David Beerling, a botanist at the University of Sheffield, writes in Nature Plants this week that Isaac Newton knew in the 17th century how water moved up from the soil through a plant and onto a leaf centuries before modern botanists discovered the mechanism. Historians found the corresponding notes in a small notebook at the Cambridge University Library whose contents Newton’s executor had judged unfit to publish. The transcription reads:
Suppose a b the pore of a Vegitable filled with fluid mater & that the Globule c doth hitt away the particle b, then the rest of subtile matter in the pores riseth from a towards b. & by this meanes juices continually arise up from the roots of trees upward leaving dreggs in the pores & then wanting passage stretch the pores to make them as wide as before they were clogged. which makes the plant bigger untill the pores are too narow for the juice to arise through the pores & then the plant ceaseth to grow any more.
What Newton means to say is that when particles of light, one identified as ‘Globule c’, knock away a molecule of water (‘particle b) from the surface of a leaf, sap rises up through the roots of trees. His words also suggest that the loss of water on leaves pulls up more from the roots. This is in keeping with the now-widely accepted theory of water rising up through tissues in the plant thanks to capillary action: water molecules adhering to the walls of the tissues and pulling up other water molecules using cohesive bonds. This idea, in its modern form, was proposed in the last decade of the 19th century.
A discussion of unnoticed achievements in botany brings to mind the work of the Bengali physicist Jagdish Chandra Bose. Bose was more precisely a biophysicist. His experiments in the first decade of the 20th century involved studying plants’ reactions to electrical and chemical stimuli. Based on them, he found that plants, like animals, could also feel pain. Using a device of his making called the crescograph, he also studied plants’ responses to rays of light and microwave radiation, and was able to conclusively establish that their responses to stimuli were guided through chemical pathways.
While his work in botany is widely recognized to be pioneering, his work in physics is mired in controversy. Nothing eminent like Newton’s battle with Gottfried Leibniz to claim the discovery of the methods of calculus, Bose was engaged in a multi-sided war over who had invented the radio. A paper of his dated 1899 describes a mercury coherer that was used in 1901 by Guglielmo Marconi for his famous demonstration of transatlantic radio communication for the first time. A similar instrument was reportedly demonstrated by the Russian scientist Alexander Popov in 1895. Marconi went on to become identified as the discover of the radio while Popov’s contributions (if any) and Bose’s discoveries went unnoticed in the process.
At the same time, notwithstanding Marconi’s and Popov’s claims, what undermines Bose’s claims is the lack of a respected institution in India to vouch for his achievements, that has made any systematic attempts to preserve his notes and reports, and, most importantly, which has professionally engaged in dispelling claims that would disabuse Bose of his claims to primacy. While his books and papers are easily available – on the web or in print – there is a conspicuous lack of efforts in situating them in historical contexts and in communicating such assessments to the people.
The absence of such institutions is becoming obvious by the day, as is the ignorance with which their authority is being undermined (the latest casualty was the Indian Science Congress 2015). In the almost 290 years since Newton’s death in 1727, institutions like the Cambridge University Library have been responsible for preserving his legacy in the public consciousness, so much so that he’s still able to take a smidgen of credit for thinking of capillary action in plants in the 1660s or 1670s. JC Bose, on the other hand, continues to be endangered by the possibility that Newton thought up what he did two centuries earlier.