We often admire the work of geniuses, but even more so we ask: how did they produce such ingenious products? I will discuss one such giant in astrophysics, the Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (October 19, 1910-August 21, 1995), popularly referred to as Chandra, a name NASA gave to the X-Ray orbiting observatory in his honor. His Nobel award was announced on October 19, 1983—what a birthday gift!
A Child Prodigy: Family Environment and Early Education
Born in India in a family with many books on mathematics, including ones on conic sections and calculus, Chandra read these books diligently, laboriously worked through the exercises, and became so proficient in mathematics that he was recognized as a precocious child (Wali, 1990).
Chandra’s first love was mathematics, but his authoritarian father insisted that he should study physics in college because mathematics would not help him get into Indian Civil Service. His mother, however, suggested he pursue his own interest and not feel “intimidated” by his father (Wali, 1990, pp.56-57).
According to Wali (1990), Chandra enrolled in the B. A. honors program in Physics at Presidency College, Madras (now Chennai) to please his father, but attended courses in the mathematics department. He studied physics textbooks on his own and took required tests. Recognizing his abilities, his teachers freed him to study what he wished and helped him obtain access to the university library, a privilege only for graduate students.
At an early age, Chandra knew the major players in Europe and developments in mathematics and astrophysics. While in college, he enthusiastically availed himself of the opportunity to meet Arnold Sommerfeld in 1928, and Werner Heisenberg in 1929. Regarding Heisenberg’s visit, Chandra wrote to his father “I discussed with him my papers also. In one day by merely talking to him, I could learn a world of physics” (Wali, 1990, p. 64). Chandra contacted Ralph Fowler, an eminent astrophysicist, to forward his paper The Compton Scattering and the New Statistics for publication in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society; the paper was published in 1929 after he incorporated a few suggestions from Ralph Fowler and Neville Mott (Wali, 1990). Clearly, the youngster took chances and showed self-assurance that eminent scientists abroad would find his work worthwhile.
The mathematics and physics combination served him well in advancing Astrophysics. At age 19, he had the startling insight on board a ship to England on what would be referred to as the “Chandrasekhar limit” a precursor to “the discovery of neutron stars and black holes” (Ramnath, 2011, p. vii).
Chandra’s Distinctive Work Style
Chandra preferred to examine a subject with a well-established foundation (Miller, 2005) and “insisted on a long and complete analysis of a whole field, no matter how useless it may seem to others” (Tierney, 1984, p. 6). His wife Lalitha Chandrasekhar (2011) observed:
[he] found out what had already been done on the subject, what was still to be investigated, and what were the errors that had entered into the field and caused confusion in scientific thinking . . . When every detail in a subject had been carefully looked into, the subject began to reveal new secrets . . . discoveries Chandra made since the subject lay transparent before him. He would stand back and get a perspective of the subject. (pp. 95-96)
His need to know the big picture and details can also be seen in this advice to his nephew (Mahesh, 2011) on how to read a complex physics book:
Books of this nature . . . should be read first from cover to cover. Do not stop to make notes in the margins or take pencil to the book during your first reading. Read the entire book . . . almost as if you are reading a book of fiction. Get an overall picture of the subject first, and then follow your system of detailed reading . . . and work out mathematics yourself. The interconnected nature of the subject matter that you absorb from the first reading will help you as you drill in the second reading. (p. 195)
About his work habits, Tierney (1984) wrote
he sits at a relentlessly neat desk searching for mathematical order for at least twelve hours a day, usually seven days a week, until after about a decade he has attained what he calls “a certain perspective”—which is to say, until some aspect of the universe has been completely reduced to a set of equations. Then, having written the definitive book on the subject, he puts all his files in the attic and looks for a totally different area of astrophysics to teach himself. Just talking about “Chandra’s style” makes other astronomers tired. (p. 1)
Chandra believed that “plunging into a new field every decade is guaranteed to produce modesty” (Tierney 1984, p. 6).
