‘Big loss to theoretical physics’: Fellow scientists fondly remember ECG Sudarshan

Legendary figures like Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose and Peter Higgs have mentioned his pivotal role in fundamental physics on multiple occasions.
‘Big loss to theoretical physics’: Fellow scientists fondly remember ECG Sudarshan
‘Big loss to theoretical physics’: Fellow scientists fondly remember ECG Sudarshan
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By Dr Aswin Sekhar

ECG Sudarshan, who passed away on Monday in Texas, USA, was a unique Indian in so many ways. One of them is the fact that never in the history of science has an Indian been officially nominated as well as officially rejected for a Nobel prize so many number of times.

Moreover, all other contemporary stalwarts and Nobel winners of his time in physics like Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Steven Weinberg, Sheldon Glashow and Abdus Salam prolifically used and cited Sudarshan’s work with great respect and admiration. More recent legendary figures like Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose and Peter Higgs have mentioned his pivotal role in fundamental physics on multiple occasions. Such was the academic standing and reputation of this poor Malayali Christian boy in the heavily competitive world of American and European physics.

There have already been countless formal obituaries on several national and international media platforms describing Sudarshan’s formal education, tenures and awards. This article brings you fond recollections and memories from a few top scientists who had the good fortune to meet Sudarshan and work with him.

Prof TR Govindarajan, Theoretical Physicist, The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai:

“Prof ECG Sudarshan was an outstanding theoretical physicist. His major contributions, namely the universal theory of weak interactions and quantum description of optics, are extraordinary works and unfortunately missed the Nobel prize. His other contributions, namely tachyons, symmetries and quantum theories, spin and statistics, quantum Zeno effect, and evolution of general quantum states, are all outstanding and reflect a creative mind.

I had pleasant interactions with him when I spent two semesters with him at the University of Texas, Austin and was impressed by his spontaneous and original thinking. He was associated in India with the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru as well as the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

His passing away is a big loss to theoretical physics and many will remember his lectures fondly on various subjects in physics.”

Dr Anil Shaji, Quantum Mechanics expert and Associate Dean, IISER Thiruvananthapuram (also supervised by Sudarshan for his doctoral thesis):

“There has been quite a bit of discussion, especially in India, about whether Sudarshan was denied a much-deserved Nobel prize. In my opinion there is no question that he deserved the prize. In fact, he should have been given due recognition for each of his five seminal works.

Maybe that was the problem too. Maybe each committee felt that Sudarshan’s contribution was more seminal or significant in the other field, so the prize should be given for that instead. This would have given them an easy way out to give the prize in that particular field to other individuals who made a single seminal contribution and then continued to work in the same field making incremental contributions to it for the rest of their careers. So maybe one can speculate that they all ended up passing it around.

Here was a man who made Nobel worthy contributions in not just one but many fields; something perhaps way beyond what a single prize committee can fully appreciate. If the Nobel prize were like the Oscars, recognising important contributions in the past year, maybe Sudarshan may have had five of them on his mantlepiece.

Ultimately the reward was the joy of discovery. Disappointment at the lack of recognition was limited, in his characteristic humility, to a few sarcastic remarks punctuating his lectures such as: “I wrote this (equation/fact/formula) down first and so it is now known by so-and-so’s name!”

Prof Gautam Menon, Condensed Matter Theoretical Physicist at The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai:

“I first visited IMSc in 1988 when I was a masters student. I had written to the then Director, George Sudarshan, asking if I could come and do a project in the summer. He replied that the Institute had no official summer program but that I was welcome to visit and talk to people there. So I came to Madras to meet him. Prof. Sudarshan welcomed me and a friend who had come along too, a fellow student, very warmly and spent close to an hour talking to us. He was an exceptionally charming man and very well known, at least by name, to young physicists such as myself. (In fact, I’d used his name as an answer in a quiz, the ‘India Quiz’, that I’d set while studying in college in Delhi.) I was struck by the fact that he had spent so much time with us, mere students, at that time when I was sure he had many more important things to do.”

Suffice to say that the legend of George Sudarshan will live forever in the minds of scientists, both in India and abroad. The strong impression he has left in multiple areas of physics will remain immortal.

Some scientists in the world jovially remark that if Sudarshan had patented the word ‘Tachyon’ (which has now gained cult status in science fiction books and Hollywood sci-fi movies), he could have retired a millionaire!

Tachyon is a particle which can travel faster than light and hence would travel reverse in time, as hypothesised by George Sudarshan. This concept gained international name and fame instantly for its bewildering name and originality.

Although the Tachyon man has left our mortal world, his work and contributions will continue to glow as brightly as light and race against time just like his beloved particle.

Dr Aswin Sekhar is an astrophysicist based in Norway.

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