When the Nobels are handed out, some get left out.

sudarshan.jpg E.C. George Sudarshan Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Newton claimed he had only gained his perspective because he “stood on the shoulders of giants.”  Had the Nobel Prize been around in his day, when Sir Isaac won—as he undoubtedly would have—he might have found himself standing atop some disgruntled giants who didn’t get a share of his prize.

E.C. George Sudarshan, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is the grumbling giant of 2005.

In early October, the Royal Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to three scientists for their work in quantum optics. Roy J. Glauber, a Harvard physics professor, was the lone theoretician honored. His research describes the behavior of light using quantum mechanics, paving the way for the field of quantum optics. Glauber’s achievement, according to the Nobel citation, “served to bring out the distinction between the behavior of thermal light sources,” like light bulbs, and “sources such as lasers.”

Though quantum mechanics dictates that sometimes light acts like a wave and sometimes it acts like a particle, physicists in the early part of the 20th century used only classical optics to describe the behavior of photons, conceiving of them as pool balls ricocheting about. Classical explanations, however, could not explain certain behaviors exhibited by bunches of photons. In a 1963 paper, Glauber laid the foundation for a quantum-mechanical explanation, which, that same year, Sudarshan extended to explain any quantum state of light. The theory is referred to as the “Glauber-Sudarshan representation” in the Nobel citation.

Sudarshan and a small group of physicists have written letters to the Nobel Committee claiming that the representation is actually more “Sudarshan” than “Glauber.” Last Saturday, Ranjit Nair, director of India’s Centre for Philosophy and Foundations of Science, sent a letter signed by 10 scientists to the Nobel Committee for Physics. The letter called the oversight of Sudarshan’s “fundamental contributions” a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

The letter goes on to say that Glauber criticized Sudarshan’s theory—before renaming it the “P representation” and incorporating it into his own work.

The Nobel citation acknowledges that Sudarshan took Glauber’s work to the next level, but says that Glauber’s initial step toward a quantum-mechanical description of light appeared first, months before Sudarshan’s.

Sudarshan began the letter-writing fray shortly after the Nobel Prize in physics was announced on October 4th. In an unpublished letter to the New York Times, Sudarshan calls the “Glauber-Sudarshan representation” a misnomer, adding that “literally all subsequent theoretic developments in the field of Quantum Optics make use of” Sudarshan’s work— essentially, asserting that he had developed the breakthrough. However, the two have cited one another in momentous papers; other physicists cast both as quantum optics trailblazers.

When the Nobel Prize was created in 1901, collaboration and overlapping work was less common. With the prize limited to three recipients—and only one theoretician this year—Nobel spats are bound to become more frequent.

Even since the early days, conferring the Nobel has been an imperfect science. The omission of Lise Meitner from the 1945 Nobel Prize, awarded for the discovery of fission, is widely recognized as a mistake. Even Einstein had to wait years for his Nobel—and he never won for relativity.

In response to the letter-writing campaign on behalf of Sudarshan, Gunnar Öquist, secretary general of the Swedish Academy, sent e-mails telling the protestors that he has “taken note of the appeal,” but that he could say no more. Though the Nobel proceedings are secret, some colleagues report rumors that Sudarshan was on the short list of physics recipients. Jonas Förare, a spokesman at the Swedish Academy, said that letters disputing the annual prize do come in “from time to time.”

In 2003, Raymond Damadian, a New York physician, took his beef out of the science world and into the mainstream. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase full-page ads in major newspapers protesting his omission from the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, which was awarded that year for contributions leading to magnetic resonance imaging or MRI.

Austin Gleeson, a University of Texas at Austin physics professor who was a colleague of Sudarshan at Syracuse University in the 1960s, said that Sudarshan reviewed and made significant changes to the Glauber paper that was cited most prominently by the Nobel committee. Gleeson wishes Sudarshan could share the prize but said that he sees no use in letter writing.

“The Swedish Academy never reverses itself,” he said.

glauber.jpg Nobelist Roy J. Glauber Credit: Jane Reed, Harvard News Office

Letters may work for letting off some steam, though. In Sudarshan’s own letter to the Nobel panel, he made the impassioned statement that, “No one has the right to take my discoveries and formulations and ascribe them to someone else!”

Sudarshan shared letters, but did not elaborate on the situation. Glauber is currently in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize and was not available for comment.

This year’s two other Nobel laureates in physics—John L. Hall and Theodor W. Hänsch—used the work of Glauber and Sudarshan to employ lasers in measuring the speed of light and determining the quantum structure of matter.

Some of Sudarshan’s supporters have demanded that the Nobel Committee make its vetting public. Förare said the proceedings would, in fact, be made public.

But those who are curious will have to sit tight for a little while. The 2005 Nobel records will only go public after 30 years.

Originally published December 9, 2005

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