Of JC Bose, Patrick Geddes & the Leaf-World
By Subroto Roy
What happened to me yesterday was very odd. In a Kolkata bookshop, the first volume my hand completely accidentally reached for was The Life and Work of Sir Jagadis C. Bose by one Patrick Geddes, published in 1920. I have been in recent years learning a little of the magnificent scientific achievement of J. C. Bose (1858-1937), and knew of the justly acclaimed 1998 “I-triple E” paper by Probir K. Bondopadhyay, as well as a recent article by 25 year old Varun Aggrawal, which much belatedly but definitively have been establishing Bose’s pioneering contribution to the development of “wireless telegraphy” or radio. Marconi and Braun won the 1909 Nobel prize in physics for their work on the subject – had Bose been less of a great scientific soul and even slightly more of a businessman than he was by temperament and character, he should have been a winner too. Indeed, I had already come to a conclusion that Bose’s genius was such that his additional pioneering contributions to understanding plant physiology, e.g. his delicate instruments, one of which the crescograph magnified small movement in plant growth 10 million times, made him someone like Marie Curie who had been probably deserving of not one but two scientific Nobel Prizes in his time. He received none yet seemed not to have cared a hoot.
Reading through Geddes’ biography of him quickly last night, I found it simply wonderful in its depth, range and sympathy. The biographer introduced himself modestly as being “Late Professor of Botany” at University College, Dundee and “Professor of Sociology and Civics”, University of Bombay. A kindly young admirer of Bose I thought to myself, doing good for India as many Brits had done in their time.
Imagine my surprise this morning to find that the biographer of the lost genius that was JC Bose was himself a lost genius of equal capacity and achievement! Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was older than Sir JC Bose by a few years, and died a few years before him. He has been considered by his own biographers to have been a modern Leonardo da Vinci — “a prodigy in physical endurance, range of interests, and imaginative powers”, who was praised by Darwin, Einstein, Tagore and like men, and who as a polymath contributed to economics, sociology, history, art, museums, exhibitions, politics, literature, agriculture, gardening, geology, religion, philosophy, education, geography, science, astronomy, biology, planning, printing, mathematics, navigation, travel, public health, housing, music, and poetry, besides having designed a city like Tel Aviv and pioneered the idea that “cities must be planned with respect to their surrounding villages… Industrial development, if left unchecked, would damage the air, water and land upon which all life relies. Little wonder that today environmentalists consider Patrick a prophet of land stewardship and sustainable activity”.
Geddes’ most famous words quoted today are: “The world is mainly a vast leaf-colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass, and we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests. This is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent upon the leaves. By leaves we live.” Little wonder that he became a friend and admirer of Bose. He reports in his biography of Bose that Howes, the successor of Thomas Huxley (disciple of Darwin), had come to witness one of Bose’s experiments with a galvanometer on plants and had exclaimed afterwards: “Huxley would have given years of his life to see that experiment”. Huxley had been Geddes’ mentor too.