Kameshwar Wali’s article on Satyendra Nath Bose ( Physics Today, October 2006, page 46) prompts me to narrate a few incidents about the great physicist. My father, cardiologist Sunil Bose, was his contemporary at Presidency College in Kolkata, India (1909–11), and later his doctor and friend. My siblings and I were thus brought up on tales of his genius. Bose was omnivorous in his quest for knowledge, and even as a student of physics at Presidency College, he would often borrow and devour books on anatomy and physiology. Chemists would come to him to solve their problems and would leave wiser. Here is an example of his creativity: An “indelible” ink was used in the first Indian general election in 1952 to mark the fingers of voters. He playfully found a solution that could erase the ink mark.
It is fairly well known that Bose never bothered to submit a doctoral thesis. Of value to the physics community is the role he played as mentor to generations of students and researchers. I offer one example: In the early 1940s, his student Shyamadas Chatterjee had set up an experiment at the Bose Institute in Kolkata to study the newly reported fission of uranium when bombarded with neutrons. While setting up the experiment, Chatterjee found that distinct counts were recorded even without the neutron source. Puzzled, he reported the phenomenon to Bose, who at once came to the conclusion that it must be due to spontaneous fission. The half-life they calculated, which later proved to be correct, was way above that attributed to Edward Teller. As a result, by order of the institute’s director, whose permission he had failed to obtain, Chatterjee had to withdraw the paper describing his findings. The phenomenon was discovered almost at the same time by Georgii Flerov and Konstantin Petrzhak in the Soviet Union. Chatterjee published his work later and was recognized by the Russian authors.
Chatterjee shared with me the story of a visit Paul Dirac made to Kolkata in the early 1950s to give a lecture at the Institute of Nuclear Physics. As Dirac spoke, Bose, sitting in the front row, appeared to doze off. Writing an equation on the blackboard, Dirac seemed to hesitate and looked toward the white-haired Bose for confirmation. Bose lumbered to his feet, scribbled the rest of the equation, and then resumed his earlier somnolent posture.
After the lecture, Dirac and his wife were ushered into the rear seats of a car, while Bose, Chatterjee, and one other person were about to occupy the front seats. Dirac demurred and requested that Bose join him in the back. Quick as a flash came the reply—“We follow Bose–Einstein statistics in front, you should follow Fermi–Dirac at the back!”
Wali mentions Bose’s connection with the swadeshi movement and the names of Manabendranath Roy and Abani Mukherjee. Bose was also a close family friend of the nationalist leaders Sarat and Subhas Chandra Bose, who were students at Presidency College at almost the same time as S. N.