Demystifying J.C. Bose

Published : Jul 09, 2024 10:33 IST - 7 MINS READ

Bose lecturing on the “nervous system” of plants at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1926.

Bose lecturing on the “nervous system” of plants at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1926. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Sudipto Das explores the rise and fall of the “founder of modern science” in India.

“...whenever the galvanometer detected any radiation,… a small mirror attached to the galvanometer’s magnetic needle deflected a light beam that swept across the lecture hall. And every time there was a sweep, there was applause.” 

On September 21, 1896, a 38-year-old physics professor arrived at University College, Liverpool, along with his wife to deliver a lecture at a meeting of the British Association. Both were understandably nervous; after all, the audience included stalwarts such as J.J. Thomson, who would go on to discover the electron, and Lord Kelvin, who made fundamental discoveries in electricity and thermodynamics. 

When his time came, the professor walked up on stage and demonstrated how a compact apparatus he had built in his laboratory with scarce resources could be used to study electromagnetic radiation. The set-up was such that each time the apparatus detected radiation, a light beam would sweep across the hall. The lecture was a hit, and it helped launch the physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose into scientific superstardom. 

Jagadish Chandra Bose: The Reluctant Physicist
By Sudipto Das
Niyogi Books
Pages: 392
Price: Rs.795

Early on in The Reluctant Physicist by Sudipto Das, we are told that this superstardom would not last. The legacy he leaves behind would be a mixed one: the Indian public still treats him as a hero, but the scientific community tends to be more reserved in its views. The whos, hows, whys, and whens of his downfall form the backbone of the book. According to Das, the book is “an attempt at demystifying the “Boseian” myth”.

It is unfortunate that of the two things most Indians associate with J.C. Bose, the first is something he did not do nor claim to do (invent the radio), and the second is something that set off the decline in his scientific reputation (his experiments showing signs of “life” in plants and inanimate metals). There is relatively less awareness about Bose’s ingenious contributions to physics that are more relevant now than ever in this semiconductor and 5G world. 

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It was this work that caught the attention of leading scientists and led Bose to some of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world. It was the late 1800s and the early 1900s, and these were not places that were used to seeing people of colour. While media reports of Bose’s work were appreciative, many reeked of stereotypes and racist overtones.  

As Das writes, it was as if Bose’s “most incredible achievement was not being just another occult fakir or mahatma, but actually a scientist”. He adds that Bose was “dismayed to see the press create an aura of enigma and sorcery around him or project the often-misinterpreted mysticism about India”.

Sudipto Das gives room to the reader to make up their own minds about the physicist, who is sometimes known as “the first Indian scientist in colonial India” and “the founder of modern science” in the country. 

Sudipto Das gives room to the reader to make up their own minds about the physicist, who is sometimes known as “the first Indian scientist in colonial India” and “the founder of modern science” in the country.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Thankfully, Das resists any undue glorification of the man whose life he has chosen to portray. He gives room to the reader to make up their own minds about the physicist, who is sometimes known as “the first Indian scientist in colonial India” and “the founder of modern science” in the country. Das relies on letters written by and to Bose, as well as a host of archival material that surely must have taken him months (at least) to peruse and compile.

Was it an unconditional love for experimentation that drove Bose? Likely. After all, he laboured on for much of his academic life with the least interest in commercialising his work, despite unjust treatment from his British bosses at Calcutta’s Presidency College. It is striking to realise how many of the struggles that Bose faced 125 years ago, such as unfair teaching loads and disincentivising research, continue to hold back scientists at Indian universities even today. 

“ It is striking to realise how many of the struggles that Bose faced 125 years ago continue to hold back scientists at Indian universities even today. ”

Or was it the desire to reclaim the greatness of his country and its heritage that drove Bose? The feeling of patriotism among the elite educated class in British India was understandably strong. However, these sentiments manifested in Bose in occasionally off-putting ways that intermixed uncomfortably with his science. He was obsessed with finding “unity” in diversity, and often turned to Hindu scriptures to justify what he observed in nature and in the laboratory.

For much of his early career, Bose actively rebelled against an unfair and racist scientific administration. But as the freedom struggle intensified, Das notes, Bose was much less vocal against British rule. While he appreciated his close friend Rabindranath Tagore for renouncing his knighthood in protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, Bose showed no intention to do so himself. “He needed the British by his side to support his Temple of Science (Bose Institute),” surmises Das. 

Bose had a lot of pride associated with his science, and it is easy to be empathetic to this, but then why did he not do more to preserve his legacy? Das laments the fact that Bose had “no disciples or loyalists who would propagate his thoughts and doctrines, take on his adversaries and identify instances of deceit”. 

In one instance, a young Bengali student comes to visit Bose at a time when the scientist was troubled by objections to his work on plant physiology. The student passed on a message to Bose through his wife Abala: “If only Professor Bose allows us, a dozen of us, who thoroughly know our subject, are willing to fight for him.” However, Bose never responded to this request. As a reader, I felt rather betrayed to read that towards the end of his career, Bose turned “irritable, irascible and insensitive”. In fact, the author finds that many of Bose’s former students and staff remember him as a “selfish and ruthless man”.

Another fascinating aspect of Bose’s life was the complex intimate relationships he had. Tagore was one of them, but the rest, interestingly, were all women. There was his wife, the feminist and social worker Abala, who seems to have been very present in his life though we do not hear enough about her in the book. Then there is the American philanthropist Sara Chapman Bull, who was a sort of mother-figure in Bose’s life, a source of emotional and financial support. The relationship that Das’ book delves deepest into is the one Bose shared with Sister Nivedita, an Irish woman who dedicated her life to India and was very close to Bose. Their bond is harder to label: at times a science collaboration, at times maternal, at times tempestuous than one would expect. 

In 2023, many of us watched Oppenheimer,(possibly) the biggest science film in history. Besides the masterful depictions of the atomic bombing and the inner turmoil in the mind of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the movie also offered exciting glimpses into the academic spaces and figures of the 1920s and 1930s. The Reluctant Physicist does this too. Besides Tagore, Sister Nivedita, and Swami Vivekananda who were lifelong influences on Bose’s life, there are cameos by a dozen historical science celebrities. These include Heinrich Hertz (who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves), Wilhelm Röntgen (who discovered X-rays), Max Planck, Pierre Curie, Lord Kelvin, and Nikola Tesla. 

Also Read | Honouring a pioneer

Then of course, there is the nemesis that never was—Guglielmo Marconi. There is an urban legend among some Indians that it was not Marconi but Bose who actually invented the radio, but while this is untrue, Das does illustrate why it was not completely rubbish either. It is, however, profoundly intriguing how Bose left behind no evidence that he cared about the debates surrounding Marconi’s patents at all. 

While reading The Reluctant Physicist, I kept thinking about how rich with opportunities Bose’s life is for adaptation into a film or a Web series. Should a filmmaker ever take this on, Das’ book will make for a great resource. Sadly, in the current political atmosphere, it is equally possible to spin a narrative of Bose’s legacy that suits nationalist propaganda. One can only hope that an intelligent filmmaker gets there first!

Nandita Jayaraj is a science writer and co-founder of the feminist science media platform She is the co-author of Lab Hopping: A Journey to Find India’s Women in Science.

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