Intrinsically motivated in the pursuit of knowledge, Chandra wrote to his brother Balakrishnan (2011) that the Nobel Prize, “while gratifying, is not one I sought, or indeed relevant to a scientific career. I am afraid that its significance has been greatly exaggerated, and it distorts the perspective” (p. 107). Chandra had broad interests in science, classical music, literature, and the nature of creativity (see his 1975 lecture on Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven or Patterns of Creativity). He devoted “two to three weeks between terms to the study of literature,” and read all Shakespeare plays “at least once, and some, especially tragedies . . . three or four times ” (Wali, 1990, pp. 15-16).
Although described as “formal and aloof” (Miller, 2005, p. 184), Chandra was not a loner scientist; but an active professional who cultivated contacts and friendships around the world.
Even as a youngster, Chandra knew what he wanted for his career and resisted influences from his father and his equally authoritarian Nobel Laureate uncle C. V. Raman that would sidetrack him from his goal of becoming the highest order scientist. Despite his lukewarm relationship with his father, Chandra remained highly respectful of him, often sharing his concerns about both personal and professional matters in letters to him and wished to be “a worthy son” (Miller, 2005, p. 234). Miller (2005) notes that Chandra’s father stopped corresponding with him when in 1953 he became an American citizen, considering it as a “slap in the face both for himself and for India” (p. 234). Chandra retained warm relationships with his siblings and their children throughout his lifetime writing encouraging letters and sharing books.
In 1932, astrophysicist Milne discouraged Chandra from publishing a paper that would have contradicted Milne’s theory (Miller, 2005). Eddington, the “world’s greatest astrophysicist of his day” (Miller, 2005, p. 329), relentlessly denounced Chandra’s groundbreaking discovery that “might well have transformed and accelerated developments in both physics and astrophysics in the 1930s” (Miller, 2005, p. 150). Chandra was perplexed that Niels Bohr, Ralph Fowler, Paul Dirac, Léon Rosenfeld, and Wolfgang Pauli privately acknowledged his discovery, but none confronted Eddington for his wrongful criticisms (Miller, 2005; Wali, 1990).
Chandra kindly reflected that Eddington’s denouncements, although not salutary to astrophysics, possibly kept him productive in the long run as the glamour of early celebrity status, had it occurred, might have put him on the same path as many notable scientists (including Einstein) who accomplished little after their early rise to preeminence (Tierney, 1984).
Indeed, Chandra stayed modest and productive. Per Chandrasekhar (1975), Thomas Huxley had said: “a man of science past sixty does more harm than good” (p.105). Chandra’s last book Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader was written in his early 80s, i.e., between “April 1992-June 1994” (Chandrasekhar, 1995, p. xxi); this book is another fine example of a complete analysis and fresh perspective.
Balakrishnan, S. (P.). My anna. In R. Ramnath (Ed.). S. Chandrasekhar man of science(pp. 98-112). New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India.
Chandrasekhar, S. (1975, April 22). Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, or patterns of creativity. Nora and Edwards Reyerson Lecture, The University of Chicago Record, pp. 91-108.
Chandrasekhar, S. (1995). Newton’s Principia for the common Reader. Oxford, U.K. Clarendon Press.
Chandrasekhar, L. (2011). My everlasting flame. In R. Ramnath (Ed.). S. Chandrasekhar man of science (pp. 89-97). New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India.
Mahesh, V. S. (2011). Conversations with ayya mama. In R. Ramnath (Ed). S.Chandrasekhar man of science (pp. 188-201). New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India.
Miller, A. (2005). Empire of the stars. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
Ramnath, R. (2011; Ed.). Editor’s note. In R. Ramnath (Ed.). S. Chandrasekhar man of science (pp. vii-ix). New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India.
Tierney, J. (1984). Subra[h]manyan Chandrasekhar. In A. L. Hammond (Ed.). A passion to know (pp. 1-10). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Wali, K. C. (1990). Chandra. New York: Viking.