Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar: The Stellar Genius

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, often simply referred to as Chandra, was a brilliant astrophysicist who made significant contributions to our understanding of the cosmos, particularly in the fields of stellar structure, black holes, and the evolution of stars. Born on October 19, 1910, in Lahore, British India, Chandra’s intellectual journey took him from the classrooms of Madras (India) to the hallowed halls of Cambridge, and finally to the University of Chicago, where his groundbreaking work transformed our comprehension of the heavens.

This article by Academic Block will explore the life and work of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, highlighting his remarkable accomplishments in the world of astrophysics, his struggles against scientific prejudice, and his enduring legacy that continues to shape our understanding of the universe.

Early Life and Education

Chandra was born into a family known for its strong emphasis on education and intellectual pursuits. His father, Chandrasekhara Subrahmanya Ayyar, was a civil servant in the Indian Audits and Accounts Service, and his mother, Sitalakshmi Balakrishnan, came from a family of scholars and professionals.

Chandra’s early education took place in Madras (India), where he showed a prodigious aptitude for mathematics and science. He was an outstanding student at the Hindu High School, and by the age of 15, he had already mastered advanced calculus and Einstein‘s theory of relativity. Chandra’s deep fascination with the cosmos began at a young age, and he soon found himself drawn to the complexities of astrophysics.

In 1928, Chandra secured a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where he studied under the eminent British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington. This opportunity marked the beginning of Chandra’s journey into the world of astrophysics and laid the foundation for his groundbreaking discoveries.

Chandra’s Early Work on Stellar Structure

Chandra’s work at Cambridge focused on understanding the structure and evolution of stars. In 1930, he published his first significant paper, “The Compton Scattering and the New Statistics,” which explored the interaction of photons with electrons and had applications in astrophysics and quantum mechanics. This paper was a testament to his early brilliance, as he was only 19 years old at the time.

However, Chandra’s most famous early contribution to astrophysics came in 1930 with his publication “The Maximum Mass of Ideal White Dwarfs.” In this paper, he tackled the problem of the ultimate fate of massive stars. He theorized that stars could end their lives as white dwarfs, which are extremely dense and compact objects. Chandra calculated that there was a limit, now known as the “Chandrasekhar limit,” to how massive a white dwarf could be before it would collapse under its own gravitational forces and potentially explode in a violent supernova.

This insight was groundbreaking because it established a clear understanding of the eventual fate of massive stars and laid the groundwork for further research into supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes. It would be a concept of great importance throughout his career.

Chandra’s Struggles at the University of Cambridge

While Chandra’s early work at Cambridge was impressive, it was not without its challenges. Eddington, his mentor, was initially supportive of his research, but he soon became critical of Chandra’s findings. Eddington was a proponent of the idea that there must be some unknown physical process that would prevent stars from collapsing under their own gravity. He believed that Chandra’s calculations were flawed.

This disagreement led to a tense relationship between Eddington and Chandra, with the former actively opposing Chandra’s ideas and attempting to discredit his work. Eddington’s influence in the scientific community made it difficult for Chandra to gain the recognition he deserved for his groundbreaking research.

Chandra’s experiences at Cambridge were disheartening, and he found himself isolated and struggling to advance his career. Eventually, he decided to move to the United States, where he believed he might have a better chance to pursue his research and make a lasting impact in the field of astrophysics.

The Journey to the University of Chicago

In 1937, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar left England for the United States. He accepted a position at the University of Chicago, which would become his academic home for the rest of his career. At the University of Chicago, Chandra found the supportive and intellectually stimulating environment he needed to continue his groundbreaking research on astrophysics.

It was during his time at the University of Chicago that Chandra expanded upon his work on the Chandrasekhar limit and its implications for the fate of massive stars. He continued to develop his theory of white dwarf evolution and conducted research on the complex processes that occur within stars.

Chandra’s extensive research on white dwarfs culminated in his influential book “An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure,” which was published in 1939. In this book, he provided a comprehensive overview of his research on the structure and evolution of stars. The book was a landmark in the field of astrophysics, further solidifying Chandra’s reputation as a leading authority on the subject.

