Unsung Genius: A peek into the underrated brilliance of JC Bose

For most of us, Jagdish Chandra Bose is a name often seen in biology textbooks. Bose is most notably known for establishing that plant tissues respond to various stimuli, thereby drawing a parallel between the physiology of plant and animal tissues. As pioneering as Bose’s contribution to the field of botany was, he ended up getting lost in the annals of history as post-colonial India heralded into a new era. And with that, we forgot the real genius that Bose was and how his contributions in the field of physics, especially wireless communication, and how his research have shaped its development.

Kunal Ghosh’s ‘Unsung Genius’ is a long-due tribute to one of the brightest minds that pre-colonial India saw and offers the reader a peek into one of the most underrated scientists to be born on Indian soil. Published by Aleph Book Company, the 495-page book is a humble attempt to uncover the layers of history and present to the reader an unfiltered version of Bose’s life. An alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur, Ghosh has taught in several prestigious institutions of the country including IIT-Kanpur and authored many research papers, and has several patents to his name.

While there have been a fair share of books that have shed light on Bose’s early work and life, Unsung Hero captures the soul of Bose. One of the most interesting sections of the book is on how the Nobel Prize committee “ignored” Bose’s contributions to the field of wireless communication for the 1909 Nobel Prize for Physics. The prize was ultimately awarded to Guglielmo Marconi and Karl F Braun. While Marconi was from Italy, Braun was a German citizen. It wasn’t until 1997 that the scientific community woke up to the fact that Marconi’s cohrer device that was used for receiving transatlantic wireless signal for the first time in December 1901 was based on one of Bose’s most-talked about inventions – a wireless detection device. Bose had even disclosed the device when he attended a meeting at London’s famed Royal Institution, which is an international charity dedicated to connecting people with the scientific world.

Unsung Genius
Image Credit: Aleph

Born on November 30, 1858, in the erstwhile Bengal Presidency to a headmaster father who was deeply influenced by the Brahmo movement, Bose’s interest in social reform could very well be attributed to his liberal and progressive upbringing.  The zeal for social change was reflected in various phases of Bose’s life. For instance, back in 1899 when X-ray machines weren’t as common as they are today and were too expensive for the common man, Bose built one after being inspired by a newspaper report. He decided to call it the Röntgen machine, after its inventor Wilhelm Röntgen. Bose would use the machine to scan patients in a laboratory of Presidency College, where he taught for more than 15 years. Bose would set aside time for the activity despite a hectic schedule that was packed with his duties as a professor and research initiatives.

Though Bose had pursued a BSc. from the University of London, he had gone for a career in medicine. However, he had to give up the plan due to ill health. After graduating, he also pursued research and was awarded a doctoral degree by the same institution in 1896. In the introductory chapters, the reader gets to know more about the events that shaped Bose’s personality and how he persevered despite the odds being against him – be it the rampant discrimination against Indians in pre-Independence Bengal or his family’s resistance to him appearing for the Indian Civil Service. These chapters weave together a narrative that sheds light on the kind of person that Bose was. A lesser-known fact about him is that he was passionate about teaching. Taking a leaf out of the book of his teachers Father LaFont and Lord Rayleigh, he didn’t shy away from using experimental demonstrations in his classes in an attempt to add some spark to the monotony of rote learning. The fact is also noted by Patrick Geddes, who was Bose’s biographer. Geddes has claimed that many of Bose’s students were enamored by his ability to make even the most abstruse concepts appear lucid. So much, so that students often used to compete to claim the front seats in his class.

The author delves into the dynamics of the friendship between Bose and social reformer and a disciple of Swami Vivekananda Sister Nivedita. As a nationalist who had a flair for invention, there were times Bose’s ideas did clash with Nivedita’s Vedantic beliefs, but the two managed to regroup with their zeal for driving change.

As enriching as the book is, it falters when it comes to citing the many beliefs that surrounded Bose’s life. For example, Ghosh cites the alleged theory of foul play that could be an explanation for the similarity between the inventions of Marconi and Bose. It is believed that during the early 20th century, while Bose was visiting London, a man had reportedly stolen a few of his notes from his hotel room under the pretext of visiting him. One can’t help feeling that the author could have avoided citing such theories, lest fiction might be mistaken for fact.

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