Jagdish Chandra Bose - An Underrated Physicist from India

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Sir JC Bose (1900)
Sir JC Bose (1900)

Many of us commonly know JC Bose for his work showing that plants “feel”, but was this all his contributions to science were limited to?

The first time I heard the name Jagdish Chandra Bose was in my school days in my biology class. As far as my memory takes me, it was just that he showed that plants could feel the same way as any other living beings. This was pretty much all I knew about him, just a small paragraph’s worth. I didn’t bother with it too much at the time since my exposure to things were insignificant. My friends who took up bio in their 11th and 12th tell me that they didn’t have it, or don’t remember it at all. Which made me think that the amount of information given must have been insignificant enough that even a phenomenon of this magnitude didn’t make an impression in all our minds. So, I wanted to present whatever I can to others, about his research on plants as well as on the radio.

Bose was sent to a vernacular school, where he was said to have developed an interest in the workings of nature by listening to his friends tell stories about birds, animals and aquatic creatures. After his BA from the University of Calcutta, he went to England to study medicine at the University of London. It is said that the odour in the dissection rooms added to his illness and so he decided to quit. He did his BSc and DSc from the University of London. On his return to India, he was offered a lectureship at Presidency College, Calcutta.

In 1894, Bose decided to devote himself fully to pure research. He carried out experiments involving refraction, diffraction and polarization. After James Clerk Maxwell predicted the existence of electromagnetic radiation, which was then verified by Heinrich Hertz, a British physicist - Oliver Lodge - who had also been researching electromagnetism, conducted a lecture on Hertzian waves (radio waves). His work was published as a book, which caught Bose’s attention.

In his follow-up microwave research, he was able to reduce the waves to millimetre level (as short as 5mm). Later in 1895, during a public demonstration at Town Hall of Kolkata, Bose ignited gunpowder and rang a bell at a distance using millimetre range wavelength microwaves. These waves had a frequency of 60 GHz and travelled a distance of over 23 meters.

Bose published two papers in 1895 based on his radio research. At that time, the word coherer, coined by Lodge, was used in the English-speaking world for Hertzian wave receivers or detectors. A newspaper, The Englishman, quoted from a London journal, Electrician, and commented as follows:

Should Professor Bose succeed in perfecting and patenting his ‘Coherer’, we may in time see the whole system of coast lighting throughout the navigable world revolutionised by a Bengali scientist working single handed in our Presidency College Laboratory.

In 1896, Bose met the inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, who too had been developing radio wave wireless telegraphy for over a year, and had been trying to market it to British postal service. Bose even expressed his disinterest in patenting his work and commercialising it. Wireless telegraphy was then patented by Marconi in 1896. Although Bose’s work was more about studying the phenomenon itself, it is however undeniable that he was the first to demonstrate the wireless transmission and reception of electromagnetic waves. Even so, the official credit is given to Marconi.

Apart from these, Bose was the first to make use of semiconductor junction (P-N) to detect radio waves. He also invented many microwave components which are now used commonly. He used waveguides, horn antennas, dielectric lenses, various polarisers and even semiconductors at frequencies as high as 60 GHz. What’s interesting is that after he was able to produce millimetre waves in 1894, further work or researches on them were non-existent for the following 60 years, till 1954. Sir Nevill Mott, in 1977 said that Bose was at least 60 years ahead of his time and that Bose had even anticipated the existence of P-type and N-type semiconductors.

Compund Lever Crescrograph. Credit: Bose Institute
Compund Lever Crescrograph. Credit: Bose Institute

Bose’s further studies on coherer led to the discovery of the common nature of the electric response to external stimuli by both living and inanimate objects. His contribution in the field of biophysics was the demonstration of the electrical nature of the conduction of various stimuli in plants, which were earlier thought to be of a chemical nature. He designed and fabricated instruments like crescograph, photosynthetic bubbler, soshnugraph etc.

His most famous experiment, conducted at the Royal Society of London in 1901 demonstrated that plants, just like humans, have feelings. To do this, he placed the roots of a plant in a vessel that contained bromide solution (which is considered to be poisonous for living beings). Then, to the plant, he connected the crescograph (an instrument that can record the pulse of plants). What started out as a steady to-and-fro like pulse, began to grow unsteady. It soon became violent and then came to a sudden stop as the plant died. The event was greeted with much appreciation and applause.

Sir JC Bose lecturing on “nervous system of plants” at the Sorbonne, Paris (1926)
Sir JC Bose lecturing on “nervous system of plants” at the Sorbonne, Paris (1926)

Using the crescograph, Bose further researched the response of the plants to fertilizers, light rays and wireless waves. He continued efforts to device inorganic models of the biophysical phenomena underlying electrical and mechanical responses to stimulation, the transmission of excitation in plant and animal tissues and of vision and memory. He then devoted himself mainly to the study of response phenomena in plants, the complexity of whose responses lies intermediate between those of inorganic matter and animals.

Bose founded the “Bose Institute” in 1917 in Calcutta. He dedicated the institute to the service of the nation. Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Sara Chapman Bull and Rabindranath Tagore were among those who inspired and supported Bose in his endeavours. He died in 1937.

Just like how the plant research unlocked and paved pathways to many important discoveries, radio research is now used for many applications in the modern world. These include, but not limited to, radio astronomy, remote sensing, automotive radars, military applications, imaging, security screening and telecommunications like Wi-Fi and even the upcoming 5G technology.

It seems unfair and also shameful that many of us are unaware of Bose and his contributions to the modern world. We readily acknowledge the Western inventions and discoveries, but often turn a blind eye towards their Indian counterparts who have shown even before them. Something caught my eye in one of the sources for this article, and I’ll quote it as it was given:

“Although Jagdish Chandra Bose did invaluable work in Science, his work was recognized in the country only when the Western world recognized its importance.”

I won’t elaborate on this quote as it is not something fit for the category I’m writing for, but I think it’s something we all need to think about and hopefully realise the gravity of it.

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