The University of Chicago News Office
August 22, 1995 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
(773) 702-8366
s-koppes@uchicago.edu
 

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a Nobel laureate in physics and for nearly 60 years a faculty member at the University of Chicago, died of heart failure Monday, Aug. 21, at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He was 84 years old.

“Chandra was one of the great astrophysicists of our time,” said Hans Bethe, a fellow Nobel laureate and a professor of physics emeritus at Cornell. “He showed that white dwarf stars cannot grow beyond a certain mass–the same mass that triggers the explosion of supernovae, the most brilliant display in the sky. Chandra was also the greatest master of the English language that I know.”

Known affectionately as “Chandra” to his friends and colleagues, he was admired not just for his enormous scientific achievements but for his deep and broad knowledge of literature and the arts.

Chandrasekhar was the Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Astronomy & Astrophysics, Physics and the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago. In his more than half-century at the University, Chandrasekhar made fundamental contributions across the entire range of theoretical astrophysics.

“There is total unanimity among astronomers that Chandra, as a mathematical astrophysicist, was the greatest of our generation,” said Martin Schwarzschild, a professor of astronomy emeritus at Princeton University. “I was also enormously fond of Chandra as a person, and he was a glorious friend.”

Chandrasekhar recently completed what he had long said would be his last work. Turning his attention from the heavens to history, he strove to illustrate Isaac Newton’s genius by translating Newton’s masterwork, “The Principia,” into the language of modern mathematics. His book, “Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader,” was published this summer by Clarendon Press of Oxford University.

“Chandra’s unique strength was his combination of a fundamental understanding of physical concepts and his phenomenal mathematical ability,” said Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. “He combined those strengths to forge an immensely productive career, one that extended from 1930 to just a few months ago.

“Chandra’s productivity was magnified greatly by his ability to continually move into new fields and quickly become the master of each, invariably bringing much greater clarity to our understanding and usually pointing out important ideas previous researchers had missed or misconstrued.”

Chandrasekhar was born in Lahore, India, in 1910. His father was a civil servant, his grandfather, a scholar, and his uncle, C.V. Raman, a Nobel Prize winner in physics. In 1930, at the age of 19, he completed college and boarded a boat to England for postgraduate study at Cambridge University.

While on the voyage, Chandrasekhar developed a theory about the nature of stars for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize 53 years later, in 1983. His theory challenged the common scientific notion of the 1930s that all stars, after burning up their fuel, became faint, planet-sized remnants known as white dwarfs. He determined that stars with a mass greater than 1.4 times that of the sun–now known as the “Chandrasekhar mass"– must eventually collapse past the stage of a white dwarf into an object of such enormous density that “one is left speculating on other possibilities,” he wrote.

Initially his theory was rejected by peers and professional journals in England. The distinguished astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington publicly ridiculed his suggestion that stars could collapse into such objects, which are now known as black holes. Disappointed, and reluctant to engage in public debate, Chandrasekhar moved to America and in 1937 joined the faculty of the University of Chicago. Today, the extremely dense neutron stars and black holes implied by Chandrasekhar’s early work are a central part of the field of astrophysics.

At Chicago, he immersed himself in a personalized style of research and teaching, tackling first one field of astrophysics and then another in great depth. He wrote more than half a dozen definitive books describing the results of his investigations on topics ranging from radiative transfer of energy through the atmospheres of stars to the motions of stars within galaxies, and from magnetohydrodynamics to Einstein’s theory of general relativity and black holes. A measure of his influence is that more than 100,000 of his highly technical books have been sold. He also served as editor of the Astrophysical Journal, the field’s leading journal, for nearly 20 years; presided over a thousand colloquia; and supervised Ph.D. research for more than 50 students.

“Chandra cared for the personal and intellectual well-being of his students, trained them carefully and was willing to spend enourmous amounts of time with them,” said Princeton University Provost Jeremiah Ostriker, a student of Chandrasekhar from 1960 to 1964. “He was a powerful role model for all who came in contact with him.”

One story in particular illustrates Chandrasekhar’s devotion to his science and his students. In the 1940s, while he was based at the University’s Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., he drove more than 100 miles round-trip each week to teach a class of just two registered students. Any concern about the cost effectiveness of such a commitment was erased in 1957, when the entire class–T.D. Lee and C.N. Yang–won the Nobel Prize in physics.

“He was the most intellectual of intellectuals, and the most tireless worker in science,” said Norman Lebovitz, Professor of Mathematics at Chicago and a former student of Chandrasekhar. “He preferred to study in great depth–that was his relaxation. He had talked of quitting for some years, but he could never stop because he would always seize on some new problem.”

“I will never forget one encounter with Chandra,” said colleague John Simpson, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics. “I saw him walking down the hall four or five years ago looking sad. I asked what was wrong. He said, ‘I just turned in my annual report to the director, and I wrote only five or six papers this year.’ ‘Well, it’s true you’ve slowed down a bit,’ I said. ‘But don’t you remember, you also wrote a book about black holes this year.’ ‘Oh!’ he brightened considerably. ‘I had forgotten all about that!’ ”

Chandrasekhar was also widely admired for his appreciation of literature, music and the philosophy of science. The depth of his knowledge in these areas was evident in a book on his philosophy of aesthetics in science, “Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science,” and in his frequent lectures on the relationship between the arts and the sciences.

He received 20 honorary degrees, was elected to 21 learned societies and received numerous awards in addition to the Nobel Prize, including the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London; the Rumford Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, London; the National Medal of Science; and the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences.

A biography, “Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar,” was written by Kameshwar Wali and published by the University of Chicago Press in 1991.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1953. He is survived by his wife, Lalitha, of the Hyde Park community of Chicago, and by two brothers and three sisters in India.

 

http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/95/950822.chandrasekhar.shtml
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

University of Chicago News Office
5801 South Ellis Avenue - Room 200
Chicago, Illinois 60637-1473
(773) 702-8360
Fax: (773) 702-8324
Contact Us