Much ado about the Bose in the boson

Satyendra Nath Bose’s name was conferred on the class of particles called bosons. Photo: PTI

Satyendra Nath Bose’s name was conferred on the class of particles called bosons. Photo: PTI  

At a conference in Kolkata in September 2012, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), said, “I always spell boson with a capital letter.” He was responding to demands from a section of Indian academia for the ‘B’ in ‘bosons’ to be capitalised, just as the ‘H’ was in ‘Higgs boson’. Dr. Dieter Heuer leads the experimental efforts of the world’s largest physics experiment. Kudos to him, then, for so deftly fending off the trivial insecurities of some of his peers.

These demands weren’t voiced in isolation but belonged to a greater rhetoric pervading India — online and offline — about how Satyendra Nath Bose had been slighted because his contributions to this year’s Nobel physics Laureates’ achievements had been left out by the Nobel Prize committee. Bose’s name was conferred on the class of particles called bosons, colloquially called force-carriers, by Paul Dirac, a contemporary British physicist, in honour of Bose’s collaborative work with Albert Einstein in defining the properties of such particles in the 1920s.

Despite varied interests and a formidable self-taught proficiency, nothing else established Bose as genius as did his ground-breaking work with Einstein. Unfortunately, he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in physics even though Einstein had been (albeit for some other work). One reason for this is that Bose worked during a boom time for theoretical physics, an era in which many of modern physics’ concepts were established by scores of researchers from around the world.

However, this is no cause to dredge up Bose’s name in 2013 or to make Bose a rallying point for all the achievements of Indians that have gone unnoticed by the award committees.

The physics being conducted at CERN has very little to do with what Bose accomplished. The Bengali was involved in drawing up a broad class of rules for bosons. At CERN, on the other hand, the focus of late has been on a theory of particle physics called the Standard Model, which deals with six kinds of bosons, six kinds of leptons, six kinds of quarks, not to mention at least 49 other less significant elementary particles. The 2013 Nobel physics Laureates concerned themselves with just one elusive boson. At this point, the act of asking for “just” recognition for Bose wouldn’t itself be just.

Marks of achievement

But for our own sake, we must remember that these prizes are only marks of achievement given out by some people to others, in no way intended to injure the efforts of those who lost out. The purpose of these scientists’ achievements was to further human understanding, and in that they took joy. In running after prizes or asking for particles’ names to be capitalised, we are snubbing the beauty of that joy, instead seeking to fatten our egos and sate the “sexy” side of our scientific curiosity with it.


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Printable version | Jul 15, 2020 2:58:17 PM |

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