Ranjit Nair on this year’s physics Nobel

Disclaimer: For this post, I am going by popular accounts of the contributions of great people like Sudarshan, Feynman and Glauber.

***

The latest is by Ranjit Nair, who has an op-ed in today’s Times of India on the issue of who deserved one half of this year’s Physics Nobel: Roy Glauber of Harvard or E.C.G. Sudarshan of the University of Texas at Austin; the other half of the Prize was shared by two experimental physicists. I wrote about this topic a while ago in my other blog. So, what’s new?

Nair, who is the Director of Centre for Philosophy and Foundations of Science (Prof. Sudarshan is the President of the Centre’s Board of Advisors) indicates that Sudarshan also missed out on credit for some of his earliest work that Feynman did sometime later (I am not sure about the details here). This particular story has also been told by Sudarshan’s thesis advisor himself (I don’t have a link), and it goes like this: Sudarshan’s Ph.D. work was presented in one or two conferences. However, the paper by Murray Gell-Mann and Feynman appeared a few months before that by Sudarshan and his advisor.

So, it appears that in both cases, Sudarshan’s contributions appeared in print a few months after the ones that went on to become highly celebrated. In the first case (involving Feynman), Sudarshan was clearly a pioneer. In the latter (involving Glauber), his ideas and work were far better, but came after those of the Prize winner.

With this retelling, it now appears to me that Sudarshan’s main claim rests on the superiority (and not precedence) of his version of the theory. Given that the Prize was already shared by three scientists (apparently, Nobel Prizes cannot be shared by more than three people), the Nobel Committee’s decision to leave him out seems, if not totally fair, at least understandable.

Unless, of course, the demand (by Sudarshan and his supporters) is for the Prize to be awarded to Sudarshan instead of Glauber. I don’t think they are making that demand.

***

See this story for more details about the Glauber-Sudarshan controversy. Peter Woit mentions it in his blog and gets a bunch of interesting comments about Feynman’s celebrated work. No, they are not talking about Sudarshan, but a German scientist called Stueckelberg!

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12 thoughts on “Ranjit Nair on this year’s physics Nobel

  1. It is heartening to note that there are people concerned with the whys and wherefores of the Nobel physics prize 2005. I have undoubtedly had the advantage of knowing Prof George Sudarshan and his work in connection with the preparation of his selected scientific works for which he provided an autobiographical note underlining his most important contributions. In the case of the V-A theory it took some 33 years after the episode for a third party account (by Allan Franklin in 1990) to independently establish his priority. Furthermore, Robert Marshak, in a moving banquet talk in honour of his student, apologized for the mistakes he made (such as not ensuring that he presented the work at the Rochester conference in 1957). As far as theoretical quantum optics is concerned, I did not even remotely imagine that a Nobel Prize would be awarded. It is true, as Sudarshan readily concedes, that Glauber was the first to suggest that coherent states (introduced for harmonic oscillator states by Schroedinger in 1926) should be used for optical fields, but this was a logical extension of classical theory which models fields using harmonic oscillators. If there is a discovery that carried an element of surprise, it was Sudarshan’s proof that the coherent diagonal state representation was capable of accounting for all optical fields and furthermore that the signature of quantum behaviour lay in precisely those instances where the weights attached to the states was not positive definite. Glauber’s ‘R-representation’ in his first paper was general alright in a textbook sort of way, but proved to be barren, hence Glauber sensibly takes over Sudarshan’s representation which he calls the ‘P-representation’ after having expressed various doubts about it and also making wrong assertions about its range of validity. It is up to the physics community to read the literature themselves and discover exactly who did what. No doubt the Nobel Committee consists of honourable and well-meaning individuals who do things according to procedures but they are human like the rest of us and not infallible demigods. Furthermore, the obsessive secrecy which surrounds decisions is not always conducive to sound consensual judgements. A natural reaction when voices of dissent are raised is to say that one must not spoil the party, but surely when an injustice is perceived to be done, it is a moral duty to demur, however unpleasant or inconvenient it might seem to some people. It would be fascinating if some contemporary historian of science could study this episode in detail in order to understand how Nobel prizes are made. Let truth prevail!

