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Wednesday 25 December 2013

In conversation with Professor ECG. Sudarshan

Interview by GK. Rajesh
Prof ECG. Sudarshan
Professor Ennackal Chandy George Sudarshan, better known as E.C.G. Sudarshan is one of the most eminent theoretical physicists of 20th century. Born in Puthuppally, Kottayam district [Kerala] India, he cut a niche for himself in theoretical physics at a tender age. Sudarshan was just 26 when he first proposed the V-A theory of weak interactions as part of his PhD. The work was path breaking and still widely acclaimed. At 82 he continues to be active in research, teaching, writing and interacting with people. In spite of being nominated many times, he never received the Nobel Prize: a matter subject to controversy. Sheldon Lee Glashow, Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg in 1979 and Roy J. Glauber in 2005 were awarded Nobel Prize for their work, built upon the theory of weak interactions originally developed by Sudarshan and Robert Marshak in 1957. Sudarshan doesn’t hide indignation:
“What I did for my PhD thesis in 1957 was probably one of the most important things in physics and they (the Nobel Foundation) should have nominated me at that time. If not then ten years later. No they didn’t. Instead they gave the prize to somebody who did something on top of it. I usually say if you want to award somebody you take the person who built the ground floor, not someone on the second and third floor. That is what they did. Glashow, Salam and Weinberg did the next step to what I did. Without the first step they couldn’t have done it”
The Nobel Prize is the greatest laurel in the academic world and is every scientist’s dream. But is it administered fairly? Professor Sudarshan is critical of the Nobel committee:
“I can assure you that it is not impartial. For example the prize given to Glauber, it is my prize. They gave it to him for things which I did. The prize is coveted because it is identified with excellence, and the majority of people who have got it, have gotten it for very good reasons. The very first prize was given to Rontgen, who discovered X-rays. At that time it was because of the fact that people recognised that X-rays were very important for medicine. But afterwards they gave it for all kinds of things. Like my friend Glauber got the prize for . . . I don’t know what; it can’t be because of the excellence of his work.”
The ‘wiki page’ on Nobel prize controversies tells us that Sudarshan’s indignation is quite reasonable. The Nobel foundation has a long history of denial of its coveted medal to deserving nominees. MK. Gandhi was nominated at least five times between 1937 and 1948. The Nobel Committee later acknowledged their mistake in 2006. Geir Lundestad, Secretary of Nobel Committee said "... the greatest omission in our 106 year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace prize. Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace prize, whether Nobel committee can do without Gandhi is the question..." Dmitry Mendeleyev for chemistry (the periodic table of elements fame), Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Emile Zola and Mark Twain for literature ... the list of eminent non-laureates is quite impressive. But Professor Sudarshan is still optimistic, as he has been awarded the prestigious Dirac Medal in 2010 which is held as a pre-curser to Nobel. Sudarshan muses:
“When I received the Dirac medal (that was the tenth year of the medal) many people had received it before me. Almost all of them received Nobel Prize subsequently. So this is an auspicious sign. I think it would be nice. I will enjoy it very much. But my life is not depended on it”
Independent India has no Nobel medal in science. The Prize won by sir C.V. Raman in 1930 has been India’s first and last. It took 38 years for yet another scientist of Indian origin, to qualify this distinction. Har Gobind Khurana (1968), S. Chandrasekhar (1983) and Venkitaraman Ramakrishnan (2009) followed Raman’s foot prints but built their research career in foreign lands affiliated to foreign universities. Hence the Nobel foundation doesn’t count these medals as India’s.
Professor Sudarshan lives in America. At heart he is a Malayalee who speaks in the local idiom,  punctuated with Sanskrit and Malayalam quotes.  While Raman built his science in India, Sudarshan left. Would it have been the same for him, had he stayed put? Or is it that we still lack facilities for doing decent science in India?
“Most of the people misunderstand the situation. It is not the facilities there. It is a place where scholars are there. If you are a scholar you want to be with other scholars, someone who appreciates what you do. Now it may be that one person goes abroad, other stays put and they are both doing very well. But generally what one is looking for is somebody who is scientifically competent. When people talk about things abroad, everybody talks about things abroad because it is good laboratories. I don’t need a laboratory. I just walk around with my hands in my pocket, occasionally take out a pencil and write something in a piece of paper. So it is not that. It is having people of the certain kind coming and the statement that are made saying that people are going abroad and that is affecting the country; that is not true, because if they do not go abroad they will create problems. You know the big scientific establishments are always sulky and the people sitting at the top are like kings of old days.  But science is done by some people who are doing things and you want another person who is a scientist who can challenge you. If he agrees that what you say is good, you feel good because he will not say it unless he has to. So it is that which is attracting people.”
Facilities and people apart, is India’s scientific environment conducive to productive research? The World Bank’s data base indicates that during 2010 the number of patents filed by Indian scientists from outside India was four times of those filed from India. China and Russia have a different story to tell. 75% of China’s and 67% of Russia’s patent applications were filed from within those countries. This is indicative, not only of the high levels of self-sufficiency these countries have attained in scientific research, but also of the fact that the number of scientists leaving these countries for research is much lesser compared to India, Brazil and S. Africa. Professor Sudarshan is critical about our scientific environment.
“When plants grow, they grow. You like roses to grow and thorns not to grow. But then they come together. So you cannot say that science is doing all the right things. But the number of scientists today compared with when we were students is amazing. There were no scientists those days. There were some names people mentioned but there were no scientists. The people who taught us were people who learnt a little more and sometimes did not know very much more. But now there are scientists everywhere. The amount of scientific research that is being carried out now and the level at which it is being carried out is very high. But could it be better? Of course it could be. Whenever you produce things according to a government plan or something like that rather than organic growth, then there is always a case of overbuilding.  There are big national laboratories which do not do anything. There is a joke that somebody went to NPL, National Physical Laboratory to investigate the research institution.
‘How is that place?’ Someone asked
‘The place is dead’
‘But isn’t there any stink about it?’
‘No no, it is air conditioned’
With Dr. Bhamathy Sudarshan
NPL did not do a worthwhile thing at all for first few decades of its existence. Nevertheless British had a NPL and we too wanted to have one; same name. But at that time the universities were not given any money. No research in the universities. By the time you get your masters degree that is the end of the thing. There is no more. The other people who taught us were also having master’s degree only. Now it s very different because there are so many people who have PhD; not only PhD but they continue to do research. So the level of scientific research has increased but it is not clear that its product is always good. In India the pace of research is going up except that this is a very awkward growth. It is like a tumour; that some institutions and some groups of people have so much money and they have no problem about looking for God’s particles and such nonsense. But there is no money for the universities.”
At 82, despite difficulty in walking, Professor Sudarshan is as energetic as a school boy, radiating knowledge and charm all around. Speaking in his deep, gritty voice often transgressing the physical boundaries of science into philosophy, liberally quoting from Vedas, Upanishads and Bible, he cuts a sage like and enigmatic personality. You are easily drawn to him and get totally won over. He says “. . . when I was young I was impatient with fools. Now that I have grown old, I can speak to any one for any length of time . . .” and laughs a hearty laughter. In this man the whole country pins its hope for yet another Nobel medal.

