David Nightingale: Chandrasekhar (1910- 1995)

Aug 18, 2019

First, I’d like to comment that 90% of my essays this year have had nothing to do with science! They’ve all been emphatically non-science-related, and in fact, have that theme in common with our current political administration – no science at all!

However, this essay, is related to Indian science.

Now we have read recently that India has not only achieved a Mars orbiter, but just last month [July 2019] launched its module, carrying a wheeled rover, to look for water near the South pole of the moon. This soft landing is scheduled to take place next month on or about September 7.

But my essay looks at Indian science far before all that. It’s about an Indian-American astrophysicist, born in 1910, who won the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar – and although both these names are quite common in India it’s easier just to say Chandra – was born in Punjab. He was also a nephew of another Indian Nobel prize winner – C.V.Rahman.

After earning a degree in Madras the 20-year old won a scholarship to Cambridge, England, where he not only earned his Ph.D. but also won a coveted Trinity College Fellowship  [– the same fellowship that the famous Indian ‘genius’ mathematician Ramanujan had held some years earlier.]

The young Chandra’s skills in mathematics and physics were very high, and on the long journey by sea to England in 1930 he spent time thinking about the heat inside stars – in particular white dwarf stars. Our sun will ultimately become a white dwarf, and he knew that the matter inside such hot stars had to be moving at relativistic speeds.

Chandra’s calculations on the ship showed that white dwarfs could never be heavier than about 1.4 times the mass of the sun… this is his famous “Chandrasekhar Limit.” What it means to an astronomer looking for white dwarfs in the sky is that none will be heavier than this. Any white dwarf thought to be heavier would have to collapse, either to a neutron star, or to a black hole.

As we said, those white dwarf calculations were done while Chandra was a twenty-year-old slowly traveling on the high seas to England. Then, when Chandra already had his Ph.D. and was a Cambridge Fellow, the famous Sir Arthur Eddington publicly stated at a London meeting that Chandra was wrong, giving no proof. Subsequent observations everywhere have shown that Chandra was right. Long story short, he left England to spend the rest of his prodigiously hard-working life at the University of Chicago, where he also served for two decades as the Editor of the international Astrophysical Journal.

During that time he was honored with not only the Nobel Prize, but also the US National Medal of Science (received from President Johnson at the White House), the Draper Medal of the National Academy of Science, the Humboldt Prize (from Germany), and many others, worldwide, for his 60 years spent on mathematical astronomy. He died in 1995.

Finally, in later years, when asked about his disagreement with Eddington, Chandra quietly said it was his belief that the color of his skin played a part.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

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