Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bose's mistake

Satyendra Nath Bose in 1925

It happens even to the best among us - we make mistakes.

This one was rather embarrassing, though.

Satyenda Nath Bose (1894-1974) should have known better, a naturally gifted mathematician as he was, one who in his youth had already learned many foreign languages and who even knew how to play the esraj.

Errare humanum est, as they say (or as I wrote in my Latin test errarum humane est amusing my teacher and the class).

Bose was born in Calcutta, British India, the eldest of seven children. His father, Surendranath Bose, worked in the Engineering Department of the East Indian Railway Company. Bose attended Hindu School in Calcutta, and later attended Presidency College, also in Calcutta, earning the highest marks at each institution. He came in contact with teachers such as Jagadish Chandra Bose and Prafulla Chandra Roy who provided inspiration to aim high in life. From 1916 to 1921 he was a lecturer in the physics department of the University of Calcutta. In 1921, he joined the department of Physics of the then recently founded Dacca University (now in Bangladesh and called University of Dhaka).

While presenting a lecture at the University of Dhaka on the theory of radiation and the ultraviolet catastrophe, Bose intended to show his students that the contemporary theory was inadequate, because it predicted results not in accordance with experimental results. During this lecture, Bose committed an error in applying the theory, which unexpectedly gave a prediction that agreed with the experiment (he later adapted this lecture into a short article called Planck's Law and the Hypothesis of Light Quanta).

The error was a simple mistake—similar to arguing that flipping two fair coins will produce two heads one-third of the time—that would appear obviously wrong to anyone with a basic understanding of statistics. However, the results it predicted agreed with experiment, and Bose realized it might not be a mistake at all. He for the first time took the position that the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution would not be true for microscopic particles where fluctuations due to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle will be significant. Thus he stressed the probability of finding particles in the phase space, each state having volume h³, and discarding the distinct position and momentum of the particles.

Physics journals refused to publish Bose's paper. Various editors ignored his findings, contending that he had presented them with a simple mistake. Discouraged, he wrote to Albert Einstein, who immediately agreed with him. His theory finally achieved respect when Einstein sent his own paper in support of Bose's to Zeitschrift für Physik, asking that they be published together. This was done in 1924. Bose had earlier translated Einstein's theory of General Relativity from German to English.

So a rather trivial mistake Bose made during his lecture (depending, of course, who is talking).

The rest is history and the guy would definitely have deserved Nobel Price for his achievements.

Never got one.

But bosons are called in his honor!

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