One of nature’s most challenging puzzles appears to have been solved, with the discovery earlier this summer of the “Higgs boson,” a subatomic particle that is said to give mass to everything and explain what holds the universe together. Already the Higgs boson has become a familiar concept around the world, in part because of its inspired designation as the “God particle,” as it was described some years ago by the physicist Leon Lederman, in the title of a book. (Lederman actually wanted to refer to it as a “God damn” particle because of its elusiveness, but his publisher thought better of the idea.)
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Peter Higgs, 83, the Scottish physicist who was one of the first to propose the particle’s existence in the 1960s, is duly recognized and feted for his insight, even though the actual sighting of the Higgs boson was accomplished by a big team of scientists at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Unfortunately, in the jubilations and congratulations, another deserving name has been largely overlooked. If Albert Einstein were alive today, he may have taken exception to this slight.
Largely disregarded has been the origin of the “boson” part of the Higgs boson.
The term, which refers to a class of force-carrying subatomic particles, of which the Higgs boson is one, was derived from the name of Satyendra Nath Bose − a pioneering Indian mathematical physicist, and a contemporary and collaborator of Einstein’s.
Bose’s seminal research was undertaken at the University of Dhaka in what is now Bangladesh, where he taught. While teaching the natures of radiation, he found that the statistical methods used at the time to analyze them fell short. So, to advance the system, in 1924, he did his own quantum-statistical formulation, which, though groundbreaking, he couldn’t get published. He was not well known and a British scientific journal, not taking him seriously, rejected the item.
Confident that his findings mattered, he sent his paper to Einstein himself, with a letter, seeking his opinion and help in getting it published. Bose, with Einstein’s permission, had already translated the latter’s general relativity paper into English, so he was conversant with Einstein’s achievements. “Though a complete stranger to you,” Bose wrote, “I do not feel any hesitation in making such a request. Because we all are your pupils, though profiting only by your teachings through your writings.”
Einstein appreciated the significance of Bose’s paper. He translated it into German and arranged for its publication in Zeitschrift fur Physik, an influential physics journal. Einstein then expanded Bose’s statistical calculations to the study of atoms. Their collaborations became known as the Bose-Einstein statistics and the Bose-Einstein condensate, and they played a major role in subsequent research on subatomic particles. It was physicist Paul Dirac who later coined the word “boson” to describe those particles, in recognition of the fact that they followed the Bose-Einstein rules.
Satyendra Nath Bose was born in 1894 in what was then called Calcutta, in British India. He was an exceptional student of physics, and later distinguished himself in teaching and research in the field at the Universities of Calcutta and Dhaka. Like many others, I felt a kinship to Bose when I was growing up, in the 1960s, in what is now Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. He and I had things in common in some ways. We both had Bengali as our mother tongue, and we both loved science and literature. I was also once a student at the University of Dhaka, and I was born in the village of Pora Bari, 50 miles east of Calcutta. But I was hardly alone in my sentiments: Bose inspired numerous aspiring scientists of the subcontinent by his teachings and contributions and his incisive mind.
Many think that Bose himself deserved the Nobel Prize. After all, during his own lifetime, several Nobel Prizes were awarded to scientists for work that was based on the Bose-Einstein principles. True, science has its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Ideas and achievements can languish because they are ignored by the established experts. Or, the work may be far ahead of its time and proved correct only later; by then, the scientists responsible have died, and a deceased person cannot be nominated for a Nobel. But none of this applied to Bose, since his works were already validated by none other than Einstein, and there was plenty of time to award him the prize: He died in 1974 at the age of 80. I believe, as many others do, that cultural bias was a likely factor in his being ignored.
Nobel Prize aside, at least Bose’s name should be recognized when we talk about this singular achievement in science. Instead, Higgs boson has now turned into “Higgs particle” in much of the literature, and the word “boson” is quickly disappearing from the vocabulary. Despite their vaunted caution, physicists aren’t averse to having tunnel vision and selectively discounting their colleagues. Physics giant Stephen Hawking bet that the Higgs boson wouldn’t be found. But once it was, he showered praise on Peter Higgs − and suggested a Nobel Prize for him − without even a hint of recognition to Bose and the boson.
Fazlur Rahman, a physician from San Angelo, Texas, is a trustee of Austin College and a selection committee member for the WTMA Distinguished Lectureship in Science at Angelo State University.