The Unsung Heroes: Scientists From India Who Did Nobel-Worthy Work But Never Got The Prize — Part 1

Aravindan Neelakandan

Oct 07, 2023, 11:14 AM | Updated 11:18 AM IST

Meghnad Saha, George Sudarshan, and Satyendra Nath Bose.
Meghnad Saha, George Sudarshan, and Satyendra Nath Bose.
  • From a new state of matter to quantum biology and stellar evolution, the contributions of three great physicists have shaped science.
  • However, though nominated multiple times for the Nobel, they never got it. Why?
  • The Nobel Prize, established by the will of Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel in 1895, is widely regarded as the most prestigious award in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

    The first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901, five years after Nobel’s death.

    In 1968, a sixth prize in economic sciences was added by Sweden’s central bank in memory of Nobel.

    However, the Nobel Prize has also been criticised for its biases and controversies over the years.

    Here we explore the cases of some brilliant Indian contributors who deserved to win the Nobel Prize, but were overlooked by the Nobel committee.

    Despite their groundbreaking contributions to various fields of science, these unsung heroes never received the recognition they merited.

    Statistics Of Satyendra Nath Bose

    In his late 20s, Satyendra Nath Bose developed a statistical method to describe photons.

    In 1924, he sent his work to Albert Einstein, who recognised its significance and collaborated with Bose. This collaboration led to the development of Bose-Einstein statistics (BES).

    Particles that obey these statistics are now known as Bosons. Bosons are characterised by having integral spin values. They often carry fundamental properties of matter, such as electromagnetism and subatomic particle interactions.

    Photons (particles of electromagnetism), gluons (energy-exchange particles of strong forces between quarks), and Higgs Bosons (which confer mass through the interactions of the Higgs field) are all examples of Bosons. If gravitons, the hypothetical particles responsible for gravity, are discovered, they would belong to the Boson family.

    Satyendra Bose despite his contributions was denied Nobel Prize. [His letter to Einstein & visualisation of Bose-Einstein condensate]
    Satyendra Bose despite his contributions was denied Nobel Prize. [His letter to Einstein & visualisation of Bose-Einstein condensate]

    Prediction of Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), a state of matter where particles merge into the same quantum state at ultra-low temperatures, is a result of BES.

    Today, one interesting and important factor for the resurgence of interest in BEC is due to the burgeoning field of quantum biology. Now, don’t mistake this for new-age flimflam of Deepak Chopra types.

    Quantum biology is hard science that employs quantum phenomena to investigate some important phenomena in biology, from geo-magnetic reception in bird migration to photosynthesis, and even consciousness (though that remains speculative as in the Penrose-Hameroff model).

    Moreover, BEC could also shed light on our understanding of black holes.

    For instance, it might be possible to comprehend quantum gravity by considering the black hole itself as a BEC of hypothetical gravitons. The work of Bose has since triggered cutting edge science both theoretically and technologically unravelling the mysteries of our universe.

    Bose made contributions of profound significance through his mathematical physics. His work, which today holds immense implications, was not overlooked even then.

    Photons formed the nucleus of numerous pivotal researches in physics. Post-independence, Bose’s name was put forth for the esteemed Nobel Prize multiple times, all in recognition of his groundbreaking BES.

    Yet, in an inexplicable twist of fate, the Nobel committee turned away from his name. His brilliance, it seems, was met with an undeserving silence.

    The echo of this oversight reverberates through the corridors of scientific history, a poignant reminder of recognition that remained just out of reach.

    A karma yogi and an admirer of Swami Vivekananda, he never cared. But we as a nation should care to honour his memory that even a Nobel Prize could not touch.

    Equation Of Meghnad Saha

    Coming from an impoverished background, this brilliant physicist was getting right into the surface of the stars while sitting in the college rooms of colonial Bengal. In 1920, when he was around 26, he formulated what is today famous as 'Saha ionization equation'.

    Saha's equation is crucial to understand stellar surface physics. Though Crompton recommended him, he was denied Nobel.
    Saha's equation is crucial to understand stellar surface physics. Though Crompton recommended him, he was denied Nobel.

    When a neutral atom has an electron removed from it then it becomes an ion. This happens because of energy transfer.

    Saha’s equation studies such ionizations as they happen in a gaseous medium using statistical mechanics to describe the ratio of the number of ions in each ionization stage to the number of neutral atoms.

    In this, Saha’s equation takes into account temperature, pressure, and the energy levels of the electrons in the atoms. This basically becomes an equation for what happens in the ionization of atoms in the outer layers of the stars.

    The equation changed the way we study and understand the spectra of the stars. Using Saha’s equation, we can now know from the spectral lines obtained from the stars, about its temperature, its surface pressure and its chemical composition.

    From understanding the surface temperature of the star, the ionization as it happens there and its chemical nature we can also understand the evolution of the star.

    Thus Saha’s equation helps us understand stellar life cycle. The ions thus formed and the electrons thus released are also active. They recombine as they ionize.

