Chapter 8: India’s Great Scientist, J.C. Bose
“Jagadis Chandra Bose’s wireless inventions antedated those of Marconi.”
Overhearing this provocative remark, I walked closer to a sidewalk group of professors engaged in scientific discussion. If my motive in joining them was racial pride, I regret it. I cannot deny my keen interest in evidence that India can play a leading part in physics, and not metaphysics alone.
“What do you mean, sir?”
The professor obligingly explained. “Bose was the first one to invent a wireless coherer and an instrument for indicating the refraction of electric waves. But the Indian scientist did not exploit his inventions commercially. He soon turned his attention from the inorganic to the organic world. His revolutionary discoveries as a plant physiologist are outpacing even his radical achievements as a physicist.”
I politely thanked my mentor. He added, “The great scientist is one of my brother professors at Presidency College.”
I paid a visit the next day to the sage at his home, which was close to mine on Gurpar Road. I had long admired him from a respectful distance. The grave and retiring botanist greeted me graciously. He was a handsome, robust man in his fifties, with thick hair, broad forehead, and the abstracted eyes of a dreamer. The precision in his tones revealed the lifelong scientific habit.
“I have recently returned from an expedition to scientific societies of the West. Their members exhibited intense interest in delicate instruments of my invention which demonstrate the indivisible unity of all life.1 The Bose crescograph has the enormity of ten million magnifications. The microscope enlarges only a few thousand times; yet it brought vital impetus to biological science. The crescograph opens incalculable vistas.”
“You have done much, sir, to hasten the embrace of East and West in the impersonal arms of science.”
“I was educated at Cambridge. How admirable is the Western method of submitting all theory to scrupulous experimental verification! That empirical procedure has gone hand in hand with the gift for introspection which is my Eastern heritage. Together they have enabled me to sunder the silences of natural realms long uncommunicative. The telltale charts of my crescograph2 are evidence for the most skeptical that plants have a sensitive nervous system and a varied emotional life. Love, hate, joy, fear, pleasure, pain, excitability, stupor, and countless appropriate responses to stimuli are as universal in plants as in animals.”
“The unique throb of life in all creation could seem only poetic imagery before your advent, Professor! A saint I once knew would never pluck flowers. ‘Shall I rob the rosebush of its pride in beauty? Shall I cruelly affront its dignity by my rude divestment?’ His sympathetic words are verified literally through your discoveries!”
“The poet is intimate with truth, while the scientist approaches awkwardly. Come someday to my laboratory and see the unequivocable testimony of the crescograph.”
Gratefully I accepted the invitation, and took my departure. I heard later that the botanist had left Presidency College, and was planning a research center in Calcutta.
When the Bose Institute was opened, I attended the dedicatory services. Enthusiastic hundreds strolled over the premises. I was charmed with the artistry and spiritual symbolism of the new home of science. Its front gate, I noted, was a centuried relic from a distant shrine. Behind the lotus3 fountain, a sculptured female figure with a torch conveyed the Indian respect for woman as the immortal light-bearer. The garden held a small temple consecrated to the Noumenon beyond phenomena. Thought of the divine incorporeity was suggested by absence of any altar-image.
Bose’s speech on this great occasion might have issued from the lips of one of the inspired ancient rishis.
“I dedicate today this Institute as not merely a laboratory but a temple.” His reverent solemnity stole like an unseen cloak over the crowded auditorium. “In the pursuit of my investigations I was unconsciously led into the border region of physics and physiology. To my amazement, I found boundary lines vanishing, and points of contact emerging, between the realms of the living and the non-living. Inorganic matter was perceived as anything but inert; it was athrill under the action of multitudinous forces.
“A universal reaction seemed to bring metal, plant and animal under a common law. They all exhibited essentially the same phenomena of fatigue and depression, with possibilities of recovery and of exaltation, as well as the permanent irresponsiveness associated with death. Filled with awe at this stupendous generalization, it was with great hope that I announced my results before the Royal Society—results demonstrated by experiments. But the physiologists present advised me to confine myself to physical investigations, in which my success had been assured, rather than encroach on their preserves. I had unwittingly strayed into the domain of an unfamiliar caste system and so offended its etiquette.
