plants to various kinds of stimuli.
This helped him to not only magnify by thousands of times the extremely slow and minute movements and growth of plants accurately but also record them in the form of curves on paper. Neither a pure physicist nor a pure physiologist could have done it. His work became the source of plant neurobiology, a field that has developed only in recent decades. Australian electrophysiologist Virginia Shepherd, the co-author of a 2008 biography of Bose (Remembering Sir J.C. Bose), has written that Bose regarded plants not as passive automata but as active explorers of the world. She asserts that in 1900 Bose had laid the foundations for a “phenomenology of plant mechano-perception, and delineated characteristics of excitation that are amongst the general corpus of plant electrophysiological lore… mechano-perception underlies many subtleties of plant behaviour.”
Bose’s contribution to science was not limited to his work. He not only challenged the dominant world scientific paradigm of his time but also the practice of commercialising knowledge through patents. He believed knowledge belonged to everyone, and so when he set up the Bose Institute in Calcutta, he stipulated that no patents were to be taken on works done at the institute. The institute continues to carry forward the legacy of this great man.
Kalyan Chatterjee is a Delhi NCR-based freelance journalist. He worked as a full-time journalist in UNI and Deccan Herald. For 18 years he taught mass communication. He is the author of a book Media and Nation Building in Twentieth Century India: Life and Times of Ramananda Chatterjee.
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