Eminent scientist E.C. George Sudarshan on growing up in Kerala, his tryst with physics and on the state of research in India
The physicist Hans Bethe once said, “There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it.”
In the world of science, every so often we come across visionaries, ‘magicians’ in the words of Bethe, who dare to perceive the world in ways no one else has before. E.C. George Sudarshan is one of them. From formulating fundamental ideas in particle physics to understanding the quantum nature of light, Dr. Sudarshan’s contributions to physics read like a fascinating chapter from the book of breakthroughs in science of the past century.
Born in Kottayam in 1931, E C G Dr. Sudarshan studied at the CMS College and later at the Madras Christian College, the University of Madras and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He teaches and does research in physics at the University of Texas, where he has been now for more than 40 years. E C G Dr. Sudarshan was in the city earlier this week to receive the Kerala Sastrapuraskaram, the state lifetime achievement award for science. The following are excerpts from a conversation with Dr. Sudarshan.
It has been an incredible half a century of physics for you. From where you are today, what does physics mean to you?
Everything. I mean, I don’t know anything else. All I know is how to do physics. I am good at it. I took to physics like a duckling to water. I don't even think of what I do as research or work anymore. I like the excitement of looking at the world through the prism of science. That’s all there is to it and I know that I can continue doing it forever.
Did growing up in Kerala in anyway help shape your interest in science?
To be born into a culture that values learning is always an advantage. Kerala was ahead of the rest in terms of the respect we had for the pursuit of knowledge. But outside of that the school curriculum and the text books we were asked to read in physics were rather dull, as they probably are even now. Mostly facts with hardly any room for thinking.
We were taught language and mathematics very well. When I moved to college, I could focus on the subjects that really interested me. CMS and Madras Christian College had some really good science teachers. Physics gradually became my way to make sense of the world around.
How do you rate the present standards of scientific research in India? Are you pleased with the work that is happening at our universities and institutes?
At the risk of generalising, let me say that with all the hype that some of these institutes carry, I hardly see any big ideas coming out of them. Most scientists are locked up in their comfort zones, happy pursuing run-of-the-mill problems. There is no desire to excel. One should, at least occasionally, show the courage to take up big questions and explore intriguing new possibilities. Such attempts are hardly seen.
Progress is not made by repeating what has already been done.
In your writings and talks you often allude to the parallels between Vedanta and modern science. Can you explain this a bit?
There are certain fundamental questions in physics for which there are no clear-cut answers. For example, what is time? I breathe. I can count the number of times I do that. Can we call those intervals as time? Suppose I stop breathing, does time seize to exist? Einstein’s special theory of relativity interprets time as a subjective experience. The notion of time could be different for different people. Once you bring subjective experience into the picture, science finds close parallels with Indian philosophy. The Upanishads go to great depths on topics of space, time the nature of causality and such. Unlike science, the analysis found in the Upanishads is entirely from an inside point of view. I find that approach reasonable and a lot refreshing.
Now that you are into your golden years, have you considered moving back to Kerala for good?
I think of it often. But I don't think I have the skill to do it. People around here now treat me as a guest. They smile at me. But if I move back permanently, I fear they might perceive me as a pest. I will be asking a lot of questions. I will be behind everyone grilling them with questions on their research. Not a pleasing proposition for everyone. I am happy being a guest.