S N Bose Project is a grandson's biographical research on the life and times of Professor Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974) — Indian mathematical-physicist, humanist, and multi-faceted genius ... a polymath in diverse fields of science, education, literature, music, politics, social reform, and philanthropy.

25 January 2007

Part II: A Historical Novelty or Getting It Right?

Saha and Bose's translation of Einstein's Principle of Relativity was the first English translation available anywhere in the world.

All this is not to say that there weren't "issues" or problems with the translations. The critics were not kind, noting the lack of literal translation of the text, problems with the mathematics, pagination problems, missing footnotes, etc. However, while there were problems, it was generally appreciated that this work had been done as early as it was, and by such young thinkers.

Later, as others began to do translations of Einstein's relativity theories, Calcutta University was asked to stop the publication of these works. As Professor Jagdish Mehra, the remarkably prolific historian of quantum theory — including the multi-volume The Historical Development of Quantum Theory (Springer 1982) and The Golden Age of Theoretical Physics (World Scientific, 2001) — recounted in his interview with Bose near the end of Bose's life (published in his Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1975 on the occasion of Bose's death in 1974) :
Bose translated Einstein's 1916 paper on the foundation of the general theory of relativity. (Quoting Bose) "Relativity was of course a magnificent structure already. Special theory was a fascinating thing, four-dimensional representation, the work of Minkowski, just splendid. We studied all these papers and translated them.

"Later on other people took up the translation of Einstein's relativity papers. Einstein had given the translation rights to the Methuen people. They wanted to stop the distribution of our work. Einstein was very generous. He said that as long as the book remained in circulation inside India, he had no objection. After the excitement of the first year or so people dropped making inquiries about the book. It is out of print."
— reprinted in The Golden Age of Theoretical Physics, p. 506
Many years later, Physicist Partha Ghose, a Bose biographer and one of his last students, while conducting his diligent work preparing for Bose's Birth Centenary Celebrations in 1994, received a communication from Professor Max Jammer of Bar Ilan University in Israel. In it he replied to an inquiry by Professor Ghose about the 1919 translations, saying that while the work had many amateur qualities and mistakes, there was one item of note that makes the Saha-Bose translations more than just a historical novelty. He writes:
The M.N. Saha and S.N. Bose translation of Einstein's papers on relativity, published in 1920 in Calcutta, does not contain the error which C.B. Jeffry and W. Perrett committed in their well-known 1922 translation. It concerns Einstein's definition of simultaneity at the very beginning of the kinematical part of Einstein's famous 1905 paper 'On the electrodynamics of moving bodies' (Annalen der Physik, vol. 17). The British translators misread Einstein's 'nun' as 'nur' and rendered thereby erroneously a sufficient condition as a necessary condition, thus excluding the possibility of alternative definitions of simultaneity, a possibility contended by the proponents of the so-called conventionality thesis of distant simultaneity (Reichenbach, Gr├╝nbaum and others).
— Letter dated 10 October 1993.
— Reprinted in S.N. Bose: The Man and His Work, Vol. 2, p.29, published on the occasion of Bose's Birth Centenary celebrations in 1994 by S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata

If Bose and Saha were alive today, I think they would have taken a certain pride in the fact that at least this part of their work had shown them to be more correct than the British.


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