Biography of Jagadish Chandra Bose, Modern-Day Polymath

Jagadish Chandra Bose
Jagadish Chandra Bose in Royal Institution, London. Public Domain  

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was an Indian polymath whose contributions to a wide range of scientific fields, including physics, botany, and biology, made him one of the most celebrated scientists and researchers of the modern age. Bose (no relationship with the modern American audio equipment company) pursued selfless research and experimentation without any desire for personal enrichment or fame, and the research and inventions he produced in his lifetime laid the basis for much of our modern existence, including our understanding of plant life, radio waves, and semiconductors.

Early Years

Bose was born in 1858 in what is now Bangladesh. At the time in history, the country was part of the British Empire. Although born into a prominent family with some means, Bose’s parents took the unusual step of sending their son to a “vernacular” school—a school taught in Bangla, which he studied side-by-side with children from other economic situations—instead of a prestigious English-language school. Bose’s father believed people should learn their own language before a foreign language, and he wished his son to be in touch with his own country. Bose would later credit this experience with both his interest in the world around him and his firm belief in the equality of all people.

As a teenager, Bose attended St. Xavier’s School and then St. Xavier’s College in what was then called Calcutta; he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from this well-regarded school in 1879. As a bright, well-educated British citizen, he traveled to London to study medicine at the University of London, but suffered from ill-health thought to be exacerbated by the chemicals and other aspects of medical work, and so quit the program after just a year.

He continued on at the University of Cambridge in London, where he earned another BA (Natural Sciences Tripos) in 1884, and at the University London, earning a Bachelor of Science degree that same year (Bose would later earn his Doctor of Science degree from the University of London in 1896).

Academic Success and Struggle Against Racism

After this illustrious education, Bose returned home, securing a position as an Assistant Professor of Physics at Presidency College in Calcutta in 1885 (a post he held until 1915).

Under the rule of the British, however, even institutions in India itself were terribly racist in their policies, as Bose was shocked to discover. Not only was he not given any equipment or lab space with which to pursue research, he was offered a salary that was much lower than his European colleagues.

Bose protested this unfairness by simply refusing to accept his salary. For three years he refused payment and taught at the college without any pay whatsoever, and managed to conduct research on his own in his small apartment. Finally, the college belatedly realized they had something of a genius on their hands, and not only offered him a comparable salary for his fourth year at the school, but also paid him the three years back salary at the full rate as well.

Scientific Fame and Selflessness

During Bose’s time at Presidency College his fame as a scientist grew steadily as he worked on his research in two important areas: Botany and Physics. Bose’s lectures and presentations caused a great amount of excitement and occasional furor, and his inventions and conclusions derived from his research helped shape the modern world we know and benefit from today. And yet Bose not only chose not to profit from his own work, he adamantly refused to even try.

He purposefully avoided filing for patents on his work (he only filed for one, after pressure from friends, and even let that one patent expire), and encouraged other scientists to build on and use his own research. As a result other scientists are closely associated with invention such as radio transmitters and receivers despite Bose’s essential contributions.

Crescograph and Plant Experiments

In the later 19th century when Bose took up his research, scientists believed that plants relied on chemical reactions to transmit stimuli—for example, damage from predators or other negative experiences. Bose proved via experimentation and observation that plant cells actually used electrical impulses just like animals when reacting to stimuli. Bose invented the Crescograph, a device that can measure minute reactions and changes in plant cells at tremendous magnifications, in order to demonstrate his discoveries.

In a famous 1901 Royal Society Experiment he demonstrated that a plant, when its roots were placed in contact with poison, reacted—on a microscopic level—in a very similar fashion to an animal in similar distress. His experiments and conclusions caused an uproar, but were quickly accepted, and Bose’s fame in scientific circles was assured.

The Invisible Light: Wireless Experiments with Semiconductors

Bose has often been called the “Father of WiFi” due to his work with shortwave radio signals and semiconductors. Bose was the first scientist to understand the benefits of short-waves in radio signals; shortwave radio can very easily reach vast distances, while longer-wave radio signals require line-of-sight and cannot travel as far. One problem with wireless radio transmission in those early days was allowing devices to detect radio waves in the first place; the solution was the coherer, a device which had been envisioned years before but which Bose vastly improved; the version of the coherer he invented in 1895 was a major advancement in radio technology.

A few years later, in 1901, Bose invented the first radio device to implement a semiconductor (a substance that is a very good conductor of electricity in one direction and a very poor one in the other). The Crystal Detector (sometimes referred to as a “cat’s whiskers” due to the thin metal wire used) became the basis for the first wave of widely-used radio receivers, referred to as crystal radios.

In 1917, Bose established the Bose Institute in Calcutta, which today is the oldest research institute in India.

Considered the founding father of modern scientific research in India, Bose oversaw operations at the Institute until his death in 1937. Today it continues to perform groundbreaking research and experiments, and also houses a museum honoring the achievements of Jagadish Chandra Bose—including many of the devices he built, which are still operational today.

Death and Legacy

Bose passed away on November 23, 1937, in Giridih, India. He was 78 years old. He had been knighted in 1917, and elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920. Today there is an impact crater on the Moon named after him. He is regarded today as a foundational force in both electromagnetism and biophysics.

In addition to his scientific publications, Bose made a mark in literature as well. His short story The Story of the Missing, composed in response to a contest hosted by a hair-oil company, is one of the earliest works of science fiction. Written in both Bangla and English, the story hints at aspects of Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect that wouldn’t reach the mainstream for another few decades, making it an important work in the history of science fiction in general and Indian literature specifically.

Quotes

  • “The poet is intimate with truth, while the scientist approaches awkwardly.”
  • “I have sought permanently to associate the advancement of knowledge with the widest possible civic and public diffusion of it; and this without any academic limitations, henceforth to all races and languages, to both men and women alike, and for all time coming.”
  • “Not in matter but in thought, not in possessions nor even in attainments but in ideals, is to be found the seed of immortality. Not through material acquisition but in generous diffusion of ideas and ideals can the true empire of humanity be established.”
  • “They would be our worst enemy who would wish us to live only on the glories of the past and die off from the face of the earth in sheer passivity. By continuous achievement alone we can justify our great ancestry. We do not honour our ancestors by the false claim that they are omniscient and had nothing more to learn.”

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose Fast Facts

Born: November 30, 1858

Died: November 23, 1937

Parents: Bhagawan Chandra Bose and Bama Sundari Bose​

Lived in: Present-day Bangladesh, London, Calcutta, Giridih

Spouse: Abala Bose

Education: BA from St. Xavier’s College in 1879, University of London (medical school, 1 year), BA from University of Cambridge in Natural Sciences Tripos in 1884, BS at University London in 1884, and Doctor of Science University of London in 1896.

Key Accomplishments/Legacy: Invented the Crescograph and the Crystal Detector. Significant contributions to electromagnetism, biophysics, shortwave radio signals, and semiconductors. Established the Bose Institute in Calcutta. Authored the science fiction piece "The Story of the Missing".