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Scientists Question Nobel

A group of scientists have petitioned the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences regarding what they call an omission among this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, half of which Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics Roy J. Glauber ’45-’46 won for his contributions to quantum optics.

Led by Ranjit Nair, the director of the Centre for Philosophy and Foundations of Science in New Delhi, India, the authors of the petition contend that E. C. George Sudarshan, professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, should have been recognized along with Glauber.

Sudarshan is president of the Board of Advisors of the Centre, a role that Nair described in an e-mail as “purely advisory and not executive.”

The petition, which was submitted to the Academy, reads, “It is difficult to understand how the work for which Glauber is cited could be honoured in isolation from Sudarshan’s published discoveries and formulations, which were initially criticized and subsequently adopted by Glauber.”

According to Nair, Sudarshan began working on quantum optics at the University of Rochester in 1960. Two years later, Glauber criticized the use of classical electromagnetic theory in explaining optical fields, which surprised Sudarshan because he believed theory provided accurate explanations, Nair said. Sudarshan subsequently wrote a paper expressing his ideas and sent a preprint to Glauber.

Glauber informed Sudarshan of similar results and asked to be acknowledged in the latter’s paper, while criticizing Sudarshan in his own paper, Nair said.

“Glauber criticizes Sudarshan’s representation, but his own was unable to generate any of the typical quantum optics phenomena, hence he introduces what he calls a P-representation, which was Sudarshan’s representation by another name,” Nair wrote. “This representation, which had at first been scorned by Glauber, later becomes known as the Glauber-Sudarshan representation, a circumstance which has always rankled with Sudarshan.”

Glauber acknowledged Sudarshan’s work but said he was unclear about the particulars of the issue.

“Professor Sudarshan is a distinguished Indian scientist who has made interesting contributions to several fields,” Glauber said. “I would be fascinated to know what is going on in Texas in this connection.”

This is not the first time the recognition of a Harvard professor for a Nobel Prize has been contested.

Last year’s Nobel laureates in physics included H. David Politzer, a graduate student of Sidney R. Coleman, now professor emeritus. Politzer was recognized for his work in quantum chromodynamics, a field in which Coleman was deeply involved.

“When the prize was announced last year, a number of people commented to me that it was a shame that Sidney wasn’t recognized with the Nobel Prize,” Physics Department Chair John Huth wrote in an e-mail. “Rather than create a petition to the Academy (this really didn’t come to mind), we decided to honor Sidney with a conference in his honor, and it was a tremendous success.”

“Sidneyfest 2005” was attended by nine Nobel laureates, a Fields medalist, and an Oscar winner.

Gunnar Öquist, who is the permanent secretary of the Academy, said that it is not unusual for the choice of laureates to be questioned.

“That’s natural—there are many prize-worthy candidates around the world, and we select those that we think have made the most significant contribution according to the citation that goes with each prize,” he said.

As for the petition, Öquist said the Academy would not comment on its position.

“We really don’t comment on our decisions, so our response is basically to say that all work that we do in the process of arriving at the decision on the award is kept secret for 50 years,” he said. “That’s the rule and it’s in the statue.”

Nair said he and his fellow signatories recognize the Academy’s discretion on the issue.

“We have not said that Glauber should not be given the prize, which is the prerogative of the Academy,” he wrote. “We are surprised that Sudarshan was not given the prize when Glauber was.”

Glauber was one of three physicists—the maximum number of people who can be recognized—who won the Nobel Prize, sharing it with fellow American John L. Hall and German physicist Theodor W. Hänsch.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.edu.
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