Searching for our own personal Boson

I must admit I wouldn’t recognise a Higgs boson if it came and atom-smashed into me.

I don’t even fully grasp it when my local newspaper tries to explain it lay terms:

Imagine Shah Rukh Khan (a heavy particle) walking down a street with a gaggle of photographers (the Higgs bosons) clustered around him. An average guy on the same street (photon or a mass-less particle of light) gets no attention from the paparazzi and gets on with his day. The photon does not have any mass because the Higgs bosons (the photographers) are not reacting to it. But the other particle (SRK) is heavy because of its interaction with the Higgs bosons (or photographers).

That’s clear as mud.

A lot of Indians are grudging Peter Higgs (right) for being given more importance by the Western media. Reuters.

However whether the scientists at CERN discovered God’s particle or not, one thing is clear. Over here in India, especially in Kolkata, we have rediscovered our own personal boson.

The Bose behind the boson is back in the news almost four decades after his death. And everyone is scrambling to find the Bose connection. He is popping up on Facebook statuses and tweets and remembrances of stories that have gotten a little rusty with time.

Even my mother has her Bose stories. Bose was related to her family by marriage. She remembers his shock of white hair, his thick glasses, the maalishwala who came in the evening to give him a massage. Her brother, a trainee pilot in flight school at that time, once got a ride from the great man. All through the ride, Bose peppered him with so many questions about aeronautics and physics, my uncle wanted to jump out of the moving vehicle. “I will never get into a car with Satyen Bose again,” he swore.

Satyen Bose was the topic of discussion at a wedding reception I went to last night. A gentleman I met  there told me  he had the privilege of meeting Satyen Bose three times in his life in Shantiniketan and Kolkata. “There used to be a big Durga puja and Satyen babu would come to that regularly,” he said.

When a man is a scientist of the calibre of a Satyen Bose we have no real way of comprehending the scope of his work. He didn’t leave behind songs to sing like Tagore or films to watch like Ray. His legacy is subatomic. All we can do is grasp at little anecdotes as if they were shards of his greatness.

Or else we can complain that the Bose behind the boson has got a raw deal. Look, we say angrily, the entire New York Times article about the momentous event managed to not mention Satyen Bose even once.  God! Why did world forget boson’s father? asks TOI:

Media reports are replete with references to Peter Higgs, the British physicist who predicted the existence of such a particle in the early 1960s. But, that a boson - one of the two fundamental classes of subatomic particles - is named after Satyendra Nath Bose who preceded Higgs seems to have got buried deeper than the 27km tunnel under the Franco-Swiss border that hosts science's biggest hunt ever.

Dr. Milan Sanyal with the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics griped to the Bengali newspaper Bartaman that Higgs was being capitalised while boson was getting the small letter treatment – a clear case of scientific step-son-ism.

Bose, after all, didn’t get the Nobel Prize. In fact, while he still remains a household name in Kolkata (though most of us would have been hard-pressed to explain any of his theories), apparently the rest of the world thought the boson was some kind of strange German word.

As Amit Chaudhuri explains in The Guardian:

The word must surely have some European, perhaps German, genealogy? In fact, "boson" is derived from Satyendra Nath Bose, an Indian physicist from Kolkata who, in 1924, realised that the statistical method used to analyse most 19th-century work on the thermal behaviour of gases was inadequate.

But the bigger question is forget the world, how many Indians knew about the Bose behind the boson? It’s worth remembering, the man at the wedding reception said, that Einstein who translated and published Bose’s paper after a British journal turned it down was the one who named the sub-atomic particle “the boson.” It was an act of scientific courtesy that Einstein extended to the man who sent him his paper. “Remember Einstein put Bose’s name first,” said the wedding guest. “He called it the Bose-Einstein statistics instead of the other way around.”

Einstein gave his salaams to Satyen Bose. Did his country do the same to him?

Now we all scramble to find our Bose connection to bask in his reflected glory. But as the Bengali newspaper Ananda Bazar Patrika reports his own biological family is a little bemused.

They still live in the same old two-storeyed house in a narrow alley in North Kolkata. The reporter had to stand outside and bang on the door and shout for awhile before Bose’s son, Rathindranath answered the door. “In 1924 everyone learned about the existence of the Boson particle. The Boson particles are scattered across the universe. But I don’t think the Higgs Boson particle has anything to do with (Satyen Bose’s) research,” he said. “That is completely Higgs discovery.”

As for his own Bose connection, this is what his son had to say:

“My father was a high level physicist. No one in the family reached those heights. His sons were students of the applied sciences. As a result he could not really discuss his research with any one at home. And we didn’t have the ability to understand it either. That’s why he never talked about his work at home.”

But his family’s diffidence is not going to rain on our parade. Kolkata is brimming with Bengali pride for  its newly discovered favourite son. I am just bracing myself for an announcement from our chief minister. What will it be? Water tank number 4 in the Salt Lake suburbs has just been named after matinee idol Uttam Kumar. Will Satyen Bose get water tank number 5?