Chandra’s Impact on Astrophysics

Chandra’s work on white dwarfs and the Chandrasekhar limit had profound implications for our understanding of the universe. His research established that there was a critical mass, approximately 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, beyond which a white dwarf would undergo gravitational collapse and become a neutron star or black hole. This concept was a key component of our understanding of supernovae and the formation of compact objects.

Chandra’s work also paved the way for the study of neutron stars, which are incredibly dense remnants of massive stars. He explored the properties of neutron stars and made significant contributions to our understanding of their structure and behavior.

One of Chandra’s most famous achievements was his prediction of the existence of black holes. In a 1939 paper, he theorized that stars much more massive than the Sun could collapse to such an extent that their gravitational pull would become so strong that nothing, not even light, could escape their grasp. This theoretical prediction was met with skepticism at the time but was later confirmed and became a cornerstone of modern astrophysics.

However, despite his groundbreaking contributions, Chandra continued to face resistance and skepticism from some in the scientific community. Even when his ideas were ultimately proven correct, he felt the lingering effects of his earlier struggles with Eddington and the scientific establishment.

Chandra’s Honors and Recognition

Over time, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s work began to receive the recognition it deserved. In 1952, he was awarded the prestigious Hughes Medal by the Royal Society of London for his contributions to astrophysics. This marked a significant turning point in his career, as it signaled the broader acceptance of his ideas in the scientific community.

In 1983, Chandra was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking work on the structure and evolution of stars. The Nobel Committee recognized him for his “theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars”. Below is an excerpt from his Nobel Prize speech:

I was born in India, a land not only of a great antiquity but a land of multiple diversities. In many ways, the experiences of my childhood have been typical of those of many of my countrymen.

I went through a system of education which was the European system of education and which left an indelible imprint on my thinking. …

… The eventual solution was an outcome of some intense thinking. It was arrived at as a result of the development of certain mathematical techniques and the accumulation of a great body of observational data. This work ultimately resulted in my first paper in which the problem of the structure of white dwarf stars was treated from the point of view of the new quantum mechanics, which had been developed during the preceding five years.

… Let me now summarize some of the important aspects of this long journey. It has been a journey from the classical to the non-classical; it has been a journey from the old quantum mechanics to the new quantum mechanics; it has been a journey from the physics of the large to the physics of the small. It has been a journey which has crossed many lines of demarcation, not only those lines which separate one field from another, but also those lines which separate the systematic from the unsystematic. It has been a journey which has crossed lines which have been set by man, lines which have been set by Nature. …”

Chandra’s Nobel Prize was a well-deserved recognition of his lifetime of contributions to astrophysics. It also represented a victory over the skepticism and opposition he had faced throughout his career. Chandra’s legacy was further cemented when he received the National Medal of Science in 1966 and the Bruce Medal in 1968, both of which are prestigious honors in the field of astrophysics.

Personal Life, Character and Passing

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was not only a brilliant scientist but also a person of great character. He was known for his modesty, humility, and dedication to his work. Despite the challenges he faced, he remained committed to pursuing his passion for astrophysics and expanding the frontiers of human knowledge.

Chandra was also a dedicated teacher and mentor. He inspired countless students and young scientists with his enthusiasm for the subject and his ability to convey complex ideas with clarity. Many of his students went on to have successful careers in astrophysics, carrying on his legacy. Chandra’s love for classical music was well-known among those who knew him personally. He had a deep appreciation for art and culture, which provided a balance to his scientific pursuits.

As he aged, Chandrasekhar faced health challenges, including mobility issues. However, his determination and intellectual curiosity remained undiminished. He persisted in his work, collaborating with colleagues and students. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar passed away on August 21, 1995, due to natural causes associated with his advanced age. He died at the age of 84 in Chicago, Illinois, where he had spent much of his academic career at the University of Chicago.

Chandra’s Later Work and Legacy

Chandra’s research extended well beyond his early work on white dwarfs and black holes. He made important contributions to several areas of astrophysics, including the study of the dynamics of galaxies and the behavior of matter under extreme conditions. His work had a lasting impact on our understanding of the universe.

