Share Your Thoughts

George Sudarshan has just come in from his garden, watering can in hand. As he shuts the door of the back porch, something catches his attention. “Look!” he says, pointing to the iridescent blur that is a hummingbird, hovering over a feeder outside. It is hard to imagine—at first sight—that the man with the watering can is one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists. Along with his wife, G. Bhamathi, who is also a physicist, he maintains a lush sub-tropical garden behind his house in a suburb of Austin, Texas. The same awe and delight that the hummingbird inspires motivates him to study nature’s subtler wonders.

Consider how bewilderingly diverse the physical universe is: sunsets, starlight, ocean waves rolling into a sandy beach, a ball tracing a familiar trajectory in the air. A physicist looks for order in this profusion of phenomena, for connections between disparate things that can be formulated into concise mathematical statements called Laws of Nature. If we conceive of the universe as a great symphony, it is the job of the physicist to determine how each musical phrase is constructed, how they are woven together, and what the underlying musical themes may be.

George Sudarshan is one of the scientists privileged to glimpse some of that underlying order and beauty. Born in 1931, he grew up in villages near Kottayam, Kerala. His mother taught him to read and write and introduced him to the magic of very large numbers. Mathematics fascinated him from an early age, and as a boy he would often tutor children two grades above him in the subject. Then, he says, “I discovered physics through my elder brother’s undergraduate texts.”
It was physics that led him from Kottayam’s palm-fringed waterways and placid lakes to the cold northern latitudes of Rochester, New York. Here, as a graduate student, he worked with the distinguished physicist Robert Marshak on a problem that had long defied a solution.

It had to do with a mysterious sub-nuclear force called the Weak force, which is responsible for the phenomenon of radioactivity. Although other fundamental forces such as gravity and electromagnetism are well known to us, a complete understanding of the Weak force had eluded the best of physicists. Armed with rigorous training in physics and mathematics, Sudarshan began to study the experimental data, and, in a moment of insight, came to the conclusion that “some of the experiments had to be wrong!”

Astonishingly, that proved to be the case. Four experiments were re-done and the new results concurred with Sudarshan’s ideas. The “Left-handed V-A theory of Weak Interactions,” authored by Sudarshan and Marshak, satisfactorily explained one of the four fundamental forces of nature. It was a staggering feat for a graduate student.

Now in his 70s, Sudarshan can look back on a career filled with many flashes of intuition. Author of nearly 500 scientific papers as well as a couple of hundred essays on philosophy and popular science, he is currently a distinguished professor at the University of Texas in Austin.

Sudarshan says that imagination and intuition have a vital role to play in the life of a scientist. A scientist trained in the rigors of his or her discipline must use the creative faculties as well as the guiding light of logic to illuminate nature’s secrets. Back in the ’60s he and his coworkers came up with the theory of particles that travel faster than light, a notion that seemed absurd then—yet the tachyon, as this particle is named, is now accepted as a theoretical possibility. Sudarshan hopes that the tachyon will one day be discovered, because “it may make communication possible” across vast reaches of space. Then, he says, we will no longer be “prisoners of the solar system.”

Through his career Sudarshan has continued to explore quantum physics, the field that embraces the bizarre world of the atom. He has developed fundamental ideas of quantum optics, an area concerned with the dance of photons, particles of light, amidst sub-atomic particles. Today he is exploring quantum information theory, which may, in the future, lead to super-fast, innovative computers.

A satisfying life in science, and yet Sudarshan’s career has had its difficult moments. Several times he has been denied credit for his work, even though he has published papers far in advance of other claimants. When Sudarshan and Marshak developed the theory of the Weak force, a result that some have described as worthy of the Nobel Prize, they published their results in a conference report. Several months later two famous scientists published a very similar idea in a physics journal. Controversy erupted as Sudarshan and Marshak tried to stake their claim, but despite the paper evidence, people attributed the theory of the Weak force to the two more famous scientists. Only recently has the record been cleared. Similarly, the theory of the tachyon was, for a while, incorrectly attributed to others.

Such experiences are enough to make anyone bitter, but Sudarshan does not like to dwell on them. He reminisces only briefly. “It used to make me angry,” he says, “but I don’t think about it so much now.”

He has also experienced the opposite: prizes and honors from several universities and research institutions, and a Padma Bhushan (Order of the Lotus) from the president of India, which is one of India’s highest civilian awards. While all the recognition is gratifying, he tends to keep aloof from prizes and politics. The years have lent him an outlook that is directly inspired from the Indian philosophical tradition. Just as modern Western physicists quote the ancient Greeks, so Sudarshan’s speech and writings are peppered with references to the Upanishads, “the succinct expression of spirituality and philosophy.”

For him, the scientist is “a rishi, a seeker and seer of truth.” Science, he says, must be pursued for its own ends, without thought of monetary or practical gain. The moment of inspiration—during which Ego and Self disappear and one is completely immersed in awareness of the Truth—is familiar not only to the scientist but to the artist and the truly spiritual person as well. It is in this deepest sense that Sudarshan views science and spirituality as compatible—different ways of experiencing and describing the universe, but not mutually exclusive.

