Nobel Doubts

December 7, 2005

Newton said he saw so far because he stood on the shoulders of giants. And yet, if the Nobel Prize had been around in Newton’s day, when Sir Isaac won, one might have heard grumblings from some of the giants left out.

This year, with room for only one theoretical physicist among the three winners, E.C. George Sudarshan, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is feeling overlooked. Although many Nobel choices have been questioned over the years, Sudarshan’s supporters say that -- at the very least -- the Nobel selection panel didn’t adequately credit his work when describing research in which he unquestionably played a key role.

In October, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize to three physicists for their work in quantum optics. Roy J. Glauber, a physics professor at Harvard University and the lone theoretician recognized, was honored for his theory that describes the behavior of light with quantum mechanics, laying the foundation for quantum optics. Glauber’s work, 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 light acts sometimes like a wave, and sometimes like a particle, physicists in the early part of the 20th century used only classical optics to describe the behavior of photons, as if they were tennis balls ricocheting about. Classical explanations, however, could not explain certain behavior of bunches of photons. In a 1963 paper, Glauber laid the foundation for a quantum mechanical explanation, which Sudarshan extended that same year to explain any quantum state of light, a theory referred to as the “Glauber-Sudarshan representation” in the Nobel citation.

But Sudarshan and a small group of physicists have publicly contended that some of Glauber’s seminal work was not only informed by Sudarshan, but that one of Sudarshan’s breakthroughs has come to be attributed, at least in part, to Glauber.

On Saturday, 10 scientists sent a letter to the Nobel Committee for Physics calling the oversight of Sudarshan’s “fundamental contributions” a “grave miscarriage of justice.” The letter is signed by two of Sudarshan’s former students who are now physicists, and a former Texas colleague. The letter says that Glauber criticized Sudarshan’s theory -- now known as the “Glauber-Sudarshan representation” -- before apparently renaming it the “P representation,” and embracing it.

Of course in science, one is not punished for adopting a theory after initially criticizing it. The Nobel report explicitly notes that, though Sudarshan took Glauber’s work to the next level, Glauber’s seminal work appeared first, months before Sudarshan’s in 1963.

A November letter from four University of Texas scientists to the chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics says that the “Glauber-Sudarshan representation” is actually the “Sudarshan representation,” and that Sudarshan’s work was the real first formulation of the “quantum-mechanical theory of optical coherence,” for which the prize was awarded. The letter asks the committee to make a correction so as not to “distort” the historical record.

Sudarshan himself has gotten into the fray. Following the New York Times article announcing the prize winners, Sudarshan wrote a letter, which was not published, to the editor. As in the other letters, Sudarshan said he finds “Glauber-Sudarshan representation” to be a misnomer, and wrote that “literally all subsequent theoretic developments in the field of Quantum Optics make use of” his work.

Both Sudarshan and Glauber have cited one another in influential papers, and physicists place them both at the forefront of quantum optics. But the Nobel Prize, which was created in 1901 when teamwork was less prevalent in physics, is limited to three recipients, and, this year, with two experimental physicists being honored, there was room for only one theoretical physicist.

Gerald Holton, a professor of physics and the history of science at Harvard, said he was not talking about this year’s case specifically, but asked whether in general the Nobels have kept pace with science. He said that “one wishes they could get an amendment or change in [Alfred Nobel’s] will” to recognize additional worthy recipients. Holton said that even in large working groups, it is often clear who leads the effort. But he said there are “certainly more and more cases where teams cannot be filtered out to everyone’s agreement.” He added that, even with small groups, science’s highest prize can cause fissures. He noted the “flagrant omission” of Lise Meitner in the 1945 Nobel Prize, awarded for the discovery of fission. He said that, as far back as Einstein -- who had to wait years for the prize and then did not win for relativity – the prize has caused a fuss.

Jonas Förare, a spokesman at the Swedish Academy, said that he could not comment on people who did not win the prize. The proceedings are secret, but John T. Markert, chair of physics at Texas, said “we sort of heard [Sudarshan] was on the short list.” Förare said it isn’t an annual occurrence, but that the academy does get letters of protest from time to time.

In 2003, Raymond Damadian, a physician, spent, at least, hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase full-page ads in major newspapers protesting his omission from the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that was awarded for contributions leading to magnetic resonance imaging.

Austin Gleeson, a Texas physics professor who was at Syracuse University in the 1960s along with Sudarshan, said that Sudarshan reviewed and made significant changes to the Glauber paper cited most prominently by the Nobel committee. Sudarshan then published his own paper. All in 1963, the publishing order of momentous papers was: Glauber, Sudarshan, Glauber. Gleeson said that all of the papers were integral, and that “if the prize could have been shared by two theoreticians, it should have been them.” Gleeson added that it is the work that should be recognized, not the recognition. At his request, the Texas administration has agreed to honor Sudarshan. But Gleeson said he is nervous about that the public petitions will create a catfight. “The Swedish Academy never reverses itself,” he said, adding that they obviously deliberated intensively and wrote a detailed report on the selection.

Sudarshan himself wrote a strongly worded letter to the Nobel panel. “No one has the right to take my discoveries and formulations and ascribe them to someone else!” he wrote. In the letter, Sudarshan acknowledges that Glauber’s work came first, but suggests that his own might better fit the achievements described by the committee. Sudarshan writes that he believes the committee “did their work diligently and with care,” but adds that it would “distress me and many others if extra scientific considerations were responsible for this decision.” Sudarshan provided letters via e-mail, but did not elaborate on “extra scientific considerations.”

Glauber, who will receive the prize later this week in Sweden, was unavailable for comment.

This year’s other two physics Nobel laureates used the work of Glauber and Sudarshan to precisely measure the speed of light with lasers.

As is the custom of scientists, who expect the truth to emerge over time from a pool of ideas, Holton noted that the curious masses need wait only 50 years for the details of the selection process to become public. “It’ll all come out in the long run,” he said.

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