One of his notable contributions was the Chandra limit, which describes the maximum mass a neutron star can have before it would collapse into a black hole. He also worked on the theory of stellar dynamics and investigated the distribution of stars within galaxies.

Chandra’s research continued to influence the field of astrophysics throughout his career. His insights into the behavior of matter at high densities and temperatures were instrumental in advancing our understanding of supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, and the behavior of matter in the cores of massive stars.

Chandra’s legacy lives on in numerous ways. The Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched by NASA in 1999, was named in his honor. This space telescope has provided invaluable insights into the high-energy universe, revealing phenomena such as black holes, neutron stars, and quasars. The Chandra X-ray Observatory has been a powerful tool for astrophysicists, allowing them to probe the universe in ways that were previously impossible.

Chandra’s contributions to our understanding of the universe have had a profound and lasting impact on astrophysics. His work laid the foundation for the study of black holes, neutron stars, and the behavior of matter under extreme conditions. It also reshaped our understanding of the life and death of stars.

Final Words

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s life and work are a testament to the power of human curiosity and perseverance. His early struggles against scientific prejudice did not deter him but instead fueled his determination to push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe. His contributions to astrophysics, particularly in the fields of stellar structure, black holes, and the evolution of stars, have left an indelible mark on the field.

Chandra’s legacy lives on not only in the form of his groundbreaking research but also in the countless scientists and students he inspired. His humility, dedication, and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge serve as an enduring example for all who follow in his footsteps.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s journey from a young prodigy in India to a Nobel laureate in the United States is a story of resilience, intellectual brilliance, and a relentless pursuit of truth in the face of adversity. His work has deepened our understanding of the cosmos and continues to inspire future generations of astrophysicists to reach for the stars. Please provide you suggestions below, it will help us in improving this article. Thanks for reading!

Books by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

“An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure” (1939): This book is considered a classic in astrophysics and played a crucial role in advancing the understanding of the structure and evolution of stars. It covers a wide range of topics related to the internal composition of stars.

“Principles of Stellar Dynamics” (1942): In this book, Chandrasekhar delves into the theory of stellar dynamics, which examines the behavior and distribution of stars within galaxies. The book remains an important reference for researchers in the field.

“Radiative Transfer” (1950): Chandrasekhar’s work in radiative transfer is the focus of this book. It provides a comprehensive treatment of the transfer of radiation through various media, which is fundamental to astrophysics, atmospheric science, and related fields.

“Hydrodynamic and Hydromagnetic Stability” (1961): This book explores the stability of fluid and magnetic systems. Chandrasekhar’s work in this area laid the foundation for understanding instabilities and oscillations in astrophysical objects, such as stars and galaxies.

“The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes” (1983): Chandrasekhar’s research on black holes is the central topic of this book. It provides mathematical insights into the properties and behavior of black holes, making it an important reference for the study of these enigmatic cosmic objects.

“Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science” (1987): In this book, Chandrasekhar reflects on the aesthetic aspects of science and the motivations that drive scientists to pursue their work. He explores the connection between science and the arts and the role of beauty in scientific discovery.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar
Personal Details
Date of Birth : 19th October 1910
Died : 21th August 1995
Place of Birth : Lahore, British India
Father : C. Subrahmanyan Ayyar
Mother : Sitalakshmi Balakrishnan
Spouse/Partner : Lalitha Chandrasekhar (née Doraiswamy)
Children : Gautham Chandrasekhar
Alma Mater : Presidency College in Chennai, India
Professions : Astrophysicist

Famous quotes by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

“I am aware of the usefulness of science to society and of the benefits society derives from it.”

“The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.”

“The earth is not going to continue to be habitable for a billion years. We’re not going to keep the planet habitable for a billion years.”

“A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars – billions upon billions of stars.”

“What greater contribution could the period have made to the advancement of science than to eliminate the resources of our universities, put curbs on our personal right to inquire, to associate with foreign scholars, and exchange views with them?”

