I went back to Nobel Laureate S. Chandrasekhar’s biography a few months back after 17 years. Chandra written by Kameshwar Wali was a birthday gift I gave to my wife a few months after she joined me in
I had a specific objective – to re-read the story of “Chandrasekhar Limit” – the idea that languished for several decades before gaining acceptance by the scientific community eventually leading to a Nobel. It is a masala story with lots of twists and turns. It even has a villain, Prof. Eddington then doyan of Astrophysics, who launched a campaign to kill Chandra’s idea. But that would be a topic of a separate article. In this second reading of the book one of things that struck me was Chandra’s two serious attempts in getting away from Astrophysics. Why did Chandra try to do that? And what happened in each attempt? Let’s see briefly in this article.
Chandra’s career in Astrophysics was more of an accident. By the time Chandra landed in
1930s were hey days of theoretical Physics as a totally new foundation known as quantum mechanics was being built. Chandra soon realized that working in Astrophysics was more like being on the periphery. The real action was in pure Physics. In the meantime, Fowler left
Chandra’s second attempt at quitting Astrophysics happened just after he finished PhD in 1933 and was elected to trinity fellowship. Could this be the time to shift to pure Physics or pure Mathematics? The dilemma ended soon when he got an advice from a senior Fellow Harold Davenport, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Why don’t you continue in astrophysics? You got the fellowship on that account. There is enough time to do mathematics later.”
Fortunately for Astrophysics, Chandra not only stayed with it but made a significant contribution in bringing Astrophysics part of main stream physics. Today 10% of the 12th standard Physics syllabus my wife teaches is Astrophysics. Incidentally, we will be hearing a lot more of Chandra in the coming months as this year is Chandra’s birth centenary year. In fact, Kameshwar Wali will be giving a talk at a conference on Chandra at Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Koramangala,