Sudipto Das’ biography, ‘Jagadish Chandra Bose: The Reluctant Physicist’ uncovers Bose's forgotten legacy, shining light on his work in radio science, semiconductors, and plant perception

Sudipto Das, an engineer with a professional experience of about three decades in the hi-tech semiconductor industry, got a jolt while researching 5G communication in 2019. The alumnus of the premier IIT Kharagpur found a slew of works done a century and quarter ago on millimetre wave (mmWave), which is part of the radio wave spectrum that is used for data transmission in fifth generation (5G) of cellular networks.

To his utter surprise, these works were done by an Indian scientist, who has largely remained unrecognised and unheeded. The revelation fired up a passion in Das to dig deeper into the life of this unsung Indian scientist. The plunge led him to a treasure trove of fascinating tales that not only define the multifaceted colossus, but also unravel the enigma that he was.

An accidental physicist, a naturalist manqué

Das, an author of three novels, put forth the repository of his find to write a fascinating biography of one of modern India’s first scientists, Jagadish Chandra Bose: The Reluctant Physicist (Niyogi Books), with a poetic eloquence that makes the book read more like a novelistic story than a chronological memoir.

The emphasis on narrative-style storytelling, much to the author’s credit, does not, however, let the book veer off its focus from reality and historical context. True, there are a few dramatic allusions such as the mention of a 19-year-old Bose, down with a terrible fever, leaping over a rogue horse to reach a nearby railway station to catch a train to Calcutta to get immediate medical attention. But such embellishments are perhaps necessary indemnity for writing on Bose. After all, his life is also about the legends and myths woven around him.

One popular “Boseian” myth is that Bose was the inventor of the radio and that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi walked away with the glory that came with the invention. “A special issue of the journal of the Institute of Electrical of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1998 brought to light Bose’s work on the radio, undertaken as long back as 1894-99. This announcement served to reinforce the Boseian myth in Bengal about his invention of the radio,” Das writes.

The 390-page book is an attempt to decode the Boseian myths to unravel the legacy of the enigmatic scientist. It kicks off with the book’s intriguing title. Navigating through layers of Bose’s life, Das narrates how the man who had to his credit pathbreaking works in radio science and semiconductors was actually a naturalist, accidently drawn to physics.

The sentience of plants

Bose went to England to study medicine, not physics. But as he had kala-azar, the scent of chloroform on the dissection table troubled him a lot. He couldn’t continue with medicine. Reluctantly, he went to Cambridge and took up the Natural Science Tripos, which included physics and botany. He researched physics only for four years, from 1896 to 1900, and dedicated the rest of his life to plants. The book delves into many such interesting aspects of Bose’s life that will make readers crave to know more about the man.

The book dwells extensively into Bose’s subsequent foray into plant neurobiology after he had abruptly stopped working on wireless communication with millimetre waves; only to be taken up again more than a hundred years later by modern physicists with a fancy name, 5G. It shines light on Bose’s works in biophysics, plant neurology and other such multidisciplinary subjects. The readers are further drawn to how Bose’s findings, about a century ago, that all plants possess the equivalent of well-developed nervous systems, then ridiculed, have been now gaining ground in mainstream research.

Bose laid the foundation for a phenomenology of plant mechano-perception, and delineated characteristics of excitation that are now amongst the general corpus of plant electrophysiological lore, Das quotes noted biophysicist V A Shepherd as mentioning while elaborating on the complex social lives of plants. The concept that all plants are intelligent, capable of learning, remembering and responding to their environment in innovative ways was a kind of scientific blasphemy more than a hundred years ago. Bose was ridiculed in academic circles for his grandiose proclamations, Das points out, while exploring why Bose was forgotten and gradually fell into obscurity as a scientist.

His research on plant response and plant psychology was too abstract to be part of any popular myth, Das writes, so it was simplistically clubbed into one grand claim — Bose had discovered that plants too are alive, like us. Not limiting the ambit of the book to Bose’s scientific accomplishments, Das deftly contextualises into his narratives India’s struggle for independence and the role the scientist played in shaping the nationalist identity and reviving ancient Indian wisdom and values.

Besides founding Bose Institute, a third scientific research centre to be established in colonial India, he was also credited with organising the world’s first exhibition of the Ajanta cave paintings at his Circular Road home in Calcutta. Many such different facets of Bose have been presented to readers to define the man even beyond the realm of science. A recurring theme of the four-part memoir is Bose’s constant search for the ‘same stream of life’ and ‘unity in the bewildering diversity’, in living and non-living, in plants and animals. The quest for continuity and the eternal cycle of beginning and end led Bose to the Pindari Glacier in the Puranic Kurmanchal region of the Himalayas in the summer of 1893, a year after his father’s death, writes Das.

Perhaps, Bose was the chosen oracle — the ancient Indian civilisation spoke through him the modern words of her age-old wisdom amassed through centuries of self-realisation, Das observes in an interplay of Bose’s scientific journey and philosophical quest. The riveting memoir also takes a peek into Bose’s engagement with some of the most eminent figures of Indian history and culture, such as Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, and two remarkable European women, Sister Nivedita and Sara Chapman Bull. Sister Nivedita was ‘Lady of the Lamp’ in Bose’s life while Chapman was his ‘Dearest Mother’, sponsor, patron and co-applicant in all his patents, Das tells his readers.

The portrayal of Bose by Das is aptly summed up by Professor Gautam Basu, formerly attached to the Bose Institute, in the Foreword he has written for the book. “Sudipto Das’s account of Bose and his life includes both the aspect of Bose being a ‘pioneer in science who happens to be an Indian and a pioneer of science in and for India’ and even goes beyond by bringing out the man in his fullest form,” Basu writes.

The comprehensive exploration of Bose’s life and legacy, however, remains incomplete as Das ends his story in 1911, the year both Nivedita and Chapman passed away, 26 years before Bose’s own demise. The last two and a half decades of his life could perhaps have thrown more light on him becoming a lapsed scientist in his lifetime

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