Thursday, September 30, 2010

S. Chandrasekhar and his attempts to get away from Astrophysics

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 Buffalo, New York after our wedding. If you have given books as gifts to folks at home, you must be aware of the hidden agenda. I don’t remember who started reading the book first, but I was definitely the first one to finish it. It was the first biography I read where the hero of the story co-operated with the author in a frank manner and the author has done a splendid job with the narration. Why did I go back the book now?

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 Cambridge he had already published a paper based on the work of Fowler, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Chandra had encountered Fowler’s paper while browsing the newly arrived journals in university library in Madras. In fact, Fowler helped him secure admission at Cambridge. So it was natural for him to start his PhD work under Fowler in Astrophysics.

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 Cambridge on sabbatical and Dirac who had nothing to do with Astrophysics became Chandra’s official guide. Chandra consulted Dirac who advised him to visit Niels Bohr and co in Copenhagen. Folks at Copenhagen indeed turned out to friendlier and it is here Chandra made his first serious attempt at pure physics. He wrote a paper titled “On the statistics of Similar Particles” and sent it to Dirac in Cambridge. Bohr had already given his nod. But pretty soon Dirac found an error in his paper. “My paper sent to the Proceedings of the Royal Society is WRONG. That is all” Chandra wrote to his father in Nov 1932. Over four months of work was down the drain. Pressure started building up to submit a thesis. Chandra went back to Astrophysics.

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, Bangalore in December. I hope to attend it.


  1. Thanks Vinay for a nice remembrance of Chandra in is centenary year. I happened to read it today that is his birthday (19 Oct). This article reminded me one peculiar thing I had read about Chandra. He used to select a particular area to work on at a time. Then he would work on this area for next few years (typically 5-10 years) and finally write a book summarizing his understanding of the topic and handling of some of the unsolved problems in that area. It used to be said that once Chandra's book is out, other lesser mortals working in that area would search for some other area in Physics, hoping that Chandra has not started working in the same one. :-)

  2. Thanks, Ravindra for the story. The book also tells an interesting story of Chandra's dedication as a teacher. Apparently, for a class of two students Chandra drove 100 miles one way. It turned out that both got Nobel eventually. It is like 100% of your class getting a Nobel!

  3. Thanks Vinay for your reply and the interesting story. If I am not wrong, these students were awarded Nobel much before Chandra got his. :-) So, students doing better than a teacher is perhaps the best form of satisfaction a teacher can ever get. Secondly, I will like to share another piece of information that might be useful. I first read Chandra biography in a book titled "Chandra and his Limit" written by G. Venkatraman (ex-director at National Physics Laboratary) and published by Universities Press. This book is beautifully written and filled up with lot of introductory material on basics of astrophysics and many anecdotes. In fact, Universities Press has a collection of books written by G. Venkatraman on many of the illustrious Indian scientists (S. N. Bose, Meghnad Saha, C. V. Raman) and on topics in Physics (relativity, 3-part series on quantum mechanics, thermodynamics etc). Each book in this series cost hardly 150-200 bucks and targeted to create interest in teenage children about basic sciences and great scientists. I had received two such books, one on Bose and another on Chandra, as prize in some exam in 12th std. These books made such an impression on me at that time/age, that I had seriously started thinking of opting for basic sciences (Physics) than Engg. Later, I made it a point to collect almost all the books in this series (partial thanks to Gangaram's book shop). Apologies for a long comment here with some personal memories. But I thought,you may be interested in seeing some of these books written by G. Venkatraman, just to see his writing style and the way he has told the concepts and stories in Science, so lucidly and in an interesting manner. Secondly, I sincerely believe (from my own exp) that these books can be used as a good medium to kindle interest in high school students about basic sciences. Hope this is useful.

  4. Thanks, Ravindra. I will definitely check out G. Venkataraman's books. Any chance of visiting Bangalore?

  5. I was planning to visit B'lore this Dec, but it looks difficult as of now. In that case, will like to visit in early next year or in summer. Will definitely like to meet you then.