The astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995) or Chandra, as he was known to many, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983 for his contribution to the structure and evolution of stars. Nephew of the Indian physicist Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, the Lahore-born, Presidency College-educated Chandra first worked out the Chandrasekhar limit during a voyage to Cambridge in 1930, although he had begun this work while still in Madras, India.
Every physicist today learns about white dwarfs and black holes; it was then thought that white dwarfs would be the end-of-life for all the stars. Realising that Einstein’s relativistic effects would become important at the core of white dwarfs, Chandra mathematically theorised the same. The calculations proposed by him predicted that it is physically impossible to measure the negative radii of white dwarfs, which had evolved from stars over a certain critical mass; thus effectively concluding that such stars could not turn into white dwarfs.
Chandra’s excellent mathematics illustrated that a white dwarf much heavier than the sun could not exist, but would undergo an eternal collapse into a tiny point of infinite density, until it slipped though a crevice in space and time, from which nothing could escape, not even light. It was the very first irrefutable mathematical proof that Black Holes had to exist. Yet the core of this work known as the Chandrasekhar Limit, was ignored for decades. Chandra made his discovery while on his way to study the greatest powerhouse of the day, Trinity College, Cambridge. As grown up in free-thinking Brahmin family of Madras and possessing a genius mind, Chandra assumed the community would welcome him and his discoveries with open arms. But all his hopes were dashed at Cambridge; all the scientists there ignored his discovery. He was overlooked because of his race and paved in depression which he somehow kept aside and completed his doctorate in 1933. The daily reminders that India was under the yoke of the British Empire rankled him and science seemed a way to prove his intellectual level was at least equal to the colonial masters. Keeping his uncle C V Raman in front of his eyes as an inspiration, he hoped to walk on his footsteps and make India recognisable in the world of Physics.
The astrophysics community made a serious attempt to address Chandra’s question, Neutron Stars and Black Holes might have been quickly theorised. But others’ lack of interest and encouragement, Chandra moved on to other problems during his doctoral studies, returning to question only in 1934. He was invited to present his results at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935 where he encountered the betrayal and humiliation that would shape his scientific career.
False mentor and betrayal
The legendary astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington who was doyen of astrophysical world and has been central acceptance of Einstein’s ideas took keen interest in Chandra’s developing work, often visiting the young scholar in his room. Eddington was at the peak of his fame as a scientist and a philosopher. In 1930, Eddington involved himself in formulating a hugely ambitious theory that would combine quantum theory (which applies to world of atoms) and general relativity (which describes the cosmos).
It was Eddington who suggested Chandra to announce his results at a meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1935. He prepared his paper, but the day before the meeting, Chandra learned that Eddington was to deliver the following lecture, on the very same topic. He was puzzled, but thought no more about it. On 11th of January 1935, all the leading figures in astrophysics were at the society. Chandra delivered his paper, showing graph that made it transparently clear that a star of above a certain mass would inevitably dwindle to nothing and beyond. Triumphantly he sat down, assuming that Eddington would support his conclusion. But to his horror Eddington instead used full force of his fame and oratorical skills to demolish the young man.
Eddington argued that Chandra’s theory was just mathematical game-playing and has no relation to the realistic/experimental basis of astrophysics. He claimed that there was no such thing as Chandra’s relativistic degeneracy; arguing that “There should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way.” Arguing that Chandra’s formula combined relativity mechanics with non-relativity quantum theory, Eddington did not “regard the offspring of such a union as born in lawful wedlock.” Before Chandra could respond, the next speaker was called.
Eddington’s cavalier dismissal of his work was a traumatic experience for young Chandra, who was pitted against an imposing scientific luminary. Chandra sought the support of eminent physicist (Rosenfeld, Bohr, Dirac, Pauli), who without exception agreed that his derivations were flawless, but were reluctant to come out openly and say Eddington was wrong. At a talk in Harvard, Eddington termed Chandrasekhar’s notions a “Stellar Buffoonery”. He continued his attack at the Paris meeting of the International Astronomical Union in July 1939, where despite protocol, Chandra was not allowed to reply this final confrontation. But it was the famous astronomer Gerard Kuiper, an expert on white dwarfs, immediately pointed out that he had just presented evidence that supported Chandra’s theory. Eddington died in 1944.
At the end of the meeting, Eddington and Chandra had a brief moment alone. “I am sorry if I hurt you,” Eddington said to Chandra. Chandra asked whether he had changed his mind. “No,” Eddington retorted. “What are you sorry about then?” Chandra replied and brusquely walked away.
Astrophysics was simply not part of the mainstream, frontier physics. Important discoveries were taking place in fundamental physics. Eddington’s authority prevailed
among the astronomers as he continued to attack the theory. In the face of such opposition, Chandra made a wise decision to gracefully withdraw from the controversy instead of engaging in a dogged fight. He stopped further work on the theory of white dwarfs and went on to research in other areas. As he said
“I foresaw for myself some thirty years of scientific work, and I simply did not think it was productive to harp on something which was done. It was much better for me to change the field of interest and go into something else. If I was right, then it would be known as right. For myself, I was positive that a fact of such clear significance for evolution of the stars would in time be established or disproved. I didn’t see a need to stay there, so I just left.”
Chandra’s biographer and historians of science have long speculated about the reasons for Eddington’s strange behaviour as well as the behaviour of wider scientific community. Eddington was likely motivated not just by the threat Chandra’s work represented to his own ideas, but also by his being unconvinced of the scientific merit in his theory. On multiple occasions, Chandra mentioned racism as a potential motivation.