A retrospective: Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was born in 1910, Lahore, British India, which is now a region of Pakistan. His parents were highly educated and