J C Bose: The Little Known Story of How India’s First Biophysicist Proved Plants Have Life
A man whose genius transcended boundaries, Jagdish Chandra Bose was a quintessential polymath: a physicist, a biologist, a botanist, an archaeologist, an author and a connoisseur of fine arts. On his 158th birth anniversary, we bring you the story of his path breaking work on the discovery of plant stimuli.
“What happens if you take a rich magistrate’s son and make him learn in a village school sitting besides the sons of servants and fishermen? He’ll hear tales of birds and animals that make him curious about Nature. And that makes him one of India’s first scientists.” – Jagdish Chandra Bose
In 1914, a journalist for The Nation wrote about an experiment he witnessed in a small private laboratory in Maida Vale in London:
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“An unfortunate creature is strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector. When the subject is pinched with a pair of forceps, it winces. It is so strapped that its electric shudder of pain pulls the long arm of a very delicate lever that actuates a tiny mirror. This casts a beam of light on the frieze at the other end of the room, and thus enormously exaggerates the tremor of the creature. A pinch near the right-hand tube sends the beam 7 or 8 feet to the right, and a stab near the other wire sends it as far to the left.
“Thus,” the journalist concluded, “can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”
The carrot vivisector mentioned above was Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, a scientist widely acknowledges as the father of modern Indian science. However to call Bose just a scientist would, however, be akin to calling Leonardo Da Vinci a mere painter.
A man whose genius transcended boundaries, Bose was a quintessential polymath: a physicist, a biologist, a botanist, an archaeologist, an author, and a connoisseur of fine arts.
He was the first person from the Indian subcontinent to receive a US patent and is considered one of the fathers of radio science, alongside such notables as Tesla, Marconi, and Popov. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1920, becoming the first Indian to be honoured by the Royal Society in the field of science.
However, like most pioneering scientists, Bose was famed for his more controversial pursuits – his experiments in plant physiology during the 1900s that drew some startling inferences. On his 158th birth anniversary, we bring you the story of J C Bose’s path-breaking work on the discovery of plant stimuli.
Having graduated with a BA (Physical Sciences) from Kolkata University, Bose was teaching physics at the Presidency College while simultaneously pursuing his own research in electricity and electromagnetic waves. In November 1894, for the first time in the world, Bose gave a demonstration of microwaves at the Kolkata Town Hall, where he ignited gunpowder and rang a bell at a distance by using microwaves.
He also developed an improved ‘coherer’ (a device that detects radio waves) – the first to use a semiconductor junction – but was unwilling to patent it. Bose believed that science should be for the benefit of humankind and one should not make money from it. However, under pressure from his friends, he finally submitted a patent application to the US patent office and on March 29, 1904, he became the first Indian to get a US patent for his “detector of electrical disturbances”. Interestingly, Bose’s coherer was the one used by Guglielmo Marconi to build an operational two-way radio.
Between his experiments, Bose also found time to write science fiction in Bengali. His famous story Polatok Tufan (Absconding Storm) describes how a cyclone was stopped using a bottle of hair oil! It explained how oil changes the surface tension and holds water. His book Niruddesher Kahini (Story of the Untraceable) was the first major Bengali science fiction novel.
Perhaps it was his work in radio waves that made Bose believe physics could go far beyond what was apparent to the naked eye. He had always been fascinated by the plant reactions seen in sensitive plants like the mimosa, which, when irritated, will react with the sudden shedding or shrinking of its leaves. So, curious about the secret world of plants, Bose switched his attention to investigating how plants respond to stimuli.
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To do this, he invented the crescograph, an early oscillating recorder using clockwork gears and a smoked glass plate to measure the growth and movements of plants in increments as small as 1/100,000 of an inch. The plate caught the reflection of the plant and it was marked according to the movement of the plant. His first experiments were conducted with a leaf, a carrot and a turnip plucked from his garden.