“An unconscious theological bias was also present, which confounds ignorance with faith. It is often forgotten that He who surrounded us with this ever-evolving mystery of creation has also implanted in us the desire to question and understand. Through many years of miscomprehension, I came to know that the life of a devotee of science is inevitably filled with unending struggle. It is for him to cast his life as an ardent offering—regarding gain and loss, success and failure, as one.
“In time the leading scientific societies of the world accepted my theories and results, and recognized the importance of the Indian contribution to science.4 Can anything small or circumscribed ever satisfy the mind of India? By a continuous living tradition, and a vital power of rejuvenescence, this land has readjusted itself through unnumbered transformations. Indians have always arisen who, discarding the immediate and absorbing prize of the hour, have sought for the realization of the highest ideals in life—not through passive renunciation, but through active struggle. The weakling who has refused the conflict, acquiring nothing, has had nothing to renounce. He alone who has striven and won can enrich the world by bestowing the fruits of his victorious experience.
“The work already carried out in the Bose laboratory on the response of matter, and the unexpected revelations in plant life, have opened out very extended regions of inquiry in physics, in physiology, in medicine, in agriculture, and even in psychology. Problems hitherto regarded as insoluble have now been brought within the sphere of experimental investigation.
“But high success is not to be obtained without rigid exactitude. Hence the long battery of super-sensitive instruments and apparatus of my design, which stand before you today in their cases in the entrance hall. They tell you of the protracted efforts to get behind the deceptive seeming into the reality that remains unseen, of the continuous toil and persistence and resourcefulness called forth to overcome human limitations. All creative scientists know that the true laboratory is the mind, where behind illusions they uncover the laws of truth.
“The lectures given here will not be mere repetitions of second-hand knowledge. They will announce new discoveries, demonstrated for the first time in these halls. Through regular publication of the work of the Institute, these Indian contributions will reach the whole world. They will become public property. No patents will ever be taken. The spirit of our national culture demands that we should forever be free from the desecration of utilizing knowledge only for personal gain.
“It is my further wish that the facilities of this Institute be available, so far as possible, to workers from all countries. In this I am attempting to carry on the traditions of my country. So far back as twenty-five centuries, India welcomed to its ancient universities, at Nalanda and Taxila, scholars from all parts of the world.
“Although science is neither of the East nor of the West but rather international in its universality, yet India is specially fitted to make great contributions.5 The burning Indian imagination, which can extort new order out of a mass of apparently contradictory facts, is held in check by the habit of concentration. This restraint confers the power to hold the mind to the pursuit of truth with an infinite patience.”
Tears stood in my eyes at the scientist’s concluding words. Is “patience” not indeed a synonym of India, confounding Time and the historians alike?
I visited the research center again, soon after the day of opening. The great botanist, mindful of his promise, took me to his quiet laboratory.
“I will attach the crescograph to this fern; the magnification is tremendous. If a snail’s crawl were enlarged in the same proportion, the creature would appear to be traveling like an express train!”
My gaze was fixed eagerly on the screen which reflected the magnified fern-shadow. Minute life-movements were now clearly perceptible; the plant was growing very slowly before my fascinated eyes. The scientist touched the tip of the fern with a small metal bar. The developing pantomime came to an abrupt halt, resuming the eloquent rhythms as soon as the rod was withdrawn.
“You saw how any slight outside interference is detrimental to the sensitive tissues,” Bose remarked. “Watch; I will now administer chloroform, and then give an antidote.”
The effect of the chloroform discontinued all growth; the antidote was revivifying. The evolutionary gestures on the screen held me more raptly than a “movie” plot. My companion (here in the role of villain) thrust a sharp instrument through a part of the fern; pain was indicated by spasmodic flutters. When he passed a razor partially through the stem, the shadow was violently agitated, then stilled itself with the final punctuation of death.
