The Polymath, The Physics and The Poetry


Rabindranath Tagore’s beautiful verses here were for Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the unsung legend when it comes to radio waves and radio communication. Lord Kelvin once wrote to Bose saying that he “was literally filled with wonder and admiration: allow me to ask you to accept my congratulations for so much success in the difficult and novel experimental problems which you have attacked“. His work was so significant that it (literally, and fairly recently) made an impact, so to say, on the moon too in the form of an impact crater named after him! Today even as we celebrate his birthday, let us cherish his contribution to the world of science.

Jagadish Chandra Bose was born on 30 November, 1858 at Mymensingh (present day Bangladesh). He received his elementary education from a vernacular school since his father thought that Bose should learn his own mother tongue, Bengali, first. Thereafter Bose pursued a bachelor’s degree in Cambridge University, affiliated to Christ’s College, after studying physics at Presidency College (Calcutta University).


Figure: Schematic of Bose’s device

It was Sir J. C. Bose who invented the Mercury Coherer (together with the telephone receiver) used by Guglielmo Marconi to receive the radio signal in his first transatlantic radio communication. Marconi was celebrated worldwide for this achievement, but the fact that the receiver was invented by Bose is often overlooked.

Bose device.png

Figure: Bose’s 60-GHz microwave apparatus at the Bose Institute in Kolkata, India

James Clerk Maxwell predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves  in the 1860s, and in 1888 Oliver Lodge and Heinrich Hertz verified it, along wires and in free space. JC Bose worked towards confining the waves to about 5mm to study them. He developed the use of galena (lead sulfide) crystals contacted by a metal point for detecting millimeter electromagnetic waves, and filed a patent for a “Detector for electrical disturbances” in 1901. It was the first device to use a semiconductor junction to detect radio waves. It had been six years previously, in 1895, when Sir J. C. Bose had given his first public demonstration of electromagnetic waves. He used electromagnetic waves to ignite gunpowder and ring a bell from a distance. In 1897 Bose presented his microwave experiments at the Royal Institution in London.


Figure: Sir JC Bose at the Royal Society, London

Much of Bose’s component technology was eventually used to develop microwave radio transmission. For his pioneering work in quasi-optic millimeter wave research, IEEE has called him the father of radio science. According to a 1997 Microwave Symposium Digest publication, “He developed an elegant millimeter wave spark transmitter, self recovering coherer detector, wire grid polarizer, cylindrical diffraction grating, dielectric lens and prism, rectangular waveguide, horn antenna and microwave absorber, for the studies of reflection, refraction, absorption and polarization of millimeter waves and its application to wireless remote control for firing a gun.”

He also worked on a number of experiments with plants. He demonstrated that plants are also sensitive to heat, cold, light, noise and various other external stimuli. Bose contrived a very sophisticated instrument called Crescograph which could record and observe the minute responses because of external stimulants. He pursued research to draw a link between the animate and the inanimate in their responses to electric stimulus, and wrote his seminal book, Responses in the Living and Non-living in 1902. The central hall of the Royal Society in London was were one of the most famous demonstrations by Bose were carried out, in front of  an audience of eminent scientists on May 10, 1901. Bose chose a plant that was cautiously dipped up to its stem in a vessel holding a bromide solution. He plugged in the instrument with the plant and viewed the lighted spot on a screen showing the movements of the plant, as its pulse beat, and the spot began to and fro movement similar to a pendulum. Within minutes, the spot vibrated in a violent manner and finally came to an abrupt stop. The whole thing was almost like a poisoned rat fighting against death. The plant had died due to the exposure to the poisonous bromide solution. Using the Crescograph, Bose further researched the response of the plants to fertilizers, light rays and wireless waves. The instrument received widespread acclaim, particularly from the Path Congress of Science.

One interesting side of his that is often overlooked was JC Bose who was a poet and a dreamer, which was keenly observed by Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Laureate for Literature 1913). Tagore found Jagadish Chandra to be endowed with a rare faculty of poetic sensibility and imagination. Tagore writes:

“… to my mind he appeared to be the poet of the world of facts that waited to be proved by the scientist for their final triumph … in the prime of my youth I was strongly attracted by the personality of this remarkable man and found his mind sensitively alert in the poetical atmosphere of enjoyment which belonged to me”. (Rabindranath Tagore, “Jagadish Chandra Bose”, in The English Writings of  Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Sisir Kumar Das. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1966, Vol. III: 826-829, p. 826)

Bose strived to work towards a unification of ideas and thoughts. In his presidential address at the Bengal Literary Conference in 1911, Bose suggested:

You are aware that, in the West, the prevailing tendency at the moment is, after a period of synthesis, to return upon the excessive sub-division of learning … Such a caste-system in scholarship, undoubtedly helps at first, in the gathering and classification of new material. But if followed too exclusively, it ends by limiting the comprehensiveness of truth. The search is endless. Realization evades us.

The Eastern aim has been rather the opposite, namely that, in the multiplicity of phenomena, we should never miss their underlying unity. After generations of this quest, the idea of unity comes to us almost spontaneously, and we apprehend no insuperable obstacle in grasping it.

Tagore found in Bose’s work an essence of Indian scientific spirit, a reflection of Indian national culture, its national pride and heritage. With this small piece on his life and works, I would like to chime along in appreciating the poetry in radio waves and the life of the polymath named JC Bose who recited it to a certain degree.


One thought on “The Polymath, The Physics and The Poetry

  1. Find out a little more about his Christ College experience; and post it to a larger forum, like an Indian or English daily (Guardia, TOI, etc)

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