From S.N. Bose, a reminder of our responsibility to science

The great physicist exemplified the spirit of scientific inquiry, by showing that doing it right and well is separate from staking claims of origination

Updated - June 05, 2023 07:04 pm IST

Published - January 03, 2023 12:06 pm IST

File picture of physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974)

File picture of physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974)

Higgs Boson Particle

January 1 was the birth anniversary of the physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974). Among other things, Bose is remembered for formulating the statistical rules that describe the behaviour of a certain class of subatomic particles, with help from Albert Einstein. These rules are today known as Bose-Einstein statistics, and the British physicist Paul Dirac named these particles ‘bosons’ in Bose’s honour. 

This week, physicist and science writer Nirmalya Kajuri tweeted a curious passage from Inward Bound, a 1986 book by physicist and historian Abraham Pais. The passage describes how, in 1924, Bose sensed the need to specify a new attribute — a particle’s spin — in order to complete his calculations. Einstein, however, “crossed this portion out from the paper… saying it wasn’t necessary at that stage to introduce such a concept.” When the need for the attribute became evident a year or so later, Bose was asked why he didn’t return to Einstein and ask that he be credited for the idea. “How does it matter who proposed it first?” he replied. “It has been found, hasn’t it?”  

The episode is vaguely reminiscent of Ralph Kronig’s experience when he proposed the idea of electron spin to Wolfgang Pauli, one of his academic advisors, in 1925. Pauli reportedly replied to Kronig, “It is indeed very clever but of course has nothing to do with reality.” Kronig dropped the idea, only for Samuel Goudsmit and George Uhlenbeck to publish the same idea some months later and to this day take a lot of the popular credit for it. When Uhlenbeck spoke of his and Goudsmit’s “luck and privilege to be students of Paul Ehrenfest”, he might have meant “instead of students of Pauli”. 

But given the number of brilliant men in the fray here who made stellar contributions to fundamental physics, both Bose’s and Kronig’s experiences bring more loudly to mind the (admittedly cynical) advice of the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam: “Whenever you have a good idea, don’t send it for approval to a big man. He may have more power to keep it back. If it’s a good idea, let it be published.”

Beyond the boson

The passage that Kajuri picked to share is notable in one more way – and one that might do justice to the way Bose has been remembered in some pockets, as well as impinge on the way the idea of primacy has become outsized in the public, and the political, imagination. In 2012, the collaboration working with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced that it had discovered the Higgs boson, a type of boson that physicists had been looking for decades. The LHC is operated at a European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) facility in western Europe. Later that year, then CERN director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer visited India and said in a talk at Bose’s home city, Kolkata, “I always spell boson with a capital letter.” He was responding to calls from some academics to this end, just like we capitalise the ‘H’ in ‘Higgs boson’. It was a silly demand then and seems doubly silly now, in light of Bose’s reply to the question about claiming credit for the idea of particle spin: “How does it matter who proposed it first? It has been found, hasn’t it?”

The importance of primacy then and now is markedly different. Today, science — as any other professionalised endeavour — is more competitive, and even small advantages can translate to big differences in outcomes. There is also a historical wrong to be righted here, that when the histories of science continue to exclude the voices and contributions of people from communities that were colonised, plundered, and transformed by decades of oppression and cruelty, they perpetuate the same injustice. Yet Bose’s words bear a dignity that reminds us, at the threshold of 2023, that there is a third responsibility: to a science beyond the names and labels, which still waits to be done, to be supported, funded and treated with civility in public endeavours, and that doing it right and well is separate from staking claims of origination.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.