Jagadish Chandra Bose’s scientific achievements were not exactly modest – across the fields of physics and biology, he made earnest contributions. Yet, at least in the impact they had on the scientific world in his time, they were far from spectacular. And towards the later part of his life, his ideas had become the subject of scepticism. Why then do we celebrate him?
The answer is provided by computer scientist Subrata Dasgupta, Bose’s modern biographer who wrote of his famous presentation at the Royal Institution in London in 1897: “For the Royal Institution, the lecture was perhaps, just one more entry in its record books. For science the occasion was yet another addition to its vast corpus...For India, it was a moment of profound history. Western science, the science of Galileo and Newton, had finally taken root in India among Indians and on that January evening in 1897, the West tacitly acknowledged that fact.”
Dasgupta claims that Bose’s three articles in The Electrician in December 1895 were the first scientific papers published by an Indian. If that is indeed true and if a scientist can be defined as someone who publishes original research in mainstream scientific journals, JC Bose was India’s first modern scientist.
Born in Mymensingh in present-day Bangladesh and appointed the first Indian professor of Physics at Presidency College in 1885, Bose is most often known as the person from whom Guglielmo Marconi stole the radio, making for a loss of both commercial advantage and national prestige.
Electromagnetic waves had been discovered by the German Heinrich Hertz in the 1880s. When at the age of 36 in 1894, Bose (for seemingly no apparent reason) decided to pursue research, the study of the properties of electromagnetic waves was a cutting-edge area of physics and electrical science, though as Dasgupta notes, the early dividends that “guaranteed immortality” had already been reaped by Hertz.
Building instruments to miniaturise the waves (then having a wavelength measured in metres) and studying them became a key quest. Bose became something of a legendary designer of instruments.
In 1898, Margaret Noble, who had just been ordained into the Order of Ramakrishna as Sister Nivedita, became Bose’s admirer and effective editorial assistant. In a letter to Rabindranath Tagore in 1903, she spoke of Bose having anticipated Marconi by two years, which according to Dasgupta, was the key to what he calls the Boseian myth.
Bose had indeed provided “proof of concept” of sorts in the presence of the Lt Governor of Bengal at the Calcutta Town Hall in 1895, dramatically causing a bell to ring, a pistol to fire and a small amount of gunpowder to explode using electromagnetic waves that passed through three walls. But as Dasgupta notes, such proof had already been provided by the British physicist Oliver Lodge the previous year. While Bose had improved upon Lodge’s work by obtaining wavelengths smaller than 5 mm, the study of waves (rather than radio telegraphy) was both Bose and Lodge’s objective.
While the exciting and complex historiography of radio today would consider the statement “Marconi invented the radio” deeply problematic, in that still-evolving story, Bose is merely a somewhat important figure among many who worked with electromagnetic waves. As he wrote to Tagore, a radio telegraphy company had wired him requesting that he stop publishing papers until they could cut a patenting deal with him.
This was merely one example of the close relationship of the radio industry with academics and inventors. Oliver Lodge, for example, started his own radio company and eventually won a patent lawsuit against the Marconi Company, leading to a large payout. It is of course truly remarkable that even a single such link existed with the scientific wasteland that was turn-of-the-century colonial India.
A key contribution to radio that Bose did make in his quest to better detect waves was a coherer receiver utilising the rectification properties of galena. For this work, he applied for and receive a patent in the US, in which he was helped by an American friend of Sister Nivedita’s. Though he did not discover rectification, his work on the properties of materials is sometimes cited as the prehistory of the solid-state physics which was to rise later and become key to modern electronics.
Reinventions and discoveries
In his quest to build a better detector, Bose had begun to investigate problems at the interface of physics and chemistry. He subsequently reinvented himself as a physiologist at the turn of the 20th century, yet again proving himself as a man ahead of his times, by presaging the move of physicists to biology that was to take place on a large scale after World World II in part motivated by the horrors of war.