“By first chloroforming a huge tree, I achieved a successful transplantation. Usually, such monarchs of the forest die very quickly after being moved.” Jagadis smiled happily as he recounted the life-saving maneuver. “Graphs of my delicate apparatus have proved that trees possess a circulatory system; their sap movements correspond to the blood pressure of animal bodies. The ascent of sap is not explicable on the mechanical grounds ordinarily advanced, such as capillary attraction. The phenomenon has been solved through the crescograph as the activity of living cells. Peristaltic waves issue from a cylindrical tube which extends down a tree and serves as an actual heart! The more deeply we perceive, the more striking becomes the evidence that a uniform plan links every form in manifold nature.”
The great scientist pointed to another Bose instrument.
“I will show you experiments on a piece of tin. The life-force in metals responds adversely or beneficially to stimuli. Ink markings will register the various reactions.”
Deeply engrossed, I watched the graph which recorded the characteristic waves of atomic structure. When the professor applied chloroform to the tin, the vibratory writings stopped. They recommenced as the metal slowly regained its normal state. My companion dispensed a poisonous chemical. Simultaneous with the quivering end of the tin, the needle dramatically wrote on the chart a death-notice.
“Bose instruments have demonstrated that metals, such as the steel used in scissors and machinery, are subject to fatigue, and regain efficiency by periodic rest. The life-pulse in metals is seriously harmed or even extinguished through the application of electric currents or heavy pressure.”
I looked around the room at the numerous inventions, eloquent testimony of a tireless ingenuity.
“Sir, it is lamentable that mass agricultural development is not speeded by fuller use of your marvelous mechanisms. Would it not be easily possible to employ some of them in quick laboratory experiments to indicate the influence of various types of fertilizers on plant growth?”
“You are right. Countless uses of Bose instruments will be made by future generations. The scientist seldom knows contemporaneous reward; it is enough to possess the joy of creative service.”
With expressions of unreserved gratitude to the indefatigable sage, I took my leave. “Can the astonishing fertility of his genius ever be exhausted?” I thought.
No diminution came with the years. Inventing an intricate instrument, the “Resonant Cardiograph,” Bose then pursued extensive researches on innumerable Indian plants. An enormous unsuspected pharmacopoeia of useful drugs was revealed. The cardiograph is constructed with an unerring accuracy by which a one-hundredth part of a second is indicated on a graph. Resonant records measure infinitesimal pulsations in plant, animal and human structure. The great botanist predicted that use of his cardiograph will lead to vivisection on plants instead of animals.
“Side by side recordings of the effects of a medicine given simultaneously to a plant and an animal have shown astounding unanimity in result,” he pointed out. “Everything in man has been foreshadowed in the plant. Experimentation on vegetation will contribute to lessening of human suffering.”
Years later Bose’s pioneer plant findings were substantiated by other scientists. Work done in 1938 at Columbia University was reported by The New York Times as follows:
It has been determined within the past few years that when the nerves transmit messages between the brain and other parts of the body, tiny electrical impulses are being generated. These impulses have been measured by delicate galvanometers and magnified millions of times by modern amplifying apparatus. Until now no satisfactory method had been found to study the passages of the impulses along the nerve fibers in living animals or man because of the great speed with which these impulses travel.
Drs. K. S. Cole and H. J. Curtis reported having discovered that the long single cells of the fresh-water plant nitella, used frequently in goldfish bowls, are virtually identical with those of single nerve fibers. Furthermore, they found that nitella fibers, on being excited, propagate electrical waves that are similar in every way, except velocity, to those of the nerve fibers in animals and man. The electrical nerve impulses in the plant were found to be much slower than those in animals. This discovery was therefore seized upon by the Columbia workers as a means for taking slow motion pictures of the passage of the electrical impulses in nerves.
The nitella plant thus may become a sort of Rosetta stone for deciphering the closely guarded secrets close to the very borderland of mind and matter.