“The equations of dynamics completely express the laws of the conservation of energy and the conservation of momentum.”

“Art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen.”

“I could be just like a clock on the wall, and knowing the right time, not knowing the weather and not knowing anything about my environment.”

“Each layer in the interior of a star provides the conditions for developing an entirely new set of physical laws.”

“The work which is purely scientific must have as its goal the advancement of man’s knowledge, and it must be sanctified in his consciousness by a sense of service to humanity.”

“Science is a logical subject which can explain any event with reason and evidence. Religion is a noble sentiment which cannot be proved.”

“The fact that we have learned to peer into the very birth of the universe means that we are now able to, in some sense, to visit the very cradle of the cosmos.”

“I have often asked myself whether, given the fact that the universe was making a star, its most elegant and majestic form of organization, the same principles would be used to make, say, a cabbage or a clam.”

“The astrophysicist, in his relentless pursuit of the most perfect understanding of the universe, has been a perpetual threat to the unwarranted assumptions of the dogmatist.”

“Scientific investigations need not be advanced by a divine hand. We may discover new and revolutionary views of the universe through the tireless labor of thoughtful men.”

“In science, as in the playing of a musical instrument, it is not sufficient to have a good mind; rather, one must be one’s self in possession of the essential harmonics of one’s chosen instrument.”

“The evolution of higher forms of life from lower may depend on the ability of black holes to ‘soften’ by the process of quantum geometry.”

“To succeed, a student should always ask questions. Asking questions is a process of examination and it doesn’t matter what the teacher is thinking.”

“You just can’t help being mathematical. It’s something you are. You have a mind to understand.”

“We have a tendency to think about the remote past as if it were completely different from the present. But looking backward over the centuries, there have been developments and transformations in human understanding, culture, and the environment.”

Facts on Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Birth and Early Life: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born on October 19, 1910, in Lahore, British India, which is now part of Pakistan. He was born into a Tamil Brahmin family known for its emphasis on education and intellectual pursuits.

Early Education: Chandra displayed his extraordinary aptitude for mathematics and science from an early age. He attended the Hindu High School in Madras, India, where he excelled in his studies.

Cambridge Years: In 1930, Chandra received a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, where he studied under renowned astrophysicist Arthur Eddington. It was at Cambridge that he began his journey into the world of astrophysics.

The Chandrasekhar Limit: Chandra’s groundbreaking work on the “Chandrasekhar limit” was published in 1930. He calculated that there was a limit (about 1.4 times the mass of the Sun) beyond which a white dwarf star would collapse under its own gravitational forces. This limit is crucial to our understanding of stellar evolution.

Struggles at Cambridge: Despite his significant contributions, Chandra faced challenges and skepticism from his mentor Eddington, who disagreed with his findings. This period of his life was marked by resistance and opposition.

Move to the United States: In 1937, Chandra relocated to the United States, where he accepted a position at the University of Chicago. It was at the University of Chicago that he continued his influential research and found a more supportive environment for his work.

Nobel Prize: In 1983, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work on the structure and evolution of stars. The Nobel Committee recognized his “theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars.”

Black Holes: Chandra’s research also led to his prediction of the existence of black holes. His work on this topic was initially met with skepticism but was later confirmed, making it a cornerstone of modern astrophysics.

Chandra X-ray Observatory: NASA named the Chandra X-ray Observatory in his honor, and it was launched in 1999. This space telescope has provided crucial insights into high-energy astrophysical phenomena.

Legacy: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s contributions to astrophysics continue to shape the field. His work laid the foundation for our understanding of stars, black holes, and neutron stars.

Awards and Honors: In addition to the Nobel Prize, Chandra received numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including the National Medal of Science and the Bruce Medal.

Personal Life: Chandra was known for his modesty, humility, and love for classical music. He was a dedicated teacher and mentor who inspired generations of students and scientists.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s family life

Parents: Chandra was born on October 19, 1910, in Lahore, British India, to a Tamil Brahmin family. His father, Chandrasekhara Subrahmanya Ayyar, was a civil servant in the Indian Audits and Accounts Service. His mother, Sitalakshmi Balakrishnan, came from a family of scholars and professionals. Chandra’s parents supported his early education and intellectual pursuits, nurturing his early interest in science and mathematics.

