Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In Memory of George Sudarshan

It is an old Irish tradition to tell amusing stories about a colleague or friend who has recently died. Here is mine.

In 1998, I was attending a week-long conference at the University of Maryland on the Foundations of quantum mechanics. This conference was run every few years by Prof. Yanhua Shih throughout the 1990s. To save money, all the participants stayed in the student dormitories and ate in the student cafeteria. On this particular year we were sharing the dormitories with a large summer class of High School football cheerleaders.

I arrived at the Baltimore airport late on Sunday night, and when I went to collect my baggage, there was George Sudarshan waiting for his. I knew he was attending the conference since he was listed on the program as an invited speaker. I went up to him and introduced myself.

Me: “Prof. Sudarshan? I’m Jon Dowling. I was a student in your quantum mechanics class at the University of Texas many years ago. I see we are going to the same conference.”

Sudarshan: (Does not remember me at all.) “Indeed. When was the last time we met?”

Me: “Back in 1992 at that conference in Moscow.”

Sudarshan: “Oh that was a lovely conference. The room was dark, the chairs were comfortable, and you could snooze away in the back and nobody would notice a thing.”

Me: “Yes it was. So how are you getting to this conference?”

Sudarshan: “I had not given it a thought. What about you?”

Me: “I have a rental car. I’d be delighted to give you a ride.”

Sudarshan: “How very nice. I accept!”

So, I helped him with his luggage, we pack up the rental car, and then we sped off down the freeway towards the university. I had made this trip several times and the exit to the university is not very well marked and easy to miss, especially in the night. As I drive, Sudarshan begins to make small talk.

Sudarshan: “So what are you working on these days?”

Me: “Oh, I have been focusing on a new theory of quantum metrology.”

Sudarshan: (Seems not impressed.)

Me: “So tell me what you’re working on?”

Sudarshan: (Becomes very excited.) “Weak measurement theory!”

Me: “What is that?”

Sudarshan: (Even more excited.) “You don’t know? It is a hot new topic. Very hot. You should learn it!”

Then Sudarshan reaches into his briefcase and whips out a 14”-long, yellow, lined legal pad and begins scribbling wavefunctions on it that appear to be moving backwards and forwards in time. Periodically he shoves the pad in front of my face (while we are barreling down the freeway at 60 miles per hour) and exclaims, “See!?” I nod and say, “Oh yes!” I am trying to peer around the pad and not run off the road.

This goes on for an hour until I gasp and realize that we have missed the exit and have arrived in downtown Baltimore! As Sudarshan continues full speed on the weak measurements, I have to turn around and head back the other way. The lectures continue and suddenly we are back at the airport — I have missed the exit again! So finally say, “Prof. Sudarshan, I have to pay attention. We have missed the exit twice!”

He then puts down the pad and tells a story about how Einstein went to visit Bohr in Denmark and Bohr met him at the train station. They then took a tram to Bohr’s house but got so engrossed in the conversation that they missed their stop and went to the end station. Then they got back in the tram and went back the other way and missed the stop and made it to the other end station. I said, “Yes, it is just like that, but in our case I am driving the tram.”

We finally arrive at the university dormitory at midnight to check in. Each participant has their own private room but must share the bathroom with the person next door. Seeing that we are good friends, the clerk puts us in rooms with adjoining bedrooms.

After the long day and a hectic drive, I am tired and go to sleep. But not for long! Suddenly, at 2AM, Sudarshan comes bursting through the bathroom door in his pajamas, turns on the light, and waves the yellow pad. “I have new results!” He pulled over a chair and lectured me in my bed for another hour. When he finally left I locked the bathroom door and propped the chair under the doorknob.

And to this day, I still have no idea what weak measurements are….

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