July, 2012 – A Higgs boson-like entity is spotted at the Large Hadron Collider. Indians decry the lack of celebration of S.N. Bose, the Bengali physicist whom bosons are named for.
January, 2013 – The particle found at the LHC is confirmed to be a Higgs boson. Further outcry about S.N. Bose having been forgotten in favor of the “Western” intellects.
October, 2013 – Peter Higgs and Francois Englert win the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics for their work on the Higgs mechanism. Bose is also in the limelight but for the same wrong reasons.
The word ‘boson’ was named for S.N. Bose not because he discovered bosons. It was named so by Paul Dirac, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, to honour Bose’s contribution to the Bose-Einstein statistics, work he did with Albert Einstein on defining the general properties of all bosons.
There are two kinds of particles in nature. Matter particles are the proverbial building blocks. They are the quarks and leptons, together called fermions. Force particles guide the matter particles around and help them interact with each others. They are the photons, W and Z bosons, gluons and the Higgs bosons.
In 1924, Bose and Einstein developed a theory to explain how a group of identical but non-interacting particles may occupy different energy states. They drew up a set of statistical rules and the particles that followed these rules did not obey Pauli’s exclusion principle. All such particles came to be called bosons.
Similarly, in 1926, Enrico Fermi and Paul Dirac came up with a set of rules for particles that did obey Pauli’s exclusion principle. While they worked on this theory independently, Fermi’s results were published first, leading to Dirac calling these particles fermions in the Italian giant’s honour.
So there. S.N. Bose – good man, great contribution – but he has nothing to do with the Higgs boson in particular except that this particle is a boson. What’s being celebrated about the Higgs is not being done in denial of Bose’s contributions because there is nothing to deny. The physics behind what’s going on now has more to do with how the hunt for one particular boson is shaping modern particle physics. Face it, the world of science has moved on.
If anything, I liked this Outlook article (except the last line) published a day after the momentous CERN announcements on July 4 last year. It brought S.N. Bose back into the limelight at a time when few of us in the country had (or have) the scientific temperament to acknowledge such contributions from history and, simply, recognise and preserve it for what it is: homage.
Indeed, some Indians seem to harbour a maleficient sense of entitlement that extends to calls demanding the ‘B’ in ‘bosons’ be capitalised. Rolf Dieter-Heuer, Director General of CERN, responded to this while at a meeting in Kolkata in September 2012: “I was asked yesterday why the boson was not capped. In Bose’s own city today, we have capped the Boson. I, in fact, always cap the Boson. But today, we changed all our CERN slides to cap Bosons.”
Another example of misguided entitlement was some Indian physicists saying that ‘naming the Higgs particle after Bose is an honour bigger than the Nobel Prize itself’. If you’re looking for honour of Indian origin in the Nobel Prize for physics in 2013, look to Indian scientists who worked on the collider.
Look to contributions from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Look to the superconducting magnets technology that India provided. Look to people like Rohini Godbole, Kajari Mazumdar (see slide 4), and Ashoke Sen.
But if all you want to do is cling to the vestiges of a legacy you helped fade, then you’re also doomed, benumbed to the sting of being denied the Nobel Prizes only because you’re not producing and retaining Nobel-class thinkers anymore.
(This blog post first appeared at The Copernican on October 10, 2013.)