Siblings: Chandra had three siblings – two brothers and a sister. One of his brothers, Balakrishna Chandrasekhar, also made significant contributions to science as an applied mathematician and engineer.

Marriage: Chandra married Lalitha Doraiswamy in 1936. Lalitha was a botanist, and their shared interest in science fostered a deep connection between them. Their marriage was a partnership of two brilliant minds with a shared love for knowledge and learning.

Children: Chandra and Lalitha had one son, Kamesh, who became a professor of civil engineering. Chandra was deeply dedicated to his family, and his son recalls his father’s warmth, humility, and commitment to both his scientific work and his loved ones.

Lifestyle: Despite Chandra’s growing international reputation as a scientist, he and his family maintained a modest and unassuming lifestyle. Chandra was known for his humility and simplicity, and he lived a life focused on intellectual pursuits.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s lesser known contributions

White Dwarf Structure and Equations of State: In addition to his work on the Chandrasekhar limit, Chandra made substantial contributions to our understanding of white dwarf structure and the equations of state for degenerate matter. He extended his research beyond the limit itself and delved into the detailed structural properties of white dwarfs, considering their equations of state and internal composition.

The ‘Chandrasekhar–Hartle’ Equation: In collaboration with physicist John Hartle, Chandra developed the “Chandrasekhar–Hartle” equation, which provides a more accurate description of the structure of non-rotating, spherical neutron stars. This equation is essential for understanding the properties of extremely dense stellar remnants.

Eddington–Chandrasekhar Mass: Chandrasekhar introduced the concept of the “Eddington–Chandrasekhar mass.” This refers to the maximum mass a star can have while still maintaining hydrostatic equilibrium against the radiation pressure. While it is related to the Chandrasekhar limit, it is a concept that accounts for radiation pressure as a star’s mass increases.

Hydrodynamic and Hydromagnetic Stability: Chandrasekhar conducted extensive research on the hydrodynamic and hydromagnetic stability of stars, particularly addressing the issues of stellar pulsations and convection. His work provided a foundation for the study of instabilities and oscillations in astrophysical objects.

Accretion Disk Theory: Chandra made important contributions to the theory of accretion disks around compact objects, such as black holes and neutron stars. His work in this area laid the groundwork for understanding the behavior of matter falling onto these extreme objects.

Academic References on Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Chandrasekhar: The Man Behind the Legend” by Kameshwar C. Wali. University of Chicago Press (1997). This book delves into Chandrasekhar’s early life, his experiences in India and at the University of Cambridge, the challenges he faced, and his groundbreaking work in astrophysics. It also sheds light on his personal and family life, providing a well-rounded portrait of the man behind the scientific legend.

“Chandrasekhar and His Limit” by Goonapriya and Aruna. This book offers a detailed exploration of Chandrasekhar’s famous Chandrasekhar limit and its significance in astrophysics.

“Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar: A Lifelong Devotion to Astrophysics” by Biman B. Nath. This book provides a comprehensive overview of Chandrasekhar’s life and work, including his pioneering research on white dwarfs, black holes, and other astrophysical phenomena.

“Chandrasekhar’s White Dwarfs” by F. D. Kahn and I. Lerche. This book focuses on Chandrasekhar’s work on white dwarfs, including their properties and evolution. It provides a detailed analysis of his contributions to this field.

“Chandrasekhar’s Limit” by Kameshwar C. Wali. Written by the same author who penned the comprehensive biography mentioned earlier, this book specifically explores Chandrasekhar’s famous limit and its historical and scientific significance.

“Stellar Remnants” by Geza Gyuk. This book delves into the topic of stellar remnants, including white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes, with a focus on Chandrasekhar’s contributions to our understanding of these objects.

“The Vision of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar The Indian-American Connection” by R. R. Daniel and S. S. Gersht. This book explores Chandrasekhar’s connection to India and the Indian-American community, shedding light on his cultural and scientific influences.

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