As far as the practice of science is concerned, Sudarshan is in a unique position to comment. Laypersons may be surprised to know that although science is concerned with the search for truth, it is also driven by certain unproven assumptions, chief among which is the faith that the universe is comprehensible. Another paradigm is reductionism, which has dominated science since its inception. Reductionism is a philosophical position that undergirds much of contemporary thinking: an object (such as a clock) or a phenomenon is understood by breaking it down or reducing it into its constituent parts. The mainly mechanistic view of the human body that is commonplace in medical science is an example of reductionism. It is a powerful way of looking at the world, and often very useful. Reductionism has taken science a long way, but some scientists, including Sudarshan, think that we are reaching the limits of its usefulness.

A glance at the popular science section of any bookstore will reveal a plethora of books on such subjects as “The Ultimate Theory,” or the “Theory of Everything”—containing ideas promulgated by such leading lights as Stephen Hawking and Edward Witten, for example. The idea is that perhaps the laws of nature as we know them now can be reduced to one law, one theory, one equation, from which we can derive everything we know about the physical world. This notion is a result of the ultimate reductionist endeavor: a sub-branch of physics known as particle physics, which seeks to answer one of humankind’s oldest questions: what is the world made of? A question asked by the Vaisheshika scholars of ancient India, by Democritus of Greece, both of whom postulated different versions of the atomic hypothesis, which culminated in Dalton’s “chemical atoms.” Beyond the level of atoms there are other ghostly denizens, the particles of the nucleus such as protons and neutrons, constituted in turn by the quarks, and perhaps even more minute entities called strings. The hope of the modern particle physicist is to find, in the ultimate indivisible particle, the theory that explains everything.

For Sudarshan, reductionism can only be taken so far. He is among a small, lonely, and select group of physicists that do not believe there is such a thing as a Theory of Everything. “Ultimate theory is laughable. You cannot explain how water begins to boil or how it behaves at very low temperatures, nor can you explain the diversity of ice crystals. If you cannot explain this, how can you have a theory of everything?”

Many of Sudarshan’s ideas are elaborated in a book Doubt and Certainty (Perseus Press) that he co-authored with his former student, cosmologist Tony Rothman. It is a playful and instructive excursion into science: what we know and what we don’t (or can’t) know.

He comments that contemporary modern culture and science, although filled with great ideas, are driven by a monolithic approach that presupposes the existence of hierarchy, of a single supreme law from which all else follows. He finds a more complex “pantheistic” approach to science far more satisfying. Perhaps there are many laws that constitute a part of some elegant and complex whole, just as different threads may form a beautiful tapestry.

In the dominant Western cultural tradition, there is always a push toward progress. “Cut trees on a property, but call it development,” he says, smiling impishly. Similarly, in science one is expected always to advance the cause, to push the frontiers, to explore new terrain. He finds this attitude limiting. What drives him is not a desire to open new territory but to reflect (which, in his case often does deliver new insights). He enjoys “thinking about problems simply because they are interesting. People ask: in what way will this advance science? My aim is not to advance science. To be a scientist means to be doing science. Would you ask a musician how, while playing music, he advances the cause of music?”

He continues to describe differences between the current Western view of the world and the traditional Indian. “American culture says you have a right to pursue happiness. But we say that your essential nature is ananda, that which remains when all random activities are removed. So when understanding is part of your nature, you don’t “pursue” understanding. There is a dichotomy, a difference in the way we decipher the universe.

“The world view of the rishis and the Upanishads represents to me an adequate spiritual background. It does not specify a religion, nor does it exclude any. The questioning attitude of the legendary Viswamitra, who abandoned the throne after encountering the spiritual path, is essentially of the same kind as that of St. Thomas, who wanted a direct proof of the resurrected Christ. The clashes in the name of religion do not come from personal, religious, or spiritual experience but from people blindly following the leaders, the majority of whom seem to have had no spiritual experience.”

With his talk of spirituality and science, Sudarshan is often solicited by proponents of New Age thinking, who babble glibly about such things as quantum consciousness. Unlike many of them, however, he does not compromise scientific rigor in his attempts to ask larger questions about the universe and our place in it. Words such as “quantum” in the lexicon of science have a very precise meaning, and Sudarshan disapproves of the misuse of scientific terminology.

At the same time, he is not apologetic about going his own way. He says he has learned this from the liberating individualism of the great seers of Indian tradition.

“I believe simple living and high thinking are very important. This also means you don’t hunt in packs. In those things that are important to you, do your own thing. If you are a painter you don’t paint so that it looks like everybody else’s work. I have my own ideas; I have devoted a lot of time to think about them. I am not bound by what others say.”

Now, more than ever, it is important for the world’s citizens to be not only scientifically literate but to understand and critique the way science is done and how it is applied. Science is part of the common human cultural heritage; to do science is to experience beauty at its deepest and subtlest. If science is a darkling plain or a foreign language to most of us, we are privileged indeed to have George Sudarshan—scientist and philosopher—as its illuminator and interpreter.

Vandana Singh writes imaginative literature and popular science, and teaches physics at a college near Boston. Her first book for children has just been published by Zubaan Press, New Delhi.