Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Politics of Science

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Christin Hoene


On 6 June 1901, Jagadis Chandra Bose read a paper at the Royal Society in London, entitled ‘On Electric Response of Inorganic Substances’. Bose showed that external stimuli, such as poison or electricity, have a similar effect on living tissue, such as plants or muscle, and inorganic matter, such as iron oxide or tin. Bose recorded response curves for muscle, plant, and metal and was thus able to show parallels between the living and the non-living. This was not only revolutionary, but also unacceptable to parts of his audience. At this talk, Bose encountered two difficulties: firstly, in upsetting traditional disciplinary boundaries between physics and physiology, he, the physicist, undermined the authority of the physiologists who were present. Consequently, they attacked Bose’s findings on the grounds of the second difficulty, namely the common prejudice against Indians according to which the Indian mind, in its pursuit of metaphysic ideals, was unsuited to scientific thoughts and practices. The physiologists thus confounded Bose’s theory of unity between the living and the non-living with a theological bias according to which they believed that Bose could only have arrived at his results because of his predisposition for mysticism rather than by carefully executed experiments. They failed to see that both could be true: for Bose, the intuition to search for a unifying principle between the living and the non-living and the scientific rigour with which he strove to prove it were not mutually exclusive, but, in fact, mutually dependant.

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