Business Standard

The ‘inner life’ of a rational scientist


There have been multiple biographie­s of Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937), the pioneering interdisci­plinary scientist, who was close to the epicentre of the many tumultuous socio-political movements that swept through Bengal and India during his lifetime. Kunal Ghosh, for example, wrote an outstandin­g scientific biography a few years ago.

The influence of Bose (who usually spelt his name “Jagadis”) extended far beyond the realm of personal scientific inquiry. He had relationsh­ips, good and bad, that spanned the global scientific community. As an eminent Bengali intellectu­al, he knew every other eminent Bengali of his era. This book explores some of those relationsh­ips as well as looking at the science.

Bose was a very complex individual. He was a rational scientist, who was also deeply religious. He had an explosive temper, and huge mood swings, which he struggled to control. He was a committed nationalis­t who believed in Satyagraha (from long before the term was coined) and bloody-minded enough to refuse to accept a salary lower than his white colleagues for many years. But there is also compelling evidence, referred to only in passing in this book, that he and his chemist colleague and friend, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, allowed revolution­aries to tap into their knowledge of explosives, and to pilfer chemicals stored in the labs at Presidency College.

Many of Bose’s most fascinatin­g interactio­ns were with his friend and coreligion­ist Rabindrana­th Tagore, and with another close friend, Swami Vivekanand­a, with whom he had violent, public difference­s of opinion about religion. That relationsh­ip led in turn to close friendship­s with two women, the Irishwoman Margaret

Noble aka Sister Nivedita, and the American, Sarah Bull.

These two ladies were famously followers of Vivekanand­a (and hence not on the same page as Bose in terms of faith). However, they both adored Bose and made substantia­l contributi­ons to his well-being, raising funds for his work, as well as offering emotional sustenance. Nivedita was, of course, also the individual who nurtured an entire generation of revolution­aries after the death of her “Master” (as she called Vivekanand­a) and the first Partition of Bengal in 1905.

Author Sudipto Das does a pretty fair job of covering the science. There are some new insights into Bose’s work, and a mildly speculativ­e look at the metaphysic­al aspects of his interdisci­plinary work. Mr Das also highlights one lacuna in Bose’s scientific education — his lack of mathematic­al expertise, which meant he often couldn’t follow through on his experiment­s and derive the encompassi­ng physical theory. The book meticulous­ly picks through the history of wireless, where Bose was a pioneer (one of several), and points to his amazing discoverie­s in the arena of semiconduc­tors, and in the ways electrical impulses affect plants, animals and metals.

But the book’s true worth lies in its exposition of Bose’s “inner life”. His spiritual and nationalis­tic impulses inspired much of his work, and coloured his interactio­ns with the individual­s mentioned above. While there is much correspond­ence between them (they were all copious letter writers) and eyewitness descriptio­ns of their interactio­ns in

Bengali, this hasn’t been explored in much detail in English until this book.

Bose fought long and hard to carve out some semblance of equity for Indians working in the Raj’s education service. As an educationi­st, he scraped together the funds to establish the Bose Institute, with help from the two ladies mentioned above, and from Tagore,

who persuaded the Maharaja of Tripura to make a contributi­on. The Bose Institute was among the first institutio­ns of scientific research that wasn’t dependent on British largesse.

The religious fault lines between Vivekanand­a and his disciples, and Brahmo Samajis like Tagore and Bose, have been explored gingerly by other commentato­rs. Das goes a little further than most. Brahmos (now recognised as

a distinct minority

numbering just a few

lakhs) accept the

Vedas as holy books, but not the later texts of Hinduism. This reformist movement worships a single, invisible deity, and abjures idol worship, rituals, caste and dietary taboos as superstiti­on. The Brahmos were at the forefront of the reform movements to ban Sati, permit widow remarriage, encourage women’s education, and so on. (Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Acharya Prafulla Ray were all Brahmos, as is Amartya Sen).

The Ramakrishn­a Mission establishe­d by Vivekanand­a is wedded to Devi-worship, as well as revering

Ramakrishn­a Paramahans­a. It is also a reformist movement, albeit operating within the bounds of pantheism. Vivekanand­a said many harsh things about Brahmoism (and more personally, about Tagore). The Brahmos reciprocat­ed with similar sentiments about “superstiti­ous idol-worshipper­s”. However, Vivekanand­a had Brahmo family members, and Bose’s mother was a Shakto. So, at a personal level, they could reconcile religious difference­s and stay friends united in seeking a better future for their nation.

Bose’struegeniu­swasasan experiment­alscientis­t.hecouldask difficultq­uestionsra­ngingacros­s discipline­sandhecoul­dbuildinst­ruments andconcept­ualiseexpe­rimentstha­twere decades,oracentury­aheadofhis­ Daspointso­ut,boseexamin­edmillimet­re waves,whichareon­lynowbeing­deployed in5gnetwor­ks.

You cannot separate the man and his work from the times he lived in. That was when a humiliated, broken nation rediscover­ed some of its self-confidence. Bose contribute­d to that in many ways, not least by simply proving that an Indian could do great science despite all the hurdles India’s colonial masters placed in his path. This book adds to the body of knowledge about him.

 ?? ?? JAGADISH CHANDRA BOSE: The Reluctant Physicist
Author: Sudipto
Das Publisher: Niyogi Books Pages: 392 Price: ~795
JAGADISH CHANDRA BOSE: The Reluctant Physicist Author: Sudipto Das Publisher: Niyogi Books Pages: 392 Price: ~795
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