New Delhi: The discovery of what may well be the Higgs boson, the last of a set of fundamental particles that make up the universe, was indeed a triumph for physics—and the physicists who ferreted it out using the world’s biggest atom smasher.
It was also a victory for India and the late Satyendra Nath Bose, the Indian scientist after whom the class of subatomic particles called bosons are named—a fact that went largely unacknowledged amid the worldwide excitement over the discovery of the “God particle”.
Bloggers and even the Indian government, in a detailed statement on its press site, rued that Bose had been so ignored.
But Bose’s family as well as people who’ve known him personally and who think he deserved the Nobel Prize said the man himself—if he was alive—would be only too happy at the discovery, as any other passionate scientist would be.
“He would acknowledge that the ideas that came from his work should be credited to those that made the advances,” said Falguni Sarkar, Bose’s grandson and a US-based information technology specialist. “Bose was a true believer in science and its impact on civilization.”
On the surface of it, there’s no direct link between the Higgs boson and the ideas that led Bose and Albert Einstein in the 1920s to theorize the existence of a unique kind of sub-atomic particles.
Bose’s seminal contribution —and one that several scientists believe ought to have been rewarded with a Nobel Prize—was in mathematically describing a class of particles that didn’t conform to the then prevalent norms of classical physics.
Imbued with the spirit of revolution that was playing in physics in Europe, where the foundations of centuries-old classical physics were being shaken by the novice called quantum mechanics, a 30-year-old Bose, who never attained a doctorate, tried to publish his ideas about the strange mechanics of certainsubatomic particles.
When nobody in the Kolkata-based magazine called the Philosophical Journal seemed to realize its import, Bose sent his work directly to Einstein, who translated it into German and got it published.
The Bose-Einstein statistics went on hypothesize a new kind of particle as well as mathematically describe a new state of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate, all of which cumulatively led to at least three separate Nobel Prizes.
In essence, everything that we see and perceive, according to the so-called Standard Model of Physics and validated by Wednesday’s announcement at the European Centre for Nuclear Research, Geneva, is either a fermion or a boson.
The big difference between them is an attribute called spin —a mathematical descriptor. Fermions have fractional spins such as 1/2 or 3/2. Bosons have whole number spins (0, 1).
Fermions mix and match to make up the quirky quarks or everyday electrons and eventually bacteria or galaxies. They do this by swapping and stealing bosons. These are the force carriers, which purvey the electromagnetic, strong and weak forces. A Higgs boson is a related entity that gives objects their mass.
“S.N. Bose’s influence and impact is eternal as far as particle physics is concerned,” said Archan Majumdar, a cosmologist at Kolkata-based SN Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences.
Kolkata-born Bose, who died in February 1974 at the age of 80, was awarded India’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1954. His interests ranged from physics, mathematics and chemistry to arts, literature and music.
Sarkar, who maintains an online repository of pretty much everything and anything written about Bose—his correspondences with Einstein, writings, research publications, other scientists’ reminisces—says he wasn’t the kind who would avidly solicit recognition.
“Bose is often recognized as the one that didn’t receive the award (Nobel),” he said in an email, “which he perhaps deserved to get. I believe he would have smiled and said that (having particles named for him) was recognition enough.”
Sarkar added that his personal memories of his grandfather were dim. “He died when I was eight years old. I do have some memories of him, very slight, mostly shadows. Most of my memories have been placed there subsequently through stories, discussions, and myth and legend,” he said.
However, Partha Ghose, a retired particle physicist and a student of Bose, has explicit memories of him. “He was a polymath and polyglot. His room would be full with all kinds of people, discussing all kinds of things from music to linguistics,” he said.
Ghose, however, feels that the lack of Nobel Prize recognition for Bose was nothing short of a “scandal”.