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Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995)

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995)

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in October of 1910 in Lahore, which is now in Pakistan rather than India as it was at the time of his birth. After receiving his M.A. in 1930, he traveled to England where he pursued his studies in astronomy and physics at Cambridge University. Chandrasekhar was a brilliant student, and while at Cambridge he worked with two of the leading astrophysicists of the time, Edward Milne and Arthur Eddington. In 1933, Chandrasekhar completed his Ph.D. and was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, which was only the beginning of the honors earned by this great scientist. At that time his work on relativistic degeneracy lead to the now famous Chandrasekhar limit of 1.4M. for the maximum mass of a white dwarf. Barely 24 years old, he presented this result at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in January of 1935. Although Eddington raised doubts at the meeting about the concept of relativistic degeneracy, astronomy has since found that all white dwarfs for which masses have been measured fall neatly below the Chandrasekhar limit without exception. Today there are no doubts about his work on degeneracy.

In 1936, Chandrasekhar moved from England to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1953. His academic career in this country has centered on the University of Chicago, where he accepted a faculty position in 1937. Although he began his professional career working on the structure and evolution of stars, Chandrasekhar’s interests have carried him into a number of areas of research culminating in his sharing of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics with William A. Fowler of the California Institute of Technology. As he wrote in his biographical note for the Nobel Foundation, “…my scientific work has followed a certain pattern motivated, principally, by a quest after perspectives.” This “quest after perspectives” led to his publication of six books and numerous journal papers, each of which has been recognized as definitive in its field: An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure (1939), Principles of Stellar Dynamics (1943), Radiative Transfer (1950), Hydrodynamic and Hydromagnetic Stability (1961), Ellipsoidal Figures of Equilibrium (1968), and The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes (1983). Few scientists have matched his consistently high level of scientific research, beginning in his twenties and continuing into his seventies–a span of 50 years.

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