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Neither ridicule nor praise dims the vision of '83 Nobel physicist

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was not particularly surprised to be named a 1983 Nobel laureate in physics. Nor was he all that pleased with the fuss. On the overcast October morning when the Swedish Academy announced its choices, Dr. Chandrasekhar deviated little from his usual routine. There would be no press conference, no interviews. Instead, donning a dark suit, dark tie, and white shirt, he set out for his nearby office at the University of Chicago as he has done each working day for the last 47 years.

If nothing else, Chandrasekhar wants to get his work done. When he recently finished a landmark eight-year study of collapsed stars known as ''black holes, '' the 73-year-old astrophysicist was twice the age of almost everyone else in the field. While his contemporaries enjoy the accolades commonly bestowed on elder statesmen, Chandrasekhar relentlessly continues to pursue mathematical order in the universe.

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But the Nobel Prize has muddled things up a bit. Since its announcement, there have been hundreds of telegrams and letters begging to be answered, dozens of interview requests, not to mention the looming task of writing his Nobel lecture for the Dec. 10 award ceremony in Stockholm.

Perhaps all the attention would be less vexing if the award were not honoring him primarily for an idea he first pondered in 1930 - while on a long steamship trip from Bombay to England.

The astronomical wisdom of the day had it that all stars would eventually collapse under the force of their own gravity to become white dwarfs - dense, faint, and very hot remnants. But by employing an idea known as relativistic degeneracy, Chandrasekhar thought about what might happen to a star's electrons when they become compressed enough to move at the speed of light. He decided that only stars below a certain mass would condense into stable white dwarfs. Anything larger, and the force of collapse would cause the star to shrink into something far smaller and denser than the imagination of any astronomer then could grasp: black holes.

The existence of black holes has since been confirmed. Chandrasekhar was hailed in physics textbooks, his stellar-mass threshold dubbed the ''Chandrasekhar limit.''

But the initial reception of this was less congratulatory. Immediately after presenting his thoughts at a 1935 dinner of London's Royal Astronomical Society, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, a preeminent astronomer, rose and proceeded to tear to shreds the argument of a stunned Chandrasekhar. Sir Arthur could not argue with Chandrasekhar's calculations or mathematical logic, yet he still discounted the idea as a reductio ad absurdum, saying, ''I think there should be a law of nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way.''

Understandably, the incident is engraved in Chandrasekhar's memory. ''He told a lot of jokes and made me a laughingstock,'' he recalls somewhat sadly. Although the two managed to remain personal friends through it all, a discredited Chandrasekhar later left England for Chicago. ''It was a shattering experience,'' he says.

''Perhaps the prize would have meant more to me had I won it when I was younger,'' he reflects. Having had virtually every other type of distinction bestowed on him at some point in his career, he allows that public recognition was once a motivating force for his work. But now the satisfaction he derives from his efforts seems reward enough. ''At the moment, (public attention) is a terrible distortion of time.''

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And Chandrasekhar needs time now as much as ever. He sees himself at a crossroads. His style of research demands enormous energy, tempered with an almost ruthless self-discipline. It has meant 12-hour days, 7-day weeks. It has also required a decent chunk of time - usually about a decade - to singlehandedly maneuver a project around any conceptual obstacles in his way.

''Chandra really differs from other top scientists in that his life is his work,'' observes longtime friend Martin Schwarzschild, an astrophysicist at Princeton University.''There is nothing else.''

Yet now Chandrasekhar is wondering if it would be wise to continue at such a pace. ''It's always nice if one can have the courage to know when to stop. Take Shakespeare,'' he says, taking time to phrase his words carefully. Impeccably patrician in his bearing, Chandrasekhar speaks with a clipped British accent testifying not so much to his graduate years at Cambridge University as his Brahman rearing in colonial India. Though he discourses as easily about the virtues of late Beethoven quartets as about the beauty of the general relativity theory, his conversation is as meticulously organized as everything else in his life. Any allusions he makes are deliberately tethered to the point at hand.

''He wrote 'Henry the VIII,' '' he says of Shakespeare. ''And what did he do? He left London, the Globe Theatre burned. He went to Stratford, built himself a new place, and just retired. And so far as one knows, he spent a very happy three years, never bothering to go to London, never bothering to go to the stage , never bothering to write a play. Isn't that marvelous?''

Chandrasekhar pauses momentarily on the thought. Of course, he allows that it is difficult to suddenly abandon a way of life. But on the other hand, it simply wouldn't be satisfying to do research that just anyone could do. ''I don't want to be trivial,'' he states.

Triviality has never been a charge leveled at Chandrasekhar. When he decides to work, he sits at his desk with pencil and paper until he has achieved ''a certain perspective'' regarding some aspect of the universe - until, say, the terrifying forces of a collapsing star have been dispassionately cataloged by a set of equations in a stack of tiny notebooks. Having accomplished that feat, he writes a book on what he has found. Usually it becomes the reference standard on the subject. Then Chandrasekhar is off searching for the next astrophysical problem upon which to abandon himself.

''I would say I have been fortunate to find six or seven topics which have suited my taste and my method of doing science over the last 50 years.'' But to spend that amount of time on a single problem, he says, would not be the wisest use of his time.

''My approach to objectives in science is rather like a sculptor who likes to create a structure which has the stamp of his personality. Once he's finished the structure, he doesn't go on chiseling it here and there for the rest of his life.''

The furious pace with which he churns out mathematical structures is known to scientists everywhere as ''Chandra's style,'' and it leaves them rather breathless. Says physicist Robert Wald, Chandrasekhar's colleague at Chicago, ''Any one of Chandra's projects could constitute the life's work of another scientist.''

Chandrasekhar knows his method of operation is unusual - that his pattern of diving into a new field, mastering its complexities, and then becoming a student all over again in some completely different area can be exhausting just to hear about. But he also knows that it is this intellectual recycling process that has kept him on the cutting edge of astrophysics, and because of this he has a hard time comprehending why others don't adopt a similar method of work.

He is particularly impressed by the lifelong professional growth of artists such as Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Verdi. ''It's incredible that they maintained their continual growth to the end, '' Chandrasekhar exclaims. ''There are no such examples in science.

''How is it that Einstein stood against the mainstream of modern physics essentially after he was 40? How did (British physicist P. A. M.) Dirac come to believe that the whole of quantum electrodynamics developed since the '40s cannot be true?'' As if pondering the question himself, Chandrasekhar lapses into a troubled silence. ''I don't understand how it happens that some very great men in science find it difficult to keep an open mind.''

Chandrasekhar has never found that an insurmountable challenge. In 1971, for instance, he headed to the California Institute of Technology for a three-month sabbatical to study the relativity theory - something with which he was barely acquainted a few years earlier.

''The people whom I associated with were graduate students a third of my age, '' Chandrasekhar recalls. ''They thought I was senior, but I was working with them as equals.'' He seems amazed and pleased at the thought.

''It is hard not to keep an open mind, when you are learning things from people half your age.''

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