The physicist in India seems to be virtually invisible,
except for brief bursts when the nuclear weapons or the space research
programmes come up for mention. So the death on May 14, 2018, of E. C. George
Sudarshan, discoverer of one of the most important laws of nature—the universal
theory of weak interactions of fundamental particles—at 87, was the subject of
routine obituaries that dismissed his life and work in a few paragraphs. Even
while he lived, the mainstream media made mention of his views on
transcendental meditation and other outbursts but paid little attention to his
real work in high energy physics. That might be the reason for the lack of
recognition his contributions to theoretical physics have received. These are a
matter of record and show that was one of the most extraordinary physicists
from India in the last century.
Enakkal Chandy George (ECG) was born in 1931 in Pallam, Kerala. He had two brothers. His mother was a school teacher. In school he was deeply interested in mathematics and taught himself the intricacies of the subject. He even helped other students in their difficulties with mathematics.
He studied in CMS College, Kottayam. As a student he showed interest in varied subjects as reflected in the library books he had borrowed. They included Orders of infinity, Space and Time, New discoveries in Babylonia and Theory of Relativity. For an intermediate student it made for an impressive list.
He moved to Madras Christian College (MCC) for his B. Sc. (Hon) studies. He always fondly remembered the optics courses of M. A. Thangaraj at the institution. Optics and spectroscopy, studies about the nature of light or electromagnetic waves, were very popular in south India at that time because of the towering influence of C. V. Raman, Nobel Laureate and discoverer of the Raman effect, though the rest of the world had moved on to quantum theory, nuclear physics. This kindled an interest in light which made him explore its full glory later.
He moved to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research at Bombay (1952-55) to work under Homi J. Bhabha, architect of the country’s nuclear programme. In those days TIFR was at the old Yacht Club. Among his contemporaries was Raja Ramanna, later to be boss of Operation Smiling Buddha, the nuclear weapons testing programme that culminated in Pokhran 1974. He also headed the nuclear establishment. Others included K. K. Gupta who with Bhabha studied relativistic wave equations, K.C. Chandrasekar who headed the mathematics group and the remarkable D. D. Kosambi, mathematician, philologist, numismatist, historian and polymath, sometimes described as the “patriarch of the Marxist school of Indian historiography”.
One of the high points of his stay was undoubtedly the encounter with Paul Adrian Maurice Dirac, one of the founders of quantum physics. He attended and took notes at the course on quantum mechanics by Dirac, who was visiting TIFR at the time. It was probably a seminal moment in his career, for it gave him the chance to learn the subject from the one of the masters of the new universe of quantum theory. Another important visitor among the many who came to TIFR was Robert E. Marshak. He interacted with young George and took a keen interest in having him as a student at the University of Rochester. But his adviser did not approve that. So he changed the adviser after a year.
Later, with Bhabha’s approval, ECG moved to Rochester. It was the turning point of his life. During this period he also married Lalitha and, probably influenced by her at that time, converted to Vedantic Hinduism. He got himself the additional name Sudarshan. They separated in the Eighties and ECG later married Prof. G. Bhamathi.
The Rochester days were remarkable as he set out on his journey through particle physics. He mentioned to me that he used to work 14-15 hours a day and considered it normal. It was here in collaboration with Marshak that his most important contribution to the universal theory of weak interactions, which is named V-A theory, was made. Parity violation was a most important experimental fact at that time and V-A theory naturally incorporates maximal violation.
here were controversies over the first credit for this work, which were later resolved, but came too late for appropriate recognition. Of this we will talk later. He then moved to Harvard to work with Julian Schwinger (Nobel laureate, 1965).
He also started working on optics during his Rochester days. He himself relates this to his MCC days, learning from Principles of Optics by Max Born and Emil Wolf, a classic text that presents optics deductively as a system based on James Clerk Maxwell’s equations. Wolf himself was at Rochester then. Thus started his work on quantum optics. It provided crucial contributions to the work by Roy J. Glauber, who at that time had developed coherent states to look at optics with non-classical behaviour.
Coherent states are quantum states that closely resemble states in classical theory. But Glauber missed the crucial representation of this, which later came to be called the Glauber-Sudarshan P representation which explained the classical and quantum behaviours of light uniformly.
He went on to introduce new ideas in physics. One of the most notable was the postulation of tachyons, particles with speeds exceeding that of light, and not allowed within the special theory of relativity. This was proposed in collaboration with V. K. Deshpande and O. M. P. Bilaniuk (1962) and is a work of extraordinary ingenuity, but there is no valid observational reason to take it seriously now.
He also brought the old paradox of the Greek philospher Zeno to life in quantum theory. This paradox states that a “moving arrow never moves”. He used this to prevent decaying systems from doing so by continuous observations. The work has been experimentally verified.
Sudarshan considered the evolution of general states of quantum theory and brought in new notions of completely positive maps. Along with his students Thomas Jordan and Douglas Curry, Sudarshan proved a theorem that relativistic symmetry and the quantum theory of interacting particles are contradictory (you have to give up one of them). Hence giving up particles, we use fields. This theorem is now used to understand entanglement in quantum field theories.
is contributions to theoretical physics were thus outstanding and acknowledged by his peers but formal recognition eluded him. This was a cross he carried through his life. It was he and Marshak who discovered the universal theory of weak interactions in 1957. At that time a few components of the interaction were possible, namely, tensor (spin 2), scalar (spin 0), vector (spin 1) and axial vector (spin 1). That only vector and axial vector interactions survive with the opposite sign was the significant discovery in this connection. But there were few experiments that showed the results of some scalar and tensor parts. Sudarshan was bold enough to suggest that these experiments must be redone so that the expectations of theory were shown to be correct. Indeed he was proven right.
