E.C.G. Sudarshan: The visionary who foresaw travelling faster than light

The 86-year-old scientist breathed his last at Texas on May 14, 2018


The scientist who formulated possibilities to travel faster than the speed of light limited by Einstein’s theory of relativity and thus created great amount of fascination in quantum mechanics during 1970s, is no more.

Ennackal Chandy George Sudarshan was a renowned physicist from India, who was nominated many times for the Nobel Prize in physics. He was well recognised by his peers, criticised for his approaches contrary to Einstein’s and so, never was successful in convincing the Swedish Nobel committee. His monumental contribution was the theoretical formulation of particles called Tachyon, which could possibly travel faster than light. In 1960s, he formulated the V-minus-A theory, which is a key postulate concerning weak nuclear force. It gave birth to quantum photonics, a new stream of study in physics. These studies resulted in expanding Einstein’s special theory of relativity beyond the speed of light and proposed quantum zeno effect which is also called the Turing paradox—a situation in which an unstable particle, if observed continuously, will never decay.

Even Einstein was trying without success for the grand unification theory of forces—the four fundamental forces being: strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, gravity and electromagnetism. Sudarshan proved theoretically that electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force are one, thus reducing the four fundamental forces to three.

Sudarshan was awarded Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, C.V. Raman award, Dirac Medal and Bose medal.

Sudarshan was born in Kottayam in Kerala on September 16, 1931. He studied in CMS College, Kottayam, and Madras University. As a student, his fascination for physics and mathematics ignited by his father and mother enabled him to develop as a researcher and teacher in theoretical physics in later years. While working at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), he met a famous particle physicist from Rochester, Professor Robert Eugene Marshak. In 1955, he enrolled for PhD at Rochester under Marshak. Later, he joined Syracuse University in New York as professor in 1964. Five years later, he joined University of Texas at Austin as professor and from 1970 onwards, for next 21 years, he held the position of director of Centre of Particle Theory at Texas. He was also the senior professor at Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore from 1971 to 1991 and was also the director of Institute of Mathematical Science in Chennai from 1964 to 1991.

Sudarshan was attracted to Hinduism and chose the name 'Sudarshan' in 1970. He was also interested in Vedanta studies. He got married to Lalitha Rao, daughter of former chief justice of the High Court of Mysore state, Nittur Srinivasa Rao—a famous Gandhian and a freedom fighter. Later, he got married to Bhamati, professor and head of department of physics at Madras University.

The V-minus-A theory was formulated in his PhD thesis, but got credited with Murray Gellman and Richard Feynman who published it after listening to Sudarshan on instruction from his guide Marshak. Though he was not fortunate enough to be selected for the Nobel Prize, his findings in quantum optics, described as Sudarshan-Glauber representation was able to describe any state of light under quantum mechanics principles. The controversy over awarding physicist Roy Glauber, the Nobel prize for physics in 2005 for this finding, is still on. His open letter to Swedish Academy expressing his anguish on crediting his work to others is well known.

Sudarshan left this world at 86 at Texas on May 14, 2018. He belongs to the lineage of great Indian scientists such as S. Chandrasekhar, S.N. Bose, Har Gobind Khorana and others who achieved great recognition through their fundamental work in science.

The author is director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram