1983 Physics Nobelist S. Chandrasekhar Is Dead At Age 84
Author: NEERAJA SANKARAN
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics whose theories about the evolution of stars led to the concept of black holes, died of heart failure on August 21 at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He was 84 years old.
STELLAR: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar
“In a sense, Chandra’s [death] comes as an end of an era,” comments his friend and colleague Eugene Parker, who is currently the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at the University of Chicago, where Chandrasekhar was Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus, in astronomy, astrophysics, and physics, as well as at the Enrico Fermi Institute. “In the 1930s, when he came into the field, people were just beginning to understand how a star worked. The things that are now taken for granted were considered very baffling. Chandra, who came towards the end of that phase, helped put together many of the pieces.”
While still a student in the 1930s, Chandrasekhar developed a theory that challenged the prevalent notion of the formation of ‘white dwarfs.’ Most astrophysicists in those times believed that after burning up their fuel, stars collapsed into planet-sized entities that they referred to as white dwarfs. However, through his calculations, Chandrasekhar proposed that only stars equivalent in size to the sun became dwarfs. If the mass of the star were greater than 1.4 times the sun, he claimed, the star would continue to collapse into an object of enormous density. Although he was publicly ridiculed for this — especially by his idol, the British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington — his theories form the basis for modern astrophysics: The critical mass he predicted is called the ‘Chandrasekhar limit,’ and the objects of infinite density are widely referred to as ‘black holes.’ This work led to his Nobel Prize nearly a half-century later.
Colleagues remember Chandrasekhar as a dedicated scientist and teacher. “One thing that stands out in my mind is that he was adamant that the highest standards be applied to science. He had very little patience for fuzzy-mindedness,” Parker recalls.
At the same time, he adds, the astrophysicist was always open to entertaining speculation, relating a personal encounter regarding the publication of a paper — E. Parker, Astrophysical Journal, 128:664, 1958. “The paper was about solar winds — offering both physical and mathematical evidence for the occurrence of the phenomenon,” Parker recounts. “It had been turned down by two very well-respected reviewers — I never found out who they were — and Chandra, who was then the editor of the journal, came and asked me,’Are you sure you want to publish this?’
“When I pointed out that the reviewers did not offer valid arguments disproving my hypotheses, Chandra went ahead and printed it, although he himself was politely skeptical about my theory,” he says. “A lot of publishers could have just taken the easy way out and [gone] with the reviewers. But Chandra was a very tough-minded guy — he always did exactly what was called for.”
Born in Lahore in colonial India in 1910, Chandrasekhar was the nephew of India’s only other physics Nobelist (1930), Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman. After receiving a B.A. in mathematics and physics from Presidency College in Madras, India, in 1930, he went to study in England on a government scholarship, obtaining a Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge in 1933. He moved to the University of Chicago in 1937 and remained there until his death. He became a U.S. citizen in 1958.
Chandrasekhar made his peace with Eddington, who promoted his 1944 election to the Royal Society. In 1962 Chandrasekhar went on to receive the society’s Royal Medal.
In 1966 he was the recipient of the National Medal of Science. He wrote several books on various areas of astrophysics and physics, his most recent, titled Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader, published just this summer by the Clarendon Press of Oxford University. In addition to his formidable scientific achievements, his friends and contemporaries remember him for his passionate interest in literature and classical music.
— Neeraja Sankaran