In a world where Leonardo da Vinci was merely a painter, one might say that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a scientist. But in the real world, he was much more.
[Image Source: Agence de presse Meurisse via Wikimedia Commons]
The genius born on 30th November 1858 in the Eastern part of British India (the area now being part of Bangladesh) was a physicist, a biologist, a botanist, an archaeologist, an author, and a connoisseur of fine arts. (Interestingly 1858 was the same year in which India, which was being administered by the East India Company since 1757, came directly under crown rule.) He is most famously known for his contribution to natural sciences, and has been named by Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers as one of the fathers of radio science, alongside scientists such as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He is also said to be the first Indian biophysicist and even the first Indian modern scientist. In fact, his work on radio and wireless communication effectively makes him the father of modern Wi-Fi.
The Making of a Prodigy
Bose was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His father, Bhagawan Chandra Bose, was a civil servant in British India and held prestigious positions of responsibility in the then Bengal Presidency, apart from being active in reform movements. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose could have had a very comfortable upbringing, with negligible contact with the problems that the rest of the country was facing in those times, under the colonial rule of the British. However, his father chose to have him start his education at a vernacular school founded by his father, as opposed to an expensive English-language school, where he would get a chance to learn his own language (Bangla) and know and understand his people. He was raised in a home committed to pure Indian traditions and culture. The impact of this early-life humility and contact with the masses stayed with Bose throughout his life, and was clear in his attitude toward his work and life.
Speaking at the Bikrampur Conference in 1915, Bose said:
“At that time, sending children to English schools was an aristocratic status symbol. In the vernacular school, to which I was sent, the son of the Muslim attendant of my father sat on my right side, and the son of a fisherman sat on my left. They were my playmates. I listened spellbound to their stories of birds, animals, and aquatic creatures. Perhaps these stories created in my mind a keen interest in investigating the workings of Nature. When I returned home from school accompanied by my school fellows, my mother welcomed and fed all of us without discrimination. Although she was an orthodox old-fashioned lady, she never considered herself guilty of impiety by treating these ‘untouchables’ as her own children. It was because of my childhood friendship with them that I could never feel that there were ‘creatures’ who might be labeled ‘low-caste’. I never realized that there existed a ‘problem’ common to the two communities, Hindus and Muslims.”
At the age of 11, Bose joined the Hare School, then the St. Xavier’s School at Kolkata (earlier known as Calcutta), and finally he went to St. Xavier’s College. These institutions continue to be some of the most prestigious places to receive an education in India. He then received a bachelor’s degree from University of Calcutta in 1879. It was at St. Xavier’s College that, Bose met Jesuit Father Eugene Lafont, who played a significant role in developing his interest in natural sciences.
From here on, the course of his life changed twice:
First, his wish of following his father’s footsteps and competing for the Indian Civil Services (in England) got overruled by his father, who had more scholarly plans for his son.
Second, Bose decided to go to England to study Medicine at the University of London. However, his repeated sickness kept him from becoming a medical doctor. He instead attended Christ College, and obtained a B.A. degree in Natural Sciences. After that he attended Cambridge and returned to India in 1884 after completing a B.Sc. degree from the University of London.
The Mentorship of Eugène Lafont
Eugène Lafont was a Belgian priest, who became a missionary in India, where he went on to become a scientist, and also found the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science to increase people’s awareness of and interest in science. Lafont was a research scholar, an inventor, but most of all, an educator. He served in the Senate of the University of Calcutta for many years, and his Association served as the centre of research for several noted scientists, including Nobel Laureate Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (CV Raman), and his protégé of sorts, Sir Kariamanickam Srinivasa Krishnan (KS Krishnan).
Lafont inspired in Bose a great interest in physics and natural sciences. Bose started out as his student, but quickly grew to become friends with him.
Bose’s Return to India
He returned to India in 1885 and took up a job as an Assistant Professor of Physics at Presidency College, the oldest college in Calcutta. In his time there till 1915, Bose observed the racism at the workplace: the salary differential between Indians and Brits was 3X! He held a steadfast protest against this horrible system by refusing to accept the lower salary for three years, and in the fourth year, he was finally paid in full, including the backlog since his joining!
[Image Source: The Birth Centenary Committee via Wikimedia Commons]
While being a terrific teacher and grooming younger scientists, Bose also started original research here in the area of microwaves, carrying out experiments involving refraction, diffraction, and polarization. Ten years after his return to India, and while still teaching at Presidency College, he demonstrated wireless communication using radio waves, nearly two years before Marconi achieved the same feat. He also suggested the existence of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun, which was confirmed much later, all the way in 1944.
During the same period, he got married to Abala Bose, spared time to write Bangla science fiction, as well as became intrigued by plants and their response phenomena. He showed that vegetable tissues produce electric responses under the effect of stimuli, just like in animals.
How Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose Proved Plants have Life
Thanks to his work in radio waves, Boss perhaps began to think about the larger world of physics, beyond what is obvious to the naked eye. He had been fascinated by the reactions seen in the mimosa (the touch-me-not plant, not the cocktail!), which, when touched or irritated, reacts with shriveling up of its leaves. His curiosity about this little-understood world of plants compelled him to study the reactions of plans to stimuli. Through his work, he was able to establish the similarities between plants and animals with respect to response to external stimuli.
Toward this area of research, Bose’s flagship contribution was the invention of a machine called the “crescograph“, a device for measuring growth in plants. There are two things in this instrument that help measure plant growth and development, and these are: a smoked glass plate and a number of clockwise gears. The plate is marked after regular distance intervals, and the clockwise gears are used to measure how growth is influenced, as well as how it moves under different conditions. The plate catches the reflection of the plant and is marked according to the movement of the plant. For measurement, the plant is dipped in bromide, which is poisonous.
[Image Source: Biswarup Ganguly via Wikimedia Commons]
The device can take measurements of the order of 1/100,000th of an inch! Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s first experiments were conducted with a leaf, a carrot, and a turnip plucked from his own garden.
As per his biography on Daily Sun:
The who’s who of the scientific community had all gathered at the central hall of the Royal Society in London on May 10, 1901. Everyone wanted to know how Bose would demonstrate that plants have “feelings” similar to other living beings.
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose chose a plant whose mots were cautiously dipped up to the stems in a vessel filled with bromide solution, considered poisonous. He plugged in the crescograph with the plant and viewed the lighted spot on a screen showing the movements of the plant. The spot began to move in a pendulum-like motion with the “pulse” of the plant. As the bromide began to act, within minutes, the spot began to vibrate violently and finally came to a stop, akin to an animal fighting poison.
The event was greeted with much appreciation however, some physiologists were not content, and considered Bose an intruder. They harshly knocked the experiment but Bose did not give up and was quite confident about his findings. Using the crescograph, he further researched the response of the plants to other stimuli such as fertilizers, light rays, and wireless waves. The instrument received widespread acclaim, particularly from the Path Congress of Science in 1900. Many physiologists also corroborated his findings later on, using more advanced instruments.
Bose himself wrote: “All around us, the plants are communicating. We just don’t notice it.” His research was also instrumental toward helping humans understand how to better care for plants, and also paved the way for enhanced research into crop cultivation and agricultural best practices.
He was also the first to study the action of microwaves in plant tissues and the changes in the plant cell membrane potential, proving through this study that plants are sensitive to pain and affection.
To spread the knowledge from his learnings to the world, Bose described his experiments and their results in his 1902 paper/book,”Responses in the Living and Non-Living”. He described how plants feel pleasure and pain. Under the effect of stimuli like pleasant and gentle music, the speed of growth of plants increased and decreased when exposed to harsh or loud music. Similarly, plants that were spoken to, as one would with babies and pets, would be “happier” than others.
It is now agreed that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose had made very significant contributions to the fields of chronobiology and circadian rhythms before these were even coined.
Racism Followed Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose Wherever He Went
Not only did Bose face challenges in ensuring equal pay for Indian faculty members, and open-mindedness toward his research on plant feelings, he was often denied access to laboratories and equipment due to his race. Not even in Cambridge, London, or elsewhere, but right in India, where the British Empire’s control over Indian educational institutions was almost absolute throughout their reign. He would resort to conducting elaborate experiments inside his “home” in Calcutta: a small room barely able to contain all the equipment he needed.
Allegedly, he also had to work against the lack of funding available for equipment, and had to work his way around to ensure that his research and scientific study wouldn’t suffer.
Yet You Wouldn’t Believe All His Accomplishments
Working in a difficult socio-political environment, under constant racial discrimination, and in scarcity of equipment and funding, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose continued to do pioneering work in several fields. He became the first person in the world to use semiconductor junctions for detecting radio signals.
Yet, rather than trying to convert his inventions into commercial gains, he chose to make his inventions public, in the same way as open-source software works today, to enable anyone else to use and build on his research. Bose used to be quite strong against patenting his inventions, and barely ever expressed interest in commercial uses of his research, encouraging others to use his work. He had resolved not to seek any personal advantage from his inventions and pursued science not only for itself but for its application to the benefit of mankind. Yet, giving in to peer pressure, he did apply for the patent for the first solid-state diode to receive electromagnetic waves.
