A Great Scientist, White Dwarfs, and Black Holes

There is a tradition that every year I tell some amazing and inspiring story in the pre-New Year's edition of the blog. This time, it is a story about an Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. He was born in 1910 in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab region that became Pakistan's province after the partition of India in 1947. Chandra, as he was called by family members, had nine siblings. All the children received a good education. At the age of 19, Chandra graduated from the University of Madras with a degree in physics and, having received a special scholarship from the Government of India to continue his education, enrolled in graduate school in the University of Cambridge.

While a student at the University of Madras, he wrote his first scientific paper on the theory of metals and decided that it was so good that it could be published in the prestigious London Journal published by The Royal Society. However, to have the paper published, he had to find at least one member of the Society to take responsibility for presenting the paper to the scientific community. Not long before, Chandra read a paper by an outstanding Cambridge astrophysicist, Ralph Fowler, on dying neutron stars called white dwarfs. He was the one to whom Chandra sent his manuscript, hoping to receive the recommendation he needed.

Not only did Fowler read it, he showed it to other experts. Together, they advised the author of the paper to make several changes that would allow them to support the publication. Chandra followed 2.png their advice and soon his paper was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society. A year later, the journal published two more of his articles. As a result, heading to Cambridge, Chandra already had some scientific weight.

The sea route to Europe was quite a long journey, which allowed Chandra to not only return to Fowler's paper on white dwarfs and become deeply interested in the topic but also to carry out some calculations that refined Fowler's conclusions. When the British astrophysicist saw these calculations, he did not understand them but showed them to cosmologist Arthur Milne, his colleague from Oxford. The result was the same. Milne could not apprehend Chandra’s calculations. This work contained some of Chandra’s ideas that would later become the basis of his own theory, explaining the peculiarities of the evolution of white dwarfs.

A four-year span of the British period of Chandra’s career was marked by both good and bad luck. Some of his colleagues saw him as a promising young scientist, and someone saw him as the "strange Indian guy." In any case, it was an important period, since it was during these years that Chandra managed to get an internship in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, defend his thesis and get a doctorate. He became a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, published several serious papers, worked together with German physicist and future Nobel laureate Max Born, got to know “the father of the hydrogen bomb” Edward Teller and the author of the theory of relativity Albert Einstein and other prominent scientists. 

In 1934, Chandra visited the Soviet Union, where he taught the first course in theoretical astrophysics in the USSR at Leningrad State University. In 1935, he presented his main developments on white 3.jpeg dwarfs to the London Astronomical Society, and … was harshly criticized for being too bold with hypotheses and conclusions, which became a major setback for him for many years.

Soon after, Chandra received an offer from the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, to take up the post of research assistant at the Yerkes Observatory. The offer, at first glance, seemed to be rather strange. After all, given Chandra's achievements, the position and the salary were quite low. Moreover, fulfilling the position did not require personal attention from the president of the university. As it came to light later, all that was due to the fact that in the 1930s racist sentiments were still very strong at the University of Chicago. Many of its professors strongly objected to hiring a person who was from India and “not white”. The university president had to defend his decision and personally invite the Indian astrophysicist. Despite the non-prestigious position and modest salary, Chandra accepted this offer and went overseas. The main motive for him was the opportunity to conduct research in Yerkes Observatory, which was the world's best observatory for several decades. From 1936 to 1995 (the year of his death) Chandra's life and work were associated with the University of Chicago.

The history of the Yerkes Observatory is also very interesting. It was opened in 1897 on the initiative of Professor George Hale, who managed to convince the financial magnate and businessman Charles Yerkes to invest in its construction and equipment. A 1.02-meter refractory telescope was installed at the Observatory and for many years remained the largest in the world. Immediately after its opening in 1897, Yerkes Observatory became the center of American science. In fact, it was the "megascience" of its time. Despite the fact that the Observatory was a division of the University of Chicago, it was built 130 km from the city, far from the industrial soot of Chicago. Its staff either had to live in the local village of Williams Bay or to commute 260 km from home to work and back every day.


 Many Observatory colleagues found Chandra's ideas strange too. When he was finally entrusted with conducting a course of lectures in the astronomical laboratory at the Observatory, only two students signed up. His colleagues, who took pride in the high-attendance courses, laughed at him openly. They were confident that Chandra would cancel his lectures instead taking 260-kilometer trips to lecture a class of two persons. But he got down to work and led the smallest research group in the history of the University. Years later, these two students, who became outstanding scientists, received the Nobel Prize in Physics. In 1983, the Prize was received by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar as well. 5.jpeg 

Over the years of hard work, Chandra managed not only to make a huge contribution to various fields of astrophysics, the theory of the evolution of white dwarfs, but also to enrich the mathematical theory of black holes, to create a modern version of the book by Isaac Newton - Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, and become an academic advisor for 46 Ph.D. students. Chandra was the editor of The Astrophysical Journal for almost 20 years, which, under his leadership, turned from a modest scientific publication into the calling card of the American Astronomical Society and was published 24 (!) times a year. NASA's X-ray Observatory that revolves around the Earth was named after the outstanding scientist.

British mathematician Roger Penrose wrote: “What do I remember the most when thinking of Chandra? There is no doubt that he was an outstanding and highly productive scientist and an extremely original thinker. He was distinguished by exceptional diligence, organization, and the ability to think systematically. He articulated his assignments very clearly and sometimes harshly, but he never refused to recognize the merits of other people. He was a loyal, reliable, and absolutely honest friend. He had both pride and vulnerability. He did not like criticism too much and could respond to it not in the best way, but he was always extremely generous towards those who found actual mistakes in his work. He was always polite and dignified; he was a man of great inner culture, who knew how to find and appreciate the best features of human nature. He respected life in all its manifestations and admired the wonders of nature. He loved art and felt a deep connection between artistic and scientific values.”

I believe that the story of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar can inspire students, professors and researchers, although it was not smooth and was full of various twists and turns of fate, just like the life of 8.jpeg most scientists. Moreover, in Chandra’s personality, we recognize many of our colleagues. They all have at least one thing in common: great interest in their scientific work and a desire to work with gifted young people, to train a new generation of scientists. Recognition received on time plays an important role as well. The Priority 2030 program is a great opportunity to make a name for our research teams and declare personal achievements. Go for it! My desire is for everyone to remain confident, strive for real knowledge, be able to defend their beliefs, notice the talent in students and colleagues on time, and spare no time or effort for its development.

Dear friends, I wish you a Happy New Year! I wish you all good health and new horizons in life! 

Sincerely yours,

Eduard Galazhinskiy


Translated by Snezhana Nososva