Bose strongly believed that plants had a sensitive nervous system, not unlike that of animals, and that their responses to external stimuli could be measured and recorded. His belief was strengthened by the results of his experiments. For instance, in one of his experiments, the plant was dipped in bromide (a poison). The pulse beat of the plant, shown as a light spot on the smoked plate, became unsteady once the plant started taking in the poison, proving that plants have life.
Encouraged by the results of this experiment, Bose began studying how plants behave differently under different environmental factors such as temperature, chemicals, electricity, gases and humidity. The more responses he got from his plants, the more detailed his efforts became. Bose was astounded to discover that an electric death spasm occurs in plants when they die, and that the actual moment of death in a plant could be accurately recorded. As he later wrote:
“All around us, the plants are communicating. We just don’t notice it.”
Determined to reveal the wonders of plant perception to the world, Bose described his experiments and their results in his 1902 paper,”Responses in the Living and Non-Living”. He wrote how plants grew more quickly when exposed to nice music and gentle whispers, and poorly when exposed to harsh music and loud speech. He even mentioned how plants became depressed when exposed to polluted air and darkening skies. In short, his work showed that plants could feel pleasure and they could feel pain.
Though Bose’s research had its usual share of naysayers, his invention of the crescograph received widespread acclaim, particularly from the Path Congress of Science in 1900. The publication of his paper by the Royal Society created greater interest and numerous invitations were extended to him. During his fourth scientific mission to Britain in 1914, Bose set up his private laboratory at Maida Vale which was visited by distinguished men from all walks of life.
Scientists from the Royal and Linnean societies came to see Bose’s experiments with plant perception. In a famous incident, the ever-curious playwright George Bernard Shaw was seized with horror when subjected to the sight of a violently convulsing piece of cabbage gasping in a pot of boiling water. While Bose’s work with plants was highly esteemed by some scientists, the disdain of the Western scientific circles for an Indian scientist’s work can be seen in the way British journalists described Bose’s work with plants in terms similar to Frankenstein-like experiments (like the account at the beginning of the story).
However, his path-breaking experiments couldn’t be ignored for long. In 1920, he was elected the Fellow of the Royal Society for his amazing contributions and achievements. Prior to his death in 1937, he also set up the Bose Research Institute at Calcutta (now Kolkata). He was greatly helped in this endeavour by his close friend Rabindranath Tagore, who contributed financially and also backed him in his efforts.
An avid supporter of Bose’s researches and discoveries, Tagore had always found an essence of Indian scientific spirit, a reflection of Indian national culture, in Bose’s work. In his poem for Bose, published in Kalpana, Tagore, addressing the scientist, was effusive in his praise:
“From the Temple of Science in the West,
far across the Indus, oh, my friend,
you have brought the garland of victory,
decorated the humbled head of the poor Mother …
Today, the mother has sent blessings in words of tears,
of this unknown poet.
Amidst the great Scholars of the West, brother,
these words will reach only your ears.”
As Tagore’s words portray, for a country in the clutches of colonial rule, J C Bose was not just a scientist, he was a symbol of national pride. Bose too had always acknowledged his responsibilities as a scientist to revive the national pride of his country. In a letter to Tagore, he wrote:
“I am alive with the life force of the mother Earth, I have prospered with the help of the love of my countrymen. For ages, the sacrificial fire of India’s enlightenment has been kept burning, millions of Indians are protecting it with their lives, a small spark of which has reached this country through me.”
Today, the legendary scientist may no longer be with us, but his legacy shall endure forever. Over the decades, several scientists have given further weight to Bose’s theories that plants may not be as different from animals as previously thought. It is only fitting that the team of scientists that hopes to complete and carry his work forward should choose to run their research at Kolkata’s Bose Research Institute and call it, although informally, the JC Bose Legacy Project. At the Institute’s Madhyamgram campus, work is on to decode the molecular mystery of plants (in terms of protein and genes) that show different responses to external stimuli such as touch, light or noise.
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