Ennackal Chandy George Sudarshan made groundbreaking discoveries in the realm of quantum physics in a 50-year career.
A tribute to a genius physicist and a profound Vedantin.
Ennackal Chandy George Sudarshan was not just another physicist. He was a physicist who saw in his pursuit of science a spiritual sadhana. His physics was organically integrated with his Vedanta.
The discoveries made by Sudarshan are today becoming more and more relevant. One such discovery is Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE). It was formulated by Sudarshan and B Misra in 1977. According to QZE, an observed quantum system changes at a rate slower than an unobserved quantum system. In 2001, physicist Mark Raizen observed QZE in actual quantum systems. Today, the emerging field, which examines the role of quantum processes in biological phenomena, looks at some important biological mysteries like bird navigation. In fact, Neill Lambert and his co-workers use the QZE in 'the radical ion pair mechanism' in avian magnetoreception to explain the mystery of bird navigation. Another interesting contribution of Sudarshan is the proposal of tachyons, (which he proposed along with O M P Bilaniuk and V K Deshpande) in 1962. These are theoretical faster-than-light particles. The creative output of Sudarshan to science continued for more than five decades.
In 1999, he co-authored Doubt And Certainty: The Celebrated Academy Debates On Science, Mysticism Reality with Tony Rothman. It is a very interesting and important book. While the authors point out how the Eastern mysticism does have important insights to offer to humanity with the worldview that is being unveiled by quantum mechanics, they also point out where to draw the line when people like Deepak Chopra use the Q word or rather abuse it for peddling questionable speculations.
Why does one pursue science? In a TV interview to a Malayalam channel, the physicist answered by quoting Vishnu Sahasra Nama (VSN) - “A Brahmin pursues it for Vedantic knowledge; Kshatriya pursues it for victory; Vaishya pursues it for wealth and Shudra pursues it for comfort.” Then he pointed out that none of such motivations are in themselves inferior or superior to them. One of the important insights of Sudarshan was his observation that the psychology of discovery has a spiritual dimension to it. After pointing out that the very first name in VSN is viswam - the universe, he explained:
The openness of scientists in the moment of discovery is one of impersonal knowledge manifesting itself within, rather than one of discovering something outside oneself. This particular point deserves emphasis because many scientists are very careful to avoid any talk about the role of their personal experience in their discoveries. ... In the Hindu tradition, however, personal experience is the ultimate authority with regard to all things. ... Within my tradition, much emphasis is placed on the moment of discovery. Such insights need not be earth-shaking. They could be something quite trivial or small, but nonetheless they involve discovery.George Sudarshan, ‘One Quest, One Knowledge’ In ‘Science and the Spiritual Quest’ (Ed. Richardson Et Al), Routledge, 2002
The year was 2004 when I was writing popular science articles in Tamil. I wrote to Sudarshan to clarify some doubts I had and he replied to me - someone from an obscure corner of India, and whose writing may not have been exactly brilliant. I had asked him if he could enlighten me on the parallel between the differences in Sankya-Buddhist philosophies and a debate between Schrodinger and Heisenberg. He explained patiently and the answer is worth quoting here. Here’s his explanation on Feynman’s approach to the world of subatomic particles:
Feynman looked on a positron as a negative-energy electron propagating ‘backwards in time’. If a positron went from A at time t1 to B at time t2, A would lose energy and B would gain energy, and t2 is later than t1. But the same result is there if a negative-energy electron went from B at time t2 to A at time t1. This is ‘backwards’ in time. The great merit of Feyman’s way of looking at things is that calculations involving electrons, positrons and photons are considerably simplified. It is this ease in computation that made Feynman’s way of looking at things very popular. Otherwise it is not a new theory.
He touched on the problem of tachyons too. As he pointed out the inherent paradoxes that emerge from the approaches, he eloquently and effortlessly showed a Vedantic flash too:
In the theory of tachyons such a reinterpretation is necessary to make sense of observations on tachyons. I wrote a paper with O.M.P. Bilanuik in American Journal of Physics. But whatever interpretation you use, any classical picture of a quantum system leads to paradoxes and intensities. For example, Feynman’s picture would say electrons with momentum p goes from A to B. But if you know the energy and momentum precisely, you cannot determine the space-time locations. So also the photon; for visible light it is about 4000 Å but the size of the atom is only about 1 Å. How can a photon originate from the atom? [This is maya, the deliberate spontaneous misuse of models.]
Then he ended the long reply with these unforgettable lines:
With regard to methods of Schrodinger and Heisenberg on quantum mechanics, they started from basically different models. Schrodinger used smooth wave equations while Heisenberg used matrix arrays to describe the positions and momentum. Within a year, Schrodinger proved the equivalence of the two by observing that the partial derivatives occurring in the wave equation were, in fact, infinite dimensional matrices. A more substantial example is the view of Abhinava Gupta about the ‘ultimate experience’. ...
And I had wanted to interview him ever since, but somehow never got around to doing it. I have to end this article on a sad personal note as I feel a terrible sense of loss with the passing away of Ennackal Chandy George Sudarshan yesterday (14 May) aged 86. That even the Nobel Prize lost an opportunity to honour itself for sidestepping this great physicist is no consolation. Nevertheless, to this great man, who combined in him a genius physicist and a profound Vedantin, the ideal homage would be to spread the harmony of self discovery and scientific discovery that he lived for - through articles, our curriculum and our culture.,