Higgs and the subcontinent

Leon Lederman, physicist and author of the book “The God Particle” whose title has become the popular media name for the Higgs boson, tried to explain the title away by saying his original title was “The goddamn particle” and the editor, well, edited it. Be that as it may, the likely discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN has set off a media frenzy around the world.

The Indian media, of course, is seeking Indian connections — of which there are many: several of my colleagues have been associated with LHC, including the late Rahul Basu whose name is familiar to readers of this blog. There are literally thousands of scientists working on this, and the massive amounts of data generated are farmed out and analysed around the world, including at several centres in India.

However, the name “Higgs boson” has naturally led the Indian media to focus on the second part, named after Satyendra Nath Bose. (Here is the Times of India, for example.) Now, Bose was a remarkable figure — a self-taught physicist from a poor British colony, he had a fundamental insight into the statistics of photons (which are massless), which Einstein then generalised to massive particles. The resulting “Bose-Einstein statistics” describe an entire category of fundamental particles, and (approximately) atoms — those with integer spin. Particles with half-integer spin are described by “Fermi-Dirac” statistics. Bose never got the Nobel; Einstein, Fermi, and Dirac all did, but not for their work on quantum statistics. Bose’s work is fundamental to modern physics and the TOI is correct that he is not given his due — I have heard comments, even from Bengalis, to the effect that “oh, he cannot be compared to J. C. Bose.”

When Einstein generalised Bose’s statistics to particles with mass, he discovered a peculiar phenomenon that gases of bosons exhibit at low temperatures, which is generally called “Bose-Einstein condensation” (BEC). (So in this case, Bose is given credit for a phenomenon that he did not actually predict.) Liquid helium exhibits a form of frictionless flow called “superconductivity” “superfluidity”, which is a manifestation of BEC, but a more complicated phenomenon than what Einstein predicted, because it is not a gas. BEC was eventually demonstrated in rubidium atoms in 1995, leading to a Nobel for the team in 2001, and leading also to some belated appreciation in India of Bose’s work.

However, to credit Bose with the Higgs discovery makes as much sense as crediting Democritus with the discovery of uranium, on the ground that Democritus had an atomic theory. To say, in the context of the Higgs boson discovery, that Bose “towers over” Higgs, is a complete non-sequitur. Einstein, Fermi and Dirac tower over Higgs too, but nobody feels compelled to say that. Why not appreciate the Higgs discovery for what it is, the result of hard work by an enormous team of scientists, including many Indians?

Finally, I take pleasure in pointing out that there is a significant subcontinental connection to the Higgs boson. While Higgs (and, independently, Brout and Englert; and Guralnik, Hagen, and Kibble) described the mechanism in 1964, it was incorporated into the “elecroweak theory” (which later became part of the “Standard Model” of particle physics) in 1967 by Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam. Salam was a Pakistani physicist and certainly the most significant subcontinental physicist since independence. In addition to his science, he set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy (which was renamed in his honour after his death in 1996). The ICTP was (and is) intended to promote science in developing countries, and has provided, for many Indian students and young scientists, their first exposure to international science. We should all be proud of this particular connection.

Leave a comment


  1. Gaddeswarup

     /  July 7, 2012

    Rahul, the Wikipedia article says that the Bose derivation started with mistake while etching. Can you say some thing about it?
    It is interesting that Bose translated Einstein and Einstein translated Bose, possibly unique.

    • Was “etching” a typo? According to Wikipedia, Bose intended to show his class that the classical statistics (Maxwell-Boltzmann) were inadequate, but he made an error on the blackboard that resulted in getting the correct answer. His error was, essentially, similar to failing to distinguish the sequences of coin tosses H-T and T-H in calculating the probability of two heads in two tosses. The fact that he got the right answer led him to think that maybe it wasn’t an error. And indeed, quantum particles are indistinguishable (in a fundamental sense — not merely “identical”) and one only considers occupation numbers, not the detailed distributions of individual particles. This is true for both bosons and fermions. I have no idea whether the story is true, however.

  2. ajit vadakayil

     /  July 7, 2012



    capt ajit vadakayil

  3. Anonymous

     /  July 7, 2012

    do you mean “superfluidity” where you write “superconductivity”?

  4. Gaddeswarup

     /  July 7, 2012

    It was a typo with the help of iPad. As it is I make quite a few mistakes and iPad changes some of the words. I should watch out.

