In a country which hungers for Nobel recognition, E C George Sudarshan will be remembered as an opportunity missed. That is reductive, for his contribution to theoretical physics is immense and does not require the validation of Stockholm. The thousands of quantum physicists whose work he has influenced, including the iconic Richard Feynman, who acknowledged him, and Wolfgang Pauli, with whom he published, will bear testimony to his importance. Besides, in a 1962 paper with O M P Bilaniuk and V K Deshpande, he had gladdened the hearts of science fiction writers by proposing the tachyon, which always travels faster than light. Tachyon drives did away with the dreary monotony of those long flights to Proxima Centauri.
But sadly, Sudarshan was indeed passed over for the Nobel. It was not in the same league as the enormity of Mahatma Gandhi being denied the Peace Prize, but it was no less unfair. In 2005, one half of the physics prize went to Roy J Glauber for his contribution, in a 1963 paper, to the quantum theory of optical coherence. However, the understanding of the phenomenon, which describes the difference between forms of light like a laser beam and candlelight, includes what’s known as the Sudarshan-Glauber representation. The community protested that Glauber had first dismissed and then appropriated Sudarshan’s representation, but Sudarshan was denied his share of the prize. Earlier, in 1979, the prize had gone to physicists who built on Sudarshan’s work as a student, while he was ignored.
Sudarshan was one of the last of the physicists who was deeply interested in Indian philosophy. In a long career spanning the US and India, he engaged with J Krishnamurti and found the time to lecture on Vedanta. Perhaps philosophy gave him the strength not to complain too much when he was denied a place at the high table of physics.