The poet Rabindranath Tagore was a stalwart friend of India’s idealistic scientist. To him, the sweet Bengali singer addressed the following lines:6
O Hermit, call thou in the authentic words
Of that old hymn called Sama; “Rise! Awake!”
Call to the man who boasts his shastric lore
From vain pedantic wranglings profitless,
Call to that foolish braggart to come forth
Out on the face of nature, this broad earth,
Send forth this call unto thy scholar band;
Together round thy sacrifice of fire
Let them all gather. So may our India,
Our ancient land unto herself return
O once again return to steadfast work,
To duty and devotion, to her trance
Of earnest meditation; let her sit
Once more unruffled, greedless, strifeless, pure,
O once again upon her lofty seat
And platform, teacher of all lands.
1 “All science is transcendental or else passes away. Botany is now acquiring the right theory-the avatars of Brahma will presently be the textbooks of natural history.”-Emerson
From the Latin root, crescere, to increase. For his crescograph and other inventions, Bose was knighted in 1917.
Back to text
2 The lotus flower is an ancient divine symbol in India; its unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul; the growth of its pure beauty from the mud of its origin holds a benign spiritual promise.
Back to text
3 “At present, only the sheerest accident brings India into the purview of the American college student. Eight universities (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Pennsylvania, Chicago, and California) have chairs of Indology or Sanskrit, but India is virtually unrepresented in departments of history, philosophy, fine arts, political science, sociology, or any of the other departments of intellectual experience in which, as we have seen, India has made great contributions. . . . We believe, consequently, that no department of study, particularly in the humanities, in any major university can be fully equipped without a properly trained specialist in the Indic phases of its discipline. We believe, too, that every college which aims to prepare its graduates for intelligent work in the world which is to be theirs to live in, must have on its staff a scholar competent in the civilization of India.”-Extracts from an article by Professor W. Norman Brown of the University of Pennsylvania which appeared in the May, 1939, issue of the Bulletin of the American Council of Learned Societies, 907 15th St., Washington, D. C., 25ø copy. This issue (#28) contains over 100 pages of a “Basic Bibliography for Indic Studies.”
Back to text
4 The atomic structure of matter was well-known to the ancient Hindus. One of the six systems of Indian philosophy is Vaisesika, from the Sanskrit root visesas, “atomic individuality.” One of the foremost Vaisesika expounders was Aulukya, also called Kanada, “the atom-eater,” born about 2800 years ago.
Back to text
5 In an article in East-West, April, 1934, a summary of Vaisesika scientific knowledge was given as follows: “Though the modern ‘atomic theory’ is generally considered a new advance of science, it was brilliantly expounded long ago by Kanada, ‘the atom-eater.’ The Sanskrit anus can be properly translated as ‘atom’ in the latter’s literal Greek sense of ‘uncut’ or indivisible. Other scientific expositions of Vaisesika treatises of the B.C. era include (1) the movement of needles toward magnets, (2) the circulation of water in plants, (3) akash or ether, inert and structureless, as a basis for transmitting subtle forces, (4) the solar fire as the cause of all other forms of heat, (5) heat as the cause of molecular change, (6) the law of gravitation as caused by the quality that inheres in earth-atoms to give them their attractive power or downward pull, (7) the kinetic nature of all energy; causation as always rooted in an expenditure of energy or a redistribution of motion, (8) universal dissolution through the disintegration of atoms, (9) the radiation of heat and light rays, infinitely small particles, darting forth in all directions with inconceivable speed (the modern ‘cosmic rays’ theory), (10) the relativity of time and space.
“Vaisesika assigned the origin of the world to atoms, eternal in their nature, i.e., their ultimate peculiarities. These atoms were regarded as possessing an incessant vibratory motion. . . . The recent discovery that an atom is a miniature solar system would be no news to the old Vaisesika philosophers, who also reduced time to its furthest mathematical concept by describing the smallest unit of time (kala) as the period taken by an atom to traverse its own unit of space.”
Back to text
6 Translated from the Bengali of Rabindranath Tagore, by Manmohan Ghosh, in Viswa-Bharati.
Back to text