Satyendranath Bose

Born: 1 January 1894 in Calcutta, (now Kolkata) India
Died: 4 February 1974 in Calcutta, (now Kolkata) India

Satyendranath Bose's mother, Amodini Devi, had received little formal education but she skilfully brought up her large family of seven children. Bose's father was Surendranath Bose who worked for a while as an accountant before joining the East Indian Railways. He later set up his own chemical and pharmaceutical company. Satyendranath was the eldest of Amodini and Surendranath's seven children, having six younger sisters.

Satyendranath began his education at an elementary school in Calcutta before entering the Hindu School in 1907. It was here that his interest in mathematics and science began, and as is so often the case, it was due to an outstanding mathematics teacher coupled with encouragement from the headmaster.

He began his studies at Presidency College, Calcutta, in 1909 where he had a brilliant academic record. He was awarded a B.Sc. in 1913 and an M.Sc. in 1915 proving himself to be by far the best student of mathematics. In the year he was awarded his Master's degree, Bose married Ushabala Ghosh. They had five children, three daughters and two sons.

Had Indians been allowed to take administrative posts in the government service, Bose would almost certainly have followed that route. As it was, he continued to study physics and mathematics and was appointed to the newly opened University College of Science in Calcutta in 1917. This university was a research institution for postgraduate studies and here Bose was able to study recent European texts on quantum theory and relativity which, before the opening of the new institution, had not been readily available in India. Gibbs book on statistical mechanics stimulated Bose's interest in this topic. He also studied Einstein's papers on relativity and obtained Einstein's permission to translate them for publication in India.

Bose was appointed as a Reader in physics at the University of Dacca in 1921 and taught there until 1945, being a professor and head of the physics department from 1927. In 1945 he returned to Calcutta University when he was appointed as Guprasad Sing Professor of Physics, a position he held until he retired in 1956 when he was made Professor Emeritus.

He did important work in quantum theory, in particular on Planck's black body radiation law. Bose sent his paper Planck's Law and the Hypothesis of Light Quanta (1924) to Einstein. He wrote a covering letter saying:-

Respected Sir, I have ventured to send you the accompanying article for your perusal and opinion. You will see that I have tried to deduce the coefficient .. in Planck's law independent of classical electrodynamics.
This paper was only four pages long but it was highly significant. The derivation of Planck's formula had not been to Planck's satisfaction, and Einstein too was unhappy with it. Bose was able to derive the formula for radiation from Boltzmann's statistics. The paper, and his method of deriving Planck's radiation formula, was enthusiastically endorsed by Einstein who saw at once that Bose had removed a major objection against light quanta. The paper was translated into German by Einstein and submitted with a strong recommendation to the Zeitschrift für Physik. Einstein extended Bose's treatment to material particles whose number is conserved and published several papers on this extension.

An important consequence of Einstein's response to Bose's article was that his application to the University of Dacca for two years research leave beginning in 1924 was approved. He now had the chance of meeting European scientists and travelled first to Paris where he met Langevin and de Broglie. In October 1925 Bose travelled from Paris to Berlin where he met Einstein. Much progress had been made by Einstein following his receipt of Bose's paper for he was able to see how the ideas could be taken forward. While he was in Berlin Bose attended a course on quantum theory given by Born.

Bose published on statistical mechanics leading to the Einstein-Bose statistics. Dirac coined the term boson for particles obeying these statistics. Through these terms his name is rightly known and remembered, for indeed his contributions are remarkable, especially given the fact that he made his important discoveries working in isolation from the mainstream developments in Europe.

It was not only for his research contributions that Bose is important, however, for his efforts to improve education in India led to a much greater use of technology. He gave leadership in many ways: as president of the physics section of the Indian Science Congress in 1939, as general president of the Indian Science Congress in Delhi in 1944, and as president of the National Institute of Science of India in 1949. His greatest honour was election to the Royal Society of London in 1958.

After Bose retired from Calcutta University in 1956 he was appointed as vice-chancellor of Viswa-Bharati University, Santiniketan. Two years later he was honoured with the post of national professor.

P T Landsberg writes [3]:-

The high regard with which [Bose] was held in India can hardly be appreciated in the West, where respect for old age is much less developed than it is in India. Bose's shock of white hair and friendly personality was probably last in evidence ant a public function in January of this year, when an international symposium on statistical physics was held in Calcutta. Special references were made to his famous paper, and Bose himself also addressed the meeting, asking his colleagues to keep afresh "that wonderful spark" which gave fulfilment to scientific work.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

October 2003
MacTutor History of Mathematics