Enigma unexplored

Published: Tuesday 30 April 2002

-- FROM Jawaharlal Nehru's evocative 'temples of modern India' dedication to the grotesque jubilation following Pokhran II, science has always played an important role in the way independent India has defined itself: a nation recognised not for its snake charmers but for its intercontinental missiles. Even during colonial times, science played an important role in defining nationhood.

The era of 'modern' science in India had a number of great scientists like C V Raman, P C Ray, M N Saha, S N Bose and JCBose. The book under review is a short biographical sketch of J C Bose, a remarkable man, who lived in remarkable times.

Bose started his career in England studying to be a physician. He switched to Physics at Cambridge, and was taught by renowned physicists like Lord Rayleigh. Upon his return to India, he took up a job as professor at the Presidency College in Kolkata. It was here that he started his path-breaking work on the generation of radiowaves.

H Hertz discovered radiowaves in 1887. Using the rudimentary facilities available to him in Kolkata, Bose fabricated a novel device to generate and detect radiowaves, or more precisely, microwaves. This discovery catapulted Bose to the highest echelons of science.

Bose gave up his research on radiowaves and became fascinated by plants. He spent the later part of his career trying to prove that plants (and inorganic materials like metals) 'have feelings' and are conscious. Here Bose's work was controversial, and never really accepted by scientists.

Bose was an important influence in the early years of Indian science. Here was a native, in the heydays of colonialism, who excelled in the classical western project of modern science. He was also actively involved in promoting science in India, both through institution building and through writing for the popular press on scientific issues.

The biographical sketch by Dilip Salwi does not do justice to such a multifaceted personality. The book is a straightforward rendering of major events in Bose's life, written in a somewhat annoyingly hagiographical style.

As the historian Gyan Prakash points out, Bose spent a large part of his mature scientific life in trying to show consciousness in plants in an effort to demonstrate the monism of vedantic Hinduism. It would have been interesting to explore such contentious issues. Or even Bose's relationship with the British and his scientific peers.

There is in my opinion some confusion about who exactly the book is meant for. If it is for children, it is too drab. On the other hand, if it is meant as a genuine biography, it's woefully inadequate.

The excellent photographs reproduced in the book are undoubtedly the best parts in it.


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