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Renowned Physicist ECG Sudarshan Missed Out on Nobel Despite Several Nominations. It Was the Prize’s Loss

Sudarshan was shaken by the Nobel committee's decision to not consider his important contributions even though others were awarded based on the ideas developed using his findings.

Dr A Rajagopal Kamath |

Updated:May 14, 2018, 11:25 PM IST
Renowned Physicist ECG Sudarshan Missed Out on Nobel Despite Several Nominations. It Was the Prize’s Loss
ECG Sudarshan passed away in Texas on Monday, May 14, 2018. He was 86.
Professor ECG Sudarshan was one of the world's most important scientists. He was a high-ranking physicist at the University of Texas where he continued his innovative Physics. V-A theory, Sudarshan Glauber representation, superluminous particles called Tachyons, quantum zeno effect are some of his major contributions to the subject.

When I met him in 2005 at Cochin during the centenary celebrations of the Annus mirabilis of Albert Einstein, he seemed to be shaken by the attitude of the Nobel committee in not considering his important contribution for the award even though others were awarded based on the ideas developed using his findings.

He was nominated for the coveted Nobel Prize six times. He is the first Malayalee to reach so far.

Born on September 16, 1931, as the second son of E.I Chandy at Pallam, Pakkil near Kottayam District, he had a special interest in physics when he was studying in CMS College in Kottayam in Kerala. He graduated from Madras Christian College, did his MA from University of Madras and PhD from the University of Rochester.

The inquiry into the nature of ‘heat’ led him to the depths of physics. After studying in Madras, he was involved in Physics research at the Institute of Fundamental Research in Birmingham.

Later, he studied nucleus for the cause of radioactivity. He served in Rochester University, Syracuse University, Indian Institute of Science, and Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

Sudarshan has been awarded with the Padma Bhushan, CV Raman Award, Bose Medal, Third World Academy of Science Award and Kerala State Science and Technology Award. He was an American Physical Society Fellow, Indian Academy of Sciences Fellow and published over 500 scientific papers.

According to Sudarshan, some special particles can travel faster than light. Physicist Gerald Feinberg even gave them a name, tachyons. Albert Einstein had put forward the idea that nothing can move faster than the speed of light. But Tachyons are superluminous particles.

It has been suggested that the existence of these particles can’t be ruled out. The physics of tomorrow may be based on the discovery of these particles. The scientific world is still researching to find out more about these particles.

They are hypothetical subatomic particles whose velocity always exceeds that of light. The existence of the Tachyon, though not experimentally established, appears consistent with the theory of relativity, which was originally thought to apply only to particles traveling at or less than the speed of light. Just an ordinary particle such as an electron can exist only at speeds less than that of light, so a Tachyon could exist only at speeds above that of light, at which point its mass would be real and positive.

Upon losing energy, a Tachyon would accelerate; the faster it traveled, the less energy it would have.

Sudarshan also conducted research on the weak force of the nucleus. He did not present his studies at one of the Rochester Physics conference. One summer, his guide Robert Marshak was at Santa Monica. Marshak arranged a lunch with Scientists Murray Gell-Mann, Leona Marshall, Ronald Bryan, AH Wapstra and others at a restaurant.

Sudarshan was asked to give a report on the work on weak interactions beginning with a survey of the crucial experimental results which were conducted at CERN lab at Geneva.

Gell-Mann was very appreciative of the presentation and gave his blessings. However, the choice of the interaction that Marshak and Sudarshan required for crucial experiments were found to be wrong. Later, these experiments were conducted at CERN again, confirming Sudarshan’s findings.

Professor Marshak was to attend the Conference on Mesons and Newly Discovered Particles in Padua-Venice in 1957 September. He asked Sudarshan to compile a joint paper on the V-A interaction; this was done in June and was titled “The Nature of the Four-Fermion Interaction".

Sudarshan left it with Marshak, who got it typed in Rochester and presented it at the Conference. He was satisfied that this presentation and the preprint dated 16 September 1957 (Sudarshan’s 26th birthday) was best to publication.

That September Sudarshan went to join Julian Schwinger at Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow. Nobody there in the theory group knew anything about the developments in weak interaction, nor did they care. But Sheldon Glashow told about a manuscript written by Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman postulating a V-A form for beta decay that was submitted to the Physical Review.

Sudarshan called Professor Marshak on the phone, but he assured that the priority was protected by the Rochester preprint and by the conference presentation. But nobody has seen or heard this study. That was a mistake since most people would not acknowledge having seen or heard of our work.

Anyone who read Sudarshan’s paper and the beautiful paper by Gell-Mann and Feynman could not fail to notice the essential difference. Sudarshan analyzed the data and pointed to the inevitable choice of the Chiral V-A form despite contradicting experiments, while Feynman and Gell-Mann knew his work and elaborated on its elegance and they added other important concepts.

The priority of ECG Sudarshan in this finding was ignored. He used to say, ‘You can wake up a sleeping person, but you cannot do anything about a person who pretends to be asleep’. Feynman and Gell-Mann were awarded the Nobel Prize for this finding. Marshak had previously presented this study information to one of the scientists.

Sudarshan has also contributed to Quantum Optics, which is the study of radiation and matter in the optical wavelength domain, where sophisticated advances in laser technology enable tests of fundamental physical questions with unprecedented precision. Optical probes of coherent states of atoms and photons permit new insights into questions about the basic foundations of quantum mechanics and are leading to concrete realization of futuristic applications such as quantum computing. He has guided around 30 students to PhD.

Theory of relativity by Albert Einstein has established the speed of light as the highest speed allowed. When Sudarshan was at the University of Rochester, he pondered about what happens to energy and momentum when a particle travels faster than light.

Sudarshan saw that energy and momentum could be made real by taking rest mass to be imaginary for such particles. The second difficulty of the apparent traveling "backward in time" of such a particle was solved by the interchange of the emission and absorption of the particle. Along with a graduate student, V. K. Deshpande, Sudarshan wrote a short paper.

It came back from Physical Review since a referee rejected it, saying it was incorrect. Sudarshan requested a second referee who said that the results of the paper were correct, but it was all well-known! A third referee stated that he had "read both the previous referee reports and he agreed with both of them"!

About two years later, after Sudarshan joined the University of Rochester he rewrote the paper and got it published it in American Journal of Physics. It attracted a lot of attention. To date, no tachyons have been detected. However, tachyons arise naturally in string theories but are suppressed or ignored. The role of tachyons in cosmology was investigated by JV Narlikar and Sudarshan. They concluded that any primordial tachyons would have vanished long ago.

Sudarshan-Glauber representation was another important work which led to Roy Glauber winning the Nobel and here again Sudarshan was unfortunately avoided. During a talk, he mentioned that one should keep such intellectual achievements till the time they are safe to make public. He points out the examples of JC Bose who lost to Marconi on the find of radio and SN Bose whose findings were neutralised by Albert Einstein naming Bose Enistein statistics and Bose Einstein condensate.

CV Raman succeeded because he kept his studies as secret and revealed them only with publication in reputed journals. Professor ECG Sudarshan undoubtedly was a world class physicist. Nobel committee has disgraced the science community by denying him the coveted prize.

The author of this article is a pop-sci writer and a freelance researcher.

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| Edited by: Aakarshuk Sarna
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