Bose’s disciplinary shift was led by his discovery of the similarity of animal tissue to metals in its response to radio waves, but also perhaps by a realisation that he was unsuited to the theoretical and mathematical work that would be required, were he to build on his experimental work on waves.
In his first study of organic, rather than inorganic material, first presented at the Paris Physics Conference of 1900, he argued quite explicitly that there were no boundaries between living and non-living material, rather than merely noting similarities of particular properties. This was in part because while physiological theories specify electrical response as a condition to define the living, Bose incorrectly interpreted it as a sufficient rather than as a necessary condition.
Yet strangely, the scientific community was not entirely averse to these ideas initially. As Dasgupta speculates, in part this was because many physicists, including Lodge, subscribed to spiritualist ideas. John Burdon-Sanderson, an influential figure of 19th century physiology, questioned the specific assertion that all plants would also show a similar response, which focused Bose’s attention on the physiology of plants – his previous work had been concerned with animal tissue.
His experimental work as a plant physiologist led to some scientific contributions to the relationship between plants and animal life, culminating in his invention of the crescograph to study plant growth, gave him infamy as the man who apparently made George Bernard Shaw weep with a demonstration of a cabbage “crying” at his laboratory in Maida Vale in London, as well as made for yet another hagiographical claim – that he’d discovered that plants had life.
However, it also made him a figure increasingly marginal to the mainstream of modern science, if not of outright ridicule. For much of the first decade of the 20th century, Bose published his most significant work outside of scientific journals. His becoming marginal had to do with his imaginative theoretical interpretation of experimental results (which included contradicting Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection) as well as priority disputes with Augustus Waller, an acclaimed physiologist who would go on to record the first human electrocardiogram.
Indifference to Bose’s work also stemmed from his transgression of disciplinary boundaries and consequent turf battles. Despite Ashis Nandy’s assertion to the contrary, Bose’s work challenged rather than supported vitalism (the ancient theory that life was somehow special and followed rules that were not amenable to normal science). While most physiologists of Bose’s time had also rejected vitalism, his work challenged their turf by showing that physicists were capable of contributing to biology.
Beyond the vitalism question, spiritualist interpretations of his work (which Bose encouraged and sometimes even indulged in) made for much discomfort among scientists. His ideas of the unity of the living and non-living material world which Nandy speculates had to do with Sister Nivedita’s influence, caught the imagination of Vivekananda (who was also in Paris for another conference during Bose’s presentation) as well as Tagore.
It was Tagore who had bestowed upon Bose the title of Acharya, or one whom Providence had delivered to prove the greatness of India’s culture. Together with the pioneering nationalist economic historian RC Dutt, he also arranged funding from the Maharaja of Tripura, when the Indian government’s support for Bose’s long research stints in Britain ran out.
As the scientific controversies raged over Bose’s work in England, Tagore wrote in a Bengali magazine that Bose was to be celebrated not just because he was helping recover the self-respect that colonial rule had injured and for leading India into Western science, but also because he was demonstrating that modern science merely reflected the wisdom of the Upanishads that “all is one”.
As Tagore put it, he was doing so in the face of opposition from patented holders (whose patents would be invalidated) as well as Christian scientists who thought that if science could explain life, theism would be rendered obsolete. Indeed, presaging nationalists of all shades, Tagore went so far as to request his countrymen to not display hubris at Bose’s Upanishad-affirming discoveries.
For someone whose scientific life was in large part spent on the margins, Bose has the unique distinction of having biographies written about him by two intellectual giants in the 20th century: the Scottish biologist-sociologist-town planner Patrick Geddes in 1920 and the political psychologist and theorist Ashis Nandy in 1980. This was due to his image as something of a Hindu scientist who apparently showed that there was an “Indian way of doing science” and for a while, seemed on the brink of challenging not just the experimental and theoretical protocols of western science but also its very foundations.
Kapil Subramanian is a historian of science. He is writing a new history of the Green Revolution.