Today, Satyendranath Bose. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
If you ever studied quantum
mechanics, you know about Bose-Einstein statistics.
So, first some physics: We have two different ways
to know the behavior of matter -- like a gas or a
crystal lattice. We can go to the lab and measure
its properties, or sit at a desk and
calculate how its atoms or molecules cause
it to behave.
To do the calculation, we write a description of
all possible arrangements of the atoms, then we use
math to select the most probable one. When we have
a huge population of atoms, the most probable
arrangement is just about certain to occur.
We began doing those calculations in the late
nineteenth century. Then quantum mechanics
complicated matters. We ran into particular trouble
with arrangements of identical atoms,
because it's meaningless to talk about
Here Satyendranath Bose enters our story. He was
born in 1894 in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. He was
very bright. He compensated for poor eyesight by
developing a prodigious memory. In 1924 Bose was on
the physics faculty at the University of Dacca,
thinking about the exciting confusion swirling
about quantum theory.
By then, Einstein's and Planck's quantum mechanics,
each gave valid results, but they appeared to
conflict with one another. Bose realized that the
problem lay in the indistinguishability of of
photons. So he wrote a short paper and sent it off
Einstein carried on a vast correspondence with the
whole spec-trum of brilliance to crankery. He
might've shrugged Bose off, but the title,
Planck's Law and the
Light-Quantum-Hypothesis, caught his eye. And
the paper proved to be brilliant.
Bose had shown how Planck's and Einstein's work
were consistent with one another. He'd cut the
Gordian Knot of quantum theory -- broken the
logjam. Einstein immediately translated it into
German and saw that it was published. Bose went to
Europe to work as part of the group that now put
quantum mechanics on solid footing.
But Bose was passionately Indian. After two years,
he went back home to teach physics. He held high
posts at Dacca and the University of Calcutta. He
was finally made Chancellor of a university that'd
been founded by Nobel Laureate poet Tagore, whom he
Bose strongly opposed the caste system and
prevailing forms of ostentation. He was a fine
musician. He was a great conversationalist. He was
also a true populist, enormously beloved by his
countrymen. When he died, whether or not they'd
ever heard of quantum mechanics, they lined the
streets to grieve his passing.
Tagore might as well have been expressing the
contradictory subtlety of Bose himself, in a
wonderfully elegant two-line poem,
What you are you do not see.
What you see -- that you are not.
Tagore speaks in the same clean minimalism that
marked Bose's physics, his dealings with the world
-- his entire life.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
W. A. Blanpied, Bose, Satyendranath. Dictionary
of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.
For more on Bose, see:
The Tagore poem (above) is titled
Unmanifest. See: D. Chopra, On the
Shores of Eternity. New York: Harmony Books,
1999, pg. 51.
C. L. Tien and J. H. Lienhard, Statistical
Thermodynamics, New York: Hemisphere
Publishing Corp., 1979, Section 6.1.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.