Dr. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (Pic: University of Chicago)
Since black holes are in the news thanks to Stephen Hawking’s new assertions, I am revisiting an excellent biography of Dr. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar by Arthur Miller called ‘Empire of the Stars’.
As Miller says in the very title this is a book about “Obsessions, Friendship and Betrayal in the quest for Black Holes”. It was as a 19-year-old student onboard a ship from Madras to London in August, 1930, that this preternaturally brilliant and meticulous mind worked out what is regarded as the first mathematical description of black holes.
What Subrahmanyan developed was an extraordinary calculation for a scientist at any age but for a 19-year-old student it was stunning. In simple terms what he said was that certain stars in their death spiral would collapse into what can only be called nothingness. In specific terms what he said relates to the white dwarf state of a star. Chandrasekhar worked out the greatest mass limit exceeding which a white dwarf its final fate would be a spectacular and violent collapse, ending in a black hole. This limit, 1.44 times the mass of our Sun, was named the Chandrasekhar Limit.
This is how Professor Miller describes it: “Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s flash of inspiration came when he was an unknown nineteen-year-old in the hot summer of 1930. In ten minutes, sitting in a deck chair overlooking the Arabian sea, Chandra (as he is universally known) carried out some calculations that augured a disturbing fate for the small, dense stars known as white dwarfs. At the time scientists assumed that white dwarfs were dead stars in their final state. Those that had been found had more or less the mass of the Sub but were no bigger than Earth. Chandra’s calculations showed there was an upper limit to the mass of these white dwarfs. Any star more massive than that when it burned out would not end its life as an inert rock but would begin an endless process of collapse, crunched by its own gravity into a singularity—a miniscule point of infinite density and zero volume, many trillions of times smaller that the period at the end of this sentence and many trillions of times denser than Earth. Only one person understood the full importance of Chandra’s discovery; Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, the greatest astrophysicist in the world at that time.”
Miller’s book concerns itself with the ugly conflict that the young Chandra ran into with Eddington for reasons as petty as prejudice bred by a sense of superiority that propelled the English to colonize the world. The Chandra-Eddington conflict is one of science’s great dramas drawing on many human frailties, envy and prejudice being the two most important ones.
Of course, Chandra, as he was popularly known, went on to work on a large number of complex questions throughout his long career and produced a body of work that would be enviable for some of the greatest minds of science.