But then controversy came in the form of the same theory, independently proposed by Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann at Caltech around the same time. The question of who did it first became an issue. Nobel recognition can be given at most to three people. Sudarshan and Marshak’s work appeared in the form of a conference talk in Italy ahead of the others. Historically it was resolved by Feynman himself acknowledging in an interview in the mid-80s that they came first.
Feynman magnanimously gave credit to Sudarshan and Marshak for discovering V-A theory. By then it was a bit late since that theory had been successfully embedded by Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg in a more fundamental theory that became known as the unified theory of weak and electromagnetic interactions. For their work the three were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979.
In a 2007 interview to Hindustan Times he had this to say: “Steven Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow and Abdus Salam built on work I had done as a 26-year-old student. If you give a prize for a building, shouldn’t the fellow who built the first floor be given the prize before those who built the second floor?”
He suffered an identical fate in connection with his contributions in quantum optics. Glauber’s theory of coherent states did come first but the representation of Sudarshan brought out the crucial quantum inputs of optics correctly and it is used even now. Indeed it is called the Sudarshan-Glauber representation. But his name was missing when Glauber was awarded one half of the physics Nobel in 2005.
Sudarshan even applied for a couple of patents for devices involving radiation and optics. The first was an instrument to measure radiation in computer assisted tomography and the second for an image rotation device. This is an optical rotation device with infinite depth of field for transmitting optical images along an optical axis.
Probably his disappointment at not getting the recognition was the reason he became associated with transcendental meditation and this led to confusion and controversy about his personality. It is not clear what his motivation was in this indulgence. In private discussions he never showed interest in or approval of these activities. Sometime he even made fun of them.
He also made a mess of his personal finances and filed for bankruptcy in the mid-80s. He expressed his general unhappiness in several forums. He did not spare anyone in these outbursts. I had a taste of one at Cochin University where I went to give a lecture in the World Year of Physics 2005 (the centenary of Einstein’s annus mirabilis).
The media published with relish an item with the sensational heading “Einstein’s works were stolen”. This is because a few days before, while inaugurating a similar programme in the neighbourhood, Sudarshan essentially claimed there were doubts about Einstein’s contributions.
Also in the late 80s when he went to Kolkata to give a talk on Satyendra Nath Bose’s contributions to physics, his talk was titled, “Did the master let down the student”? He was referring to Bose’s letter about his work on getting Max Planck’s distribution formula for black body radiation. Bose starts with paying homage to Einstein as his “master” and requests his support to get his work wider recognition. Einstein got that work translated into German and the contribution later came to be known as the Bose-Einstein statistics.
udarshan was named director of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, in the early 80s. That made the place alive and refreshing all of a sudden. He himself taught several courses and interacted with students and young post doctoral scholars. I myself was working in Loyola at the time and used to visit IMSc to meet my collaborators. ECG used to call me to his room and discuss my work.
National recognition poured in, with several prominent people joining the mathematics, physics and computer science programmes. In an interview to Urjit A Yagnik in Resonance (March, 2015), he said: “When I took over [IMSc], its budget was ₹3 crore. By the time I handed over five years later, it was ₹30 crore. A lot went into building infrastructure, particularly the library which was notorious for its rats, and following them, snakes. The salaries of academic staff had remained extremely low. Asking for more money for science in those days was like Oliver Twist asking for more soup. Finally, the faculty received substantial raises.”
One of the major problems was that he was acting as director from Texas, spending only a short period (summer and winter) every year in India. Expectations could not be matched by the waiting period. This led to immediate tension between members of the Institute and him. But over time the hard feelings subsided, especially in the last 15 years. Though the court cases are still there on paper, ECG visited IMSc a few times over the years and even gave talks. The institute also felicitated him on his 80th birthday and passed a motion of condolence after hearing of his demise.
His passion for understanding was undimmed by his IMSc experience and he continued active research in the post-IMSc period from Texas, studying questions of statistics and Pauli’s Exclusion Principle from a new perspective. This is a fundamental law that states no two Fermi-identical particles (like electrons, protons, neutrons) have the same state. This is thus responsible for the stability of atoms and also plays a crucial role in S. Chandra Shekhar’s limit for the mass of a White Dwarf (the final evolutionary state of a star approximately the size of the sun).
This is one area in which I did collaborate with him. The idea was to exploit the topological features of many particle configurations which are identical and indistinguishable. We have boson and fermion statistics developed in the 1930s. Photons are bosons and electrons are fermions. All elementary particles come under one of these. The topological development mentioned above shows new possibilities, more general statistics which are fractional and even further which bear the name non-Abelian. These have become now possible to observe experimentally.
Turning to his religious background and affiliations, he himself makes it clear in a few places that it is possible at once to be scientific and have religious beliefs of a particular kind. Though the arguments suggest confusion in his own mind he said one could be religious “like Billy Graham” and a scientist at the same time! According to him in “both religion and science, the quest involves doing things everyone can with everything one has”.
But he noted that “Advances in science have made it clear that God, if he exists does not intervene with regard to the physical universe.” For him the western notion of God is masculine whereas, in the specific Vishistadvaita of the Vedanta system, God is more feminine, which itself stems from his contradictions. But the ideas are more confused as we go along.
For all his indulgence in these speculations, however, he never allowed his work in physics to stray from the scientific rigour that succeeded in establishing trending fields which many seriously follow and work through even now. ECG was an extraordinarily creative person and his contributions will never be forgotten. His name will be recognised in the history of physics for all time to come.