Also see by the author: Science Reporter  Science India    


Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
This is with reference to the interview with Prof. ECG. Sudarshan, by G.K.Rajesh (Science Reporter,January,2014)

As I was an young aspirant in scientific research, I met Dr.E.C.G. Sudarshan in the year 1988, when he was the Director of Institute of Mathematical Sciences,Chennai. In my personal experience, really, he is not only great scientist but also a great humanist like Albert Einstein. I wish to share my experience with my meeting with Prof.Dr.ECG with the Science Reporter readers.

After seeing an interview of Prof.ECG in Chennai DD, from my native town Tiruchi, I went to meet Prof. ECG at Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. At first when he enquired about me and my journey, he immediately gave me his Director pass and asked me to take breakfast at the institute canteen. Then he spent more than 45 minutes, in between the discussion he offered me a cup of tea. After noticing the difficulties in my English conversation with him, he started to spoke to me in the regional language Tamil (my mother tongue). I was stunned by these two magnanimous acts of Prof. ECG. There after I met several Indian scientists and communicate with several scientists both in India and abroad but I never met a man with hospitality like Prof. ECG.

About research he told me, “stretch a map, study the whole area and then come to the particular area.” His excellent advice was not only helpful to my personal research in seismology but also very useful for my professional NDT field to attain the highest international certification ASNT NDT Level III.

When talking about Albert Einstein, he told, in the year 1905 Einstein was doing research in three entirely different fields- Brownian motion, Photoelectric effect and relativity.

When shared his work experience with Dr.C.V.Raman, one fine morning when he entered into Dr.C.V.Raman's room. Prof.Raman plucked one rose petal from his table vase and asked what it is ? It is rose petal sir. What is its colour? It is red in colour sir. Why it is red in colour? Because of pigment sir. What is pigment? I do not know sir. Sudarshan you do not say, I do not know. You take this petal, study it under the microscope and come and tell me what it is? Dr.Raman told.

Then Prof.ECG told me a story from Holy Bible. “Once the God appeared before the King Solomon and asked him what he wants wisdom or wealth? King Solomon prefers wisdom and not wealth. The God asked him why he preferred wisdom, the king replied, once wisdom comes everything will come automatically.”

He treated me very polite and gentle manner in the whole stretch discussion. Though he could not pursue in India but I could not forget my meeting with Prof. ECG.

Though there after I lost his contact but with my village residential level, I successfully finished in the findings of scientifically verifiable earthquake precursor for the entire regions of the world without pursuing my career in research institute.

My peer reviewed paper published connecting the rainfall and the regional earthquakes is with the reference:

P. Pillai, "Exploring E Turkey: Rainfall Precursor Predicts 100% Earthquake in a Consistent Manner in Just 2 Weeks," International Journal of Geosciences, Vol. 4 No. 4, 2013, pp. 759-765. doi: 10.4236/ijg.2013.44069.

With Thanks&Regards
SQS Institute of NDT
Tiruchi, Tamilnadu-620001

Rajesh GK said...
A detailed interview published in Science Reporter

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