CHANDRA: A BIOGRAPHY OF S. CHANDRASEKHAR

Kameshwar C. Wali, University of Chicago Press, 1991

When the ancients gazed at the stars and imagined patterns like the serpent and the swan in constellations, little did they suspect that some day a systematic study of the distant luminaries would provide a clue as to where the material of our own physical bodies came from. After millennia of astronomy (which was primarily concerned with the motions and distances of stars), we learned to detect the chemical compositions of stars and physical processes in them.

It was only in the first decades of this century that we came to recognize what goes on in the deepest interiors of stars. Two of the pioneers in this were W. S. Adams—who unraveled the clues concerning the incredibly high densities of matter in the core of white dwarfs—and A. S. Eddington—who in the 1920s worked out the mathematical model that displayed how stars eventually attain the so-called white-dwarf stage.

Questions still remained: Where and how did the complex matter of which much of the world, including our own bodies, arise? In which giant furnaces were the atoms of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and uranium concocted? Nowadays, any first course in astronomy sketches the answers: The familiar matter around us was formed in the interior of certain massive stars, which became so hot and compressed that the sheer crush of it all glued the protons and neutrons together and cooked up the heavier elements of the Periodic Table. Sounds simple and reasonable, but the thought and work, analysis and exploration, that guided human insights to this view and vision were considerable indeed.

The steps to this discovery began when a 19-year-old, sailing from Bombay to Venice in August 1930, began pondering R. H. Fowler’s theory of white dwarfs. The youth was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (Chandra, for short). When Chandra applied relativistic physics to the problem that Fowler had attacked, he discovered something totally unexpected: There is an upper limit to the mass of a star that can eventually degenerate into a white dwarf. This was no mean discovery, for it is a crucial factor in explaining how supernovas arise; thence we gain an understanding of how heavy elements are synthesized in their cores and how they are spewed out into the depths of space. Such matter condenses over eons into second-generation stars and planetary systems such as our own.

It was not an easy task to bring this idea to the attention and acceptance of the astro-physical establishment of the period, at whose pinnacle sat the illustrious personage of Arthur Stanley Eddington, who had claimed (with more than a touch of seriousness) to be one of two people in the world who understood Einstein.

Experimental discoveries tend to assure a more permanent place for physicists than theoretical formulations (especially if the latter are not of a fundamental nature), for discoveries unveil what have always been there in the physical world, whereas theories are interpretations of the physical world in terms of human concepts and calculations. Explanations of observed phenomena are subject to paradigm shifts; the phenomena themselves are not. Because of this, proponents of successful theories tend to guard their creations with greater enthusiasm than discoverers of laws, principles, or entities.

Sometimes, in their eagerness to hold on to what they themselves have established with great labor and reflection, eminent scientists may even attack with vehemence stoop to levels that outsiders may regard as unbecoming. Such indeed was the reaction of Eddington to the ideas and results of Chandrasekhar, a man almost thirty years his junior. So intense was Eddington’s antipathy that he criticized Chandra’s ideas beyond decorum and ridiculed them in public in what seems like an unfortunate misuse of the prestige he enjoyed. Yet Eddington and Chandra remained friends.

These and many other dimensions in the life of Chandra are narrated with sensitivity, clarity, and erudition by Kameshwar C. Wali in his biography of this eminent American astrophysicist of Asian-Indian origin.

The Nobel prize that Chandrasekhar received at the age of 73 for work he did in his twenties was one of several honors bestowed on him. He was made Fellow of the Royal Society, and elected to the National Academy of Sciences; he received the Adams Prize from Cambridge University, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Padma Vibhushan from the Indian government, and many other awards also.

Eventually Chandrasekhar became a pillar of the astrophysics community himself. As if to symbolize this, he took over the editorial reins of the prestigious Astrophysical Journal, which had been founded in 1895 by G. E. Hale—the man who brought the term astrophysics into common use. In his capacity as editor, Chandra served his discipline with distinction, but in the view of some he also ruled the journal with an iron hand. The high standards by which he accepted and rejected papers submitted, and his criteria for the selection of referees provoked on occasions the displeasure, even the wrath, of some members of the astrophysical community.

The fact that he came from a non-Western culture makes Chandra’s life story all the more interesting. His rich Tamil tradition and Hindu background exposed him to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and molded related values and world views, which included the practice of strict vegetarianism; but this in no way interfered with his easy relationships with physicists and mathematicians from Europe or the United States. Diracl and Von Neumann, Rosenfeld and Fermi, and many more of such distinction were among his illustrious friends and co-workers.

This is not to say that his brown skin did not cause irritations for him. Even in the India of British colonial days a race-conscious English woman once complained to a train conductor about how this nonwhite youth was allowed to be in the same first. Class compartment with her and her husband. In New York and Boston in the 1930s, Chandra and his wife experienced discrimination because of their non-Caucasian appearance. Such attitudes were the norm, at that time the faculty at the University of Chicago was at first reluctant to let Chandra lecture there because he was not white!

From 1936 to 1952 Chandra was associated with Yerkes observatory. There he was the leading theoretical astronomer and not only did research, initiated projects, and guided graduate students, but also taught courses ranging from basic astrophysics and photometry to stellar interiors, stellar dynamics, galactic structure, and still others. For the next 28 years (until 1980), he was associated with the physics department of the University of Chicago on a more permanent basis.

A time came when Chandra and his wife had to make up their minds as to whether, in terms of citizenship, they were Indians or American. This was a difficult decision but America was fast changing, and the melting pot was gradually becoming a tossed salad of various races. Chandra decided to take the oath of citizenship, but this caused his father back home in India much pain and resentment.

Chandrasekhar richly deserves the countless honors and awards he received. He is an astrophyscist held in the highest esteem by his professional peers. However, not many in the disciplines beyond are familiar with the mind and output of this major scientist. Wali’s book should be of particular interest to students, teachers, and practitioners of physics, for through its pages a reader can glimpse a truly great scientific mind. The book also includes more than 60 pages of conversations that touch on a variety of subjects, including brief comments on some eminent physicists whom Chandra knew personally.