  2. You’re welcome. I noticed a typo – in line 20 ‘was not positive’ should be ‘were not positive’. The penultimate sentence should have ‘contemporary’ qualify ‘science’ and not ‘historian’, since the latter situation trivially obtains. It is most unfortunate that George Sudarshan was sidelined when in fact he was the one who had developed a quantum theory of optical coherence for the very first time. Furthermore, Glauber’s unsubstantiated assertion that Sudarshan’s diagonal coherent state representation (which he chooses to call the P-representation) is a special case of his nondiagonal coherent state representation is wrong, as C. L. Mehta has shown quite clearly in a note added in proof to Sudarshan’s Selected Scientific Papers. Sudarshan’s demonstration that the diagonal coherent state representation was applicable to all optical fields was the ‘aha’ moment in the theory of quantum optics and in consequence, Sudarshan’s claims for recognition as a pioneer were rock solid. The representation we made to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences expressed our dismay at the miscarriage of justice and requested that the citation be revised in the light of the historical record. There is no provision for them to announce that x gets the prize and then say sorry we actually meant y, not x. Anyway, it is their lookout if they want to play Santa Claus!

  3. Hello Ranjit, Narayanan Here! I hope this letter is read by All concerened with science! First What is a nobel prize after all? Something trivial.
    I have my personal problem. I have listed the set of All Transcendentals Algorithmically and hence implicitly proved that the whole Goddamn Cantorian Set theory is Flawed. “The Axiom of Infinity” which says There Exists A limit Ordinal” is Exactly like saying Let “k” be the largest Natural number which is simply not acceptable to my intuition. But leaving aside Cantor Hilbert and the fraudulent transfinite induction(S) I have AN INFINITE VOLUMED [ tentatively 1500 pages roughly. ] WORK ON TRANSCENDENTALS TO SHOW! THE WORK WAS DONE BETWEEN 1995 AND 1998 ~ i HAVE BEEN TRYING TO GET IT SEEN BY THE AUTHORITIES IN HONOUR. MOST OF THEM REFUSED THE TIME. i MUST THANK PROF THRIVIKRAMAN [ EX. Prof Cochin UNiversity. ] who let me present a synopsis about this work at Pathanamthitta about two years ago. Can you just give me a lecture programme in your institute for a week say ? I will be honoured ! I write this as an old friend ~ Hope you listen and have the power to let me present my INFINITE CASE. SINCERELY narayanan raghunathan ~ I WILL SEND THE MANUSCRIPTS IF NEEDED .

  4. I am not very sure that we should be so enamored by the Nobel prize. Having known George Sudarshan personally I am again not sure which way the honor would go even if he does receive the prize. I have a strange feeling that from this year on the Nobel prize committee may not be neglecting India as they have done till now.

    Raghunathan’s comments interest me. I have taught computer science for several years and as a result I had no choice but to look at set theory with some seriousness. For my outlandish honest views see my MetaMathBlog at .

  5. First, let’s focus on the subject at hand, namely the curious omission of George Sudarshan from the Nobel honours he deserved. If the Nobel prize is regarded as a high water mark of achievement it is because the leading figures were crowned with Nobel laurels and in the sciences at least, features the A-team. It is all very well to say that the work is its own reward and one must be abstemious about prizes and such like. However, the asymmetric criteria which appear to operate when the work of a Westerner is judged against an Asian, is simply unacceptable. Asia has entered the world system with China and India as the engines of growth in the world economy and under these changed circumstances, the Nobel awards system has to keep in step. Unlike Kannan Nambiar, I am quite sure ‘which way the honor would go’ if George Sudarshan receives the prize. First, to Sudarshan of course, then to the physics fraternity within and outside of the Royal Swedish Academy for making the right decision, to those who have had the gumption to protest against the cavalier disregard of the contributions of non-Westerners and last but not least to India and its Asian neighbours. I hope Kannan Nambiar’s feeling that the neglect of India will stop from now on is right. It is unfortunate that the West has not adapted itself sufficiently to changing realities and is caught in a time-warp.

    On the unrelated issue of Narayanan’s comment, perhaps Kannan Nambiar should take a look. I’ve passed on material that Narayanan sent me to people in the area, but have not got any positive feedback so far. If Kannan Nambiar could take a look at it, that would be all to the good.