  5. Gaddeswarup

     /  July 7, 2012

    Here is a sort of popular article describing Einstein’s additional insights in Bose-Einstein condensation.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  July 7, 2012

      Excellent article, thanks. I hadn’t seen it before (but the author taught me statistical mechanics in my first year at IISc).

  6. M

     /  July 8, 2012

    Hi Rahul,

    Walter Isaacson, in his beautiful biography of Albert Einstein (Einstein: His Life and Works), says this, based on his conversations with a Yale physicist named Douglas Stone:

    Chapter 14: “This phenomenon, now called Bose-Einstein condensation,* was a brilliant and important discovery in quantum mechanics, and Einstein deserves most of the credit for it. Bose had not quite realized that the statistical mathematics he used represented a fundamentally new approach. As with the case of Planck’s constant, Einstein recognized the physical reality, and the significance, of a contrivance that someone else had devised. [Ch. 14, 49]”

    In the References/Notes section, the following is listed for the citation [Ch. 14, 49]:

    “[Ch. 14, 49] I am grateful to Professor Douglas Stone of Yale for helping to craft this section and explaining the fundamental importance of what Einstein did. A theoretical condensed matter physicist, he is writing a book on Einstein’s contributions to quantum mechanics and how far-reaching they really were, despite Einstein’s later rejection of the theory. According to Stone, “99% of the credit for this fundamental discovery called Bose-Einstein condensation is really owed to Einstein. Bose did not even realize that he had counted in a different way.” Regarding the Nobel Prize for achieving Bose-Einstein condensation, see http://www.nobelprize.org/physics/laureates/2001/public.html.”

    Any thoughts on this?

  7. Sunil Mukhi

     /  July 8, 2012

    Describing Abdus Salam as a “Pakistani physicist” always bothers me. He was born in undivided British India, like Hargobind Khorana – both hail from Jhang district, now in Pakistan. Both Salam and Khorana left for England before 1947, Salam to Cambridge and Khorana to Liverpool. Both subsequently lived almost all their lives outside the subcontinent, though Salam did return and work in Pakistan for some years. S. Chandrasekhar was also born in undivided British India (and like the other two above, he was born in the now-Pakistani part of it) but lived in the US from 1937.

    The question of nationality is therefore a little quirky for all three. Yet, Khorana and Chandra are frequently described either as “Indian” or “Indian-origin”, while Salam alone is called “Pakistani”. Nothing against Pakistan on my part, in fact it seems to me that all three are Pakistani by one definition (where your birthplace is currently located), and none is Indian by another definition (what nationality they took after independence. For greatest consistency I would prefer to go with “born in undivided India” for all three.

    There’s also the issue of another Nobel laureate, Ronald Ross, who like the other three above was born in undivided British India but is generally described as “British”, never as “Indian”, though unlike Salam, Khorana and Chandra his Nobel-winning work was done entirely in India.

    End of rant.

  8. Rahul Siddharthan

     /  July 8, 2012

    M – while I’m not a historian on this, it seems condescending to assume that Bose did not realise he had counted in a different way. I haven’t read the book but your description makes it sound like Bose sent Einstein an article with a stupid mistake and Einstein realised its significance. This is also contrary to the Wikipedia story that gaddeswarup and I discuss above.

    It is probably true that Bose was only concerned with photons and blackbody radiation, and he did not think of generalising it. The article by Rajaram Nityananda, that gaddeswarup links to above, gives a nice perspective of how it would all have appeared from Einstein’s point of view.

    Sunil – I think it is just a question of citizenship. Salam remained a Pakistani citizen, I believe (just as Amartya Sen remains an Indian citizen). Khorana and Chandrasekhar had Indian citizenships, which they relinquished in favour of US citizenship. I have heard that Khorana in his last days was much more eager to visit Pakistan than India, but it could not be managed.

  9. Gaddeswarup

     /  July 9, 2012

    An article linked in Nanopolitan has some comments by Bose himself on the discovery

  10. Gaddeswarup

     /  July 9, 2012

    Sorry for too many comments. There is a discussion of whether Bose realized that he counted in a different way in Wali’s boo, before around page 367, parts of which are available at google books ( I found it by googling Bose’s second paper)

  11. Neelima.

     /  July 20, 2012

    I’m a bit late, Rahul, but thanks for adding some good sense to Boson debate.


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