A versatile genius

Print edition : December 03, 2004

J.C. Bose, centre, with his students Meghnad Saha, J.C. Ghosh (both sitting), S. Dutta, S.N. Bose, D.M. Bose, N.R. Sen, J.N. Mukherjee and N.C. Nag. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

JAGADISH CHANDRA BOSE (1858-1937) was a rare polymath who was equally at home in physics, biology, botany, archaeology and literature. Born in what is now Bangladesh, he graduated in science from St. Xaviers College, Calcutta (now Kolkata), and later obtained an honours in Physics from Cambridge University, in 1884. He was appointed a Professor of Physics in Presidency College, Calcutta, in 1885, where he conducted experiments in various areas in physics and botany. To begin with, he invented a wireless telegraphy equipment in 1894 and demonstrated it at the Town Hall in Calcutta. So, in a way, he invented the radio contemporaneously with Marconi of Italy. But J.C. Bose never got international recognition for it owing to his failure to patent it in time.

Bose presented a very important paper at the International Congress of Physics held in Paris in 1900, titled "On the Similarity of Responses in Inorganic and Living Matter". To prove his point he had devised instruments such as the crescograph to measure the rate of growth of a plant and the death recorder to record the exact moment of death of a plant.

Thus, from a study of electromagnetic waves, especially its property and practical application, J.C. Bose turned increasingly to the study of plants and what later came to be known as biophysics. He compared the response of metals, plants and animals to electrical, chemical and mechanical stimulations, and documented them in his famous book, Responses in the Living and Non-living, published in 1902. The instruments and apparatus is he patented were for measuring the response to stimulations of heat, light, gravity and electricity. It was this paper rather than his work on radio waves that made him an instant celebrity in the world of science. A leading French newspaper of that time wrote humorously: "After this discovery we begin to have misgivings, when we strike a woman with a blossom, which of them suffers more - the woman or the flower!"

After retiring from Presidency College in 1915, he established the Bose Institute (Basu Bigyan Mandir) in 1917 and carried on with his research work there until his death. He was conferred the Knighthood in 1916 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Science (FRS), England, in 1920. His important publications include Plant Response as a Means of Physiological investigations, Physiology of Photosynthesis, Nervous Mechanism of Plants and Motor Mechanisms of Plants.

But Sir J.C. Bose was not just a scholar, scientist and inventor. He was also an ardent nationalist. One can gauge his patriotism, courage, integrity and self-respect from the fact that for three years after joining government service in Presidency College, he refused to accept any salary from the British government, since the latter discriminated in the matter of pay scales between British and Indian Professors. Finally, the colonial authorities had to give in and allow him the full salary from the day he joined the college. He realised that the best way to fight the colonial injustice was to confront it head on.

J.C. Bose's versatile genius found expression in literary works also, such as Abyakta (literal translation: The Unexpressed), which is still regarded by literary critics as a masterly exposition of the beauty of natural phenomena. In recognition of his literary works, he was made the president of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (the apex body of the State-level literary council for the Bengali language and literature). He was also a close friend of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, and Mahatma Gandhi. Among eminent scholars abroad, he won the admiration of George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley and Romain Rolland. What all these savants appreciated most was Bose's attempt to prove the age-old humanist faith in the basic unity of all life. A British editor once wrote: "In Sir Jagadish the culture of 30 centuries has blossomed into a scientific brain of an order which we cannot duplicate in the West."

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