  6. i never sent you any material [paper] ranjit ~ did you get it from your brother arun kumar ? if so you should have had the courtesy to tell me where all you have sent them ~ incidentally ,what are the papers you have with you
    or cds ~
    SEE THAT THEY DONT STEAL ~

    i have infinite contempt for penrose hawkins etc ~ they are heading for putrid hells where cantor’s tongue is reaching a drop of water infinitely far away, with an ever growing tongue ~ he is experiencing infinite thirst ~ these dull mlechaa bastards talking big ! the Indian “sudra” who stands by these will become worms in their faecal matter for ever with a human memory in tact ~ darwin, freud, marx, mao etc. are all awaiting their eternal putrid company.

    ranjit , “people in the area” wont like their MSC BEING INVALIDATED AND THOUSANDS OF PHDS ~ 80 % OF BOURBAKI TOO ~ OM NAMA SHIVAAYA

    dear kannan nambiar please give me your snail mail address. i will send you my ms and books as they are published. ~ i have lots to get into latex from chi writer and it is taking time. thank you for your open mind ~` as a computer scientist you have nothing to loose if cantor turns an idiot which he is . you also have no need to be jealous of me even if i have infinite transcendentals named after me! i am an alien !

    i have completely laid bare the errors of Set theory and conitinnum hypothesis analyzing cohen’s book fully ~ it is in my computer from 1995 -6 ~ but then the revelations of power series transcendentals came[ for three years 1995 -98 ] when i was writing an appendix on “irrational numbers” for that book ~ this distracted me. i intend to publish this book too soon.

  7. i met prof. glauber recently and he seems to be a very smart person on the other hand i don’t work in the fielf of quantum optics hence am unaware of the glauber-sudarshan controversy..im inquisitive about knowing more. can u tell me the papers of sudarshan and glauber?

  8. Revisiting this blog after a long time, I noticed the query by ‘someone’. The problem with the scandalous prize in 2005 had nothing to do with whether not the person in question was ‘very smart’ and to do the sleight of hand required, smartness is by no means a disqualification.

    In 2005, people in the know had told the awarders that to give Glauber a prize without rewarding Sudarshan would be unethical, but were informed that they had to give the prize to three people, rejecting the suggestion that two separate prizes could be given, one to two experimentalists and the other to theorists. This year, 2007, they forgot their scruples and gave the prize to two experimentalists for giant magnetoresistance.

    The facts are all out there in black and white. Further corroboration comes from the curious absence of the PRL paper of Glauber in 1963 mentioned in the ‘Advanced Information’ page (on which rests Glauber’s priority claim) from his Nobel lecture entitled ‘One hundred years of light quanta’. The reason for this is quite straightforward – the R-representation in his 1963 PRL paper did not make any sense. In his Phys Rev paper which he mentions, he took over Sudarshan’s representation, calling it the P-representation. As mentioned in an earlier posting, the publication ‘E. C. G. Sudarshan – Selected Scientific Papers’, (ed. Ranjit Nair, Principia, New Delhi, 2006) carries a note added in proof by C. L. Mehta examining the issue in minute detail, concluding that ‘..it is incomprehensible that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences should hand over credit for Sudarshan’s discoveries and formulations to someone else’.

    The groundswell of sympathy for Sudarshan generated by this bizarre turn of events led his associates, friends and students to organize conferences to celebrate his 75th birthday last year, in a remarkable display of solidarity, in Spain, USA and India. Let us hope that even though justice has been grievously denied, it will not be delayed much longer.

    The links:
    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2005/phyadv05.pdf
    http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/2005/glauber-lecture.pdf

  9. Hello Ranjit, Narayanan Here! I hope this letter is read by All concerened with science! First What is a nobel prize after all? Something trivial.
    I have my personal problem. I have listed the set of All Transcendentals Algorithmically and hence implicitly proved that the whole Goddamn Cantorian Set theory is Flawed. “The Axiom of Infinity” which says There Exists A limit Ordinal” is Exactly like saying Let “k” be the largest Natural number which is simply not acceptable to my intuition. But leaving aside Cantor Hilbert and the fraudulent transfinite induction(S) I have AN INFINITE VOLUMED [ tentatively 1500 pages roughly. ] WORK ON TRANSCENDENTALS TO SHOW! THE WORK WAS DONE BETWEEN 1995 AND 1998 ~ i HAVE BEEN TRYING TO GET IT SEEN BY THE AUTHORITIES IN HONOUR. MOST OF THEM REFUSED THE TIME. i MUST THANK PROF THRIVIKRAMAN [ EX. Prof Cochin UNiversity. ] who let me present a synopsis about this work at Pathanamthitta about two years ago. Can you just give me a lecture programme in your institute for a week say ? I will be honoured ! I write this as an old friend ~ Hope you listen and have the power to let me present my INFINITE CASE. SINCERELY narayanan raghunathan ~ I WILL SEND THE MANUSCRIPTS IF NEEDED .

    My book where I have listed The set of All transcendental numbers can be found here.

    http://auminfinitecosmoses.com/categories/view/34

    The book may be downloaded

    Roughly about a few thousand people have downloaded the book!

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