He also carried out extensive studies on diffraction, refraction, and polarization, effectively inventing wireless telegraphy. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s research on radio waves led to him being able to create waves with very short wavelengths, all the way down to 5 mm. During the same time frame, Marconi was working on commercialising his findings in radio waves and trying to market it to the British Postal Service, while Bose continued his research in the pursuit of scientific interest. To his credit, Marconi did acknowledge the importance of Bose’s work in his writing. Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose also developed equipment for transmitting, generating, and receiving radio waves. He experimented with galena to prepare an early type of semiconductor diode which can be used an electromagnetic wave detector.
To satiate his myriad curiosities, he delved deep into multiple fields during his lifetime. He switched from the study of physics to the study of metals and afterwards to plants. Another one of his inventions was an extremely sensitive coherer, a device to detect radio waves. He found that using the device over a long period of time, without any breaks, led to a loss in its sensitivity. This loss, however, could be reversed by leaving the coherer unused for some time. Thus, Bose concluded that metals possess memories and feelings.
Bose also developed a device to demonstrate the effect of electromagnetic waves on non-living and living matter.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose authored two illustrious books: Response in the Living and Non-living (1902) and The Nervous Mechanism of Plants (1926).
The honours which the great Indian scientist received include Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1903, Knighthood in 1917, Member of the Vienna Academy of Sciences in 1928, Member of Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters in 1929, Founding fellow of the National Institute of Sciences of India (now renamed as the Indian National Science Academy), Companion of the Order of the Star of India in 1912, Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, President of the 14th session of the Indian Science Congress in 1927, Member of the League of Nations’ Committee for Intellectual Cooperation, etc.
The (Relatively) Unsung National Hero
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose’s entire lifetime of 78 years was during the British rule in India, a period that gave rise to legends such as Gandhi, who is a familiar face for almost everyone around the globe. On that scale, Bose is a lesser-known legend. Yet one or the other of his scientific achievements and inventions forms the basis of the gadgets and gizmos we use every day.
However, in British India, Bose was much more than all his accolades; he was a source of inspiration to a nation otherwise struggling for independence and a fresh identity, in a difficult economic and political climate. The Better India writes about his impact on his close friend and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore was a vocal supporter of Bose’s research. In his poem for him, published in Kalpana, Tagore was magnanimous in his praise:
“From the Temple of Science in the West,
far across the Indus, oh, my friend,
you have brought the garland of victory,
decorated the humbled head of the poor Mother…
Today, the mother has sent blessings in words of tears,
of this unknown poet.
Amidst the great Scholars of the West, brother,
these words will reach only your ears.”
As Tagore’s words portray, for a country under an oppressive colonial rule, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was not just a scientist, he was a symbol of national pride. Bose too had always acknowledged his responsibilities as a scientist to revive the national pride of his country. In a letter to Tagore, he wrote:
“I am alive with the life force of the mother Earth, I have prospered with the help of the love of my countrymen. For ages, the sacrificial fire of India’s enlightenment has been kept burning, millions of Indians are protecting it with their lives, a small spark of which has reached this country through me.”
[Image Source: Google Doodle]
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, An Undying Legacy
For a country going through an identity crisis, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a source of immense national pride and hope. Prior to his death in 1937, he founded the Bose Institute at Calcutta, devoted primarily to the study of plants.
Bose Institute [Image Source: Patrick Geddes via Wikimedia Commons]
He was greatly helped in his ambitious and noble endeavour, both financially and otherwise, by Tagore. Today, this Institute also carries research on various other fields. As per their website:
The Institute was set up with the purpose of investigating fully, “the many and ever opening problems of the nascent science which includes both life and non-life”. Bose’s early career included many marvelously inventive and pioneering experiments on electromagnetism which, in JJ Thomson‘s words, marked, “the dawn of the revival in India, of interest in researches in the Physical Sciences”, and on the commonality of the response of plants and inorganic materials to electric and mechanical stimuli.
To recognize his achievements in the field of wireless telecommunications, among other fields, an impact crater on the far side of the Moon is named after Bose. The Bose Crater has a reported diameter of 91 kilometres. Its outer rim has become worn and the edges rounded by impacts, although the shape of the site has been well-preserved.
[Image Source: AshLin via Wikimedia Commons]
Interestingly, one tribute that is mistakenly attributed to him is the naming of Bose Corporation, an American firm that designs and sells audio equipment. Bose Corp. was actually named after its founder Amar Bose, and engineer, academic, and entrepreneur. While he probably shares his descent with Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the two aren’t related.
Today, the legend may not physically be with us, but his legacy shall endure. Several scientists have backed his work on plants using more sophisticated equipment and methods. At the same time, scientists are also trying to unravel the mystery of the molecular-level changes that happen within plants giving rise to the different reactions to different stimuli, such as light, touch, and sound.
Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose will continue to hold a unique place in the history of modern science.