From SN Bose, a reminder of our responsibility to science
Archive image of physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974)
January 1st was the birth anniversary of the physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974). Among other things, Bose is remembered for formulating the statistical rules that describe the behavior of a certain class of subatomic particles, with the help of Albert Einstein. These rules are known today as Bose–Einstein statisticsand the British physicist Paul Dirac named these particles ‘bosons’ after Bose.
This week, physicist and science writer Nirmalya Kajuri tweeted a curious passage from internal limit, a 1986 book by physicist and historian Abraham Pais. The passage describes how, in 1924, Bose felt the need to specify a new attribute, the spin of a particle, to complete his calculations. Einstein, however, “crossed out this part of the paper…saying that it was not necessary at that stage to introduce such a concept.” When the need for the attribute became apparent a year later, Bose was asked why he did not go back to Einstein and ask him to take credit for the idea. “What does it matter who proposed it first?” he replied he. “That has been found, right?
The episode is vaguely reminiscent of Ralph Kronig’s experience when he proposed the idea of electron spin. to Wolfgang Pauli, one of his academic advisers, in 1925. Pauli reportedly replied to Kronig: “Indeed, he is very intelligent, but of course he has nothing to do with reality.” Kronig dropped the idea, only to have the same idea published by Samuel Goudsmit and George Uhlenbeck some months later and take much of the popular credit for it to this day. When Uhlenbeck spoke of the “luck and privilege of being Paul Ehrenfest’s students” for himself and Goudsmit, he might have meant “rather than being Pauli’s students.”
But given the number of brilliant men in the fray here who have made stellar contributions to fundamental physics, both Bose’s and Kronig’s experiences are all the more reminiscent of the (admittedly cynical) advice of Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam: “As long as you have a good idea, don’t send it to a big man for approval. He may have more power to hold it. If it’s a good idea, let it be published.”
beyond the boson
The passage Kajuri chose to share is remarkable in one more way, and might do justice to the way Bose has been remembered in some pockets, as well as pointing to the way the idea of primacy has gotten too big in the public, and the political, the imagination. In 2012, the collaboration he works with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) announced that he had discovered the Higgs boson, a type of boson that physicists had been searching for for decades. The LHC is operated at a European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) facility in Western Europe. Later that year, the then director general of CERN Rolf-Dieter Heuer visited India and said in a talk in Bose’s hometown of Calcutta, “I always spell boson with a capital letter.” He was answering calls from some academics to this end, much like we capitalize the ‘H’ in ‘Higgs boson’. It was a silly claim then and it seems doubly silly now, in light of Bose’s response to the question about claiming credit for the spin of particles idea: “What does it matter who came up with it first? That has been found, right?
The importance of primacy then and now is markedly different. Today, science, like any other professionalized endeavor, is more competitive, and even small advantages can translate into big differences in outcomes. There is also a historical error to correct here, that when histories of science continue to exclude the voices and contributions of people from communities that have been colonized, plundered, and transformed by decades of oppression and cruelty, they perpetuate the same injustice. Yet there is a dignity to Bose’s words that reminds us, on the threshold of 2023, that there is a third responsibility: a science beyond names and labels, still waiting to be made, supported, funded, and treated with courtesy. in public. efforts, and that doing it right and well is something other than making claims of origin.