The University of Chicago News Office
July 15, 1999 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
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S. Chandrasekhar facts

The morning James Cronin, University of Chicago Professor Emeritus in Physics and Astronomy & Astrophysics, won the 1980 Nobel Prize in physics, he was temporarily unavailable to speak with journalists because he wanted to attend a class that Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was giving on general relativity.

Chandra received the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics. Chandra’s uncle, C.V. Raman, received the 1930 Nobel Prize in physics for discovering the Raman effect, which describes the diffraction of light by crystals. Raman was the first Asian to receive a Nobel Prize in science.

Chandra’s commitment to teaching was legendary. In the 1940s, he drove 200 miles round trip each week from Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisc., to the University to teach a class on stellar atmospheres. One day he insisted on driving from Yerkes to teach the class despite a heavy snowstorm. Chandra ended up teaching a class of only two that day. The two students––Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang––won the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics, obtaining the distinction even before their professor.

In 1930, at the age of 19, Chandra completed his degree at Presidency College in Madras, India, and boarded a boat to England for graduate study at Cambridge University. While on the voyage, Chandra developed a theory about the nature of stars for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize 53 years later. 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 know as the Chandrasekhar limit––must eventually collapse past the stage of white dwarf into an object of such enormous density that “one is left speculating on other possibilities,” he wrote.

Chandra’s Nobel Prize-winning theory initially was rejected by peers and journals in England. The distinguished astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington publicly ridiculed Chandra’s suggestion that stars would collapse into such objects, which are now known as black holes. Disappointed and reluctant to engage in public debate, Chandra moved to the United States in 1937 and joined the University of Chicago faculty. Today, the extremely dense neutron stars and black holes implied by Chandra’s early work are a central part of astrophysics.

Chandra’s paper about the mass limit of white dwarf stars initially was rejected by the Astrophysical Journal as scientifically unsound. After receiving detailed proof of the formula on which the paper was based, the journal published his paper. Chandra served as managing editor of the Astrophysical Journal from 1953 until 1971.

Chandra was widely known 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.

Chandra developed his own astonishing style of research that entailed tackling first one field of astrophysics and then another in great depth. He wrote 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.

Chandra 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.

Books about Chandra:
Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar, written by Kameshwar Wali, Syracuse University, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1991.

From White Dwarves to Black Holes: The Legacy of S. Chandrasekhar, edited by G. Srinivasan, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1999.

Books by Chandra:
Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure, 1939.

Principles of Stellar Dynamics, 1943.

Radiative Transfer, 1950.

Hydrodynamic and Hydromagnetic Stability, 1961.

The Mathematical Theory of Black Holes, 1983.

Eddington: The Most Distinguished Astrophysicist of His Time, 1983.

Truth and Beauty, 1987.

Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader, 1995.

Key dates in Chandra’s life:
Born in Lahore, India, 1910. Received B.A. from Presidency College, Madras, India, 1930. Received Ph.D. from Trinity College, Cambridge University, 1933. Appointed fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge University, 1933. Married wife, Lalitha, Sept. 11, 1936. Joined the University of Chicago faculty as Research Associate, 1937. Received Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professorship at Chicago, 1952. Became U.S. citizen, 1953. Died Aug. 21, 1995, at the age of 84.

 

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Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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