    The balance between the rate of ionization (formation of ions from neutral atoms) and rate of recombination (combining of electrons with ions to form neutral atoms) is called ionization equilibrium. Saha’s equation helps astronomers quantify the ionization equilibrium.

    Grasping the concept of ionization equilibrium is key to unravelling the mysteries of our universe’s early evolution. The infant universe with its unimaginably extreme temperature and intense pressure due to its dense nature, would be in the state of ionization equilibrium.

    This scenario elevates the significance of Saha’s equation beyond comprehending individual stars, which in itself is astounding. It broadens our perspective, offering insights into the early universe and proving indispensable for cosmology.

    Among his proponents was none other than Arthur Compton, a Nobel laureate himself, renowned for his groundbreaking discovery of the Compton Effect and his pivotal role in the Manhattan Project.

    Compton saw the genius in Saha and championed his nomination twice, first in 1937 and again in 1940.

    Yet, despite this recognition from such esteemed peers, the Nobel committee turned a blind eye. They dismissed Saha’s monumental equation as merely a ‘useful application’ rather than a ‘discovery’, a justification that seems rather flimsy when one considers the profound impact of Saha’s work.

    But Saha’s equation shall live always as long as in every star atoms get ionized and ions get recombined.

    Effect Of Sudarshan

    As seen earlier, quantum biology (QB) is an emerging field. Naturally some very minute but crucial processes of life are being studied for the effects of quantum level phenomenon in them. One such is the mystery of how birds migrate and how do they know the path across continents?

    When a photon strikes a bird’s retina, it interacts with a photosensitive protein molecule known as a cytochrome. This interaction ionizes the cytochrome into a pair, creating an intermediary pair that exists for an incredibly brief moment.

    In this fleeting instant, before they recombine, the Earth’s magnetic field influences them, affecting their recombination alignment. The ensuing biochemical processes provide the bird with a sense of location.

    The problem with this scenario is that the ion-pair recombine 10 times faster than the time it takes for the magnetic field of earth to impact the quantum properties of the pair — in this case their spins.

    In 2008, a physicist from the University of Crete, Iannis Kominis came up with a brilliant solution backed by experimental evidence.

    Kominis resolved the problem by applying Quantum Zeno Effect (QZE). QZE very simply put means just this frequent observation of a quantum system delays its further evolution. Here, act of observation does not mean ‘seeing’ as in ordinary sense of the term.

    It means interaction with the environment of the micro-realm where the quantum system exists. It is the quantum properties of electrons of the radical ion-pair that is under question now.

    If the ionised molecular pair themselves form the ‘observing’ environment then the electron will have its quantum collapse ‘frozen’ for enough time allowing the magnetic field of the earth to influence the orientation of their quantum spins. QZE is invoked with respect to photosynthesis. Even an inverse-Zeno effect is invoked with respect to the origin of life.

    Physicist George Sudarshan discovered Quantum Zeno Effect. Though nominated multiple times for Nobel, he was never awarded the prize.
    Physicist George Sudarshan discovered Quantum Zeno Effect. Though nominated multiple times for Nobel, he was never awarded the prize.

    The QZE, now a fundamental component of Quantum Biology textbooks, was discovered by two Indian physicists, Ennackal Chandy George Sudarshan and Baidyanath Misra.

    While working in the United States, they published a paper in 1977 titled "The Zeno’s paradox in quantum theory". QZE has since become integral to our understanding of quantum mechanics, especially in the study of real-life quantum systems.

    It was not merely a theoretical construct, but a prediction that was observed and proven 13 years after Sudarshan and Misra announced its existence.

    Its significance continues to grow due to its role in quantum computation and its contribution to our understanding of the role of quantum mechanics in biological processes, making it a cornerstone of emerging fields.

    Sudarshan also pioneered the mathematical formalism of dynamical maps for studying open quantum systems, which are systems that interact with their environment.

    The Glauber-Sudarshan representation, also known as the P representation, is a mathematical tool used in quantum optics to study the interaction between light and matter at a microscopic level.

    In addition to QZE and the P representation, Sudarshan's other notable contributions include the proposal of faster-than-light hypothetical particles called tachyons, open quantum system theory, and quantum master equations, among others.

    George Sudarshan, a renowned physicist, was nominated for the Nobel Prize nine times. Despite being a key contributor to the P representation, the 2005 Nobel Prize was awarded to Roy J Glauber. Many in the scientific community believed Sudarshan should have shared this honour, but the Nobel committee decided otherwise.

    Sudarshan, a profound 'Vedantin', often quoted the Phala Shruti of Vishnu Sahasranama, emphasising that science should be pursued as a sadhana to realise truth. The Nobel Prize missed an opportunity to be associated with such a Vedantic physicist.

    However, the Indian government has the chance to honour this distinguished son of India with an international physics medal and a medal commemorating his efforts to integrate Vedantic principles with science. This would be a fitting tribute to his remarkable contributions and enduring legacy.

    But the list does not end here.

    (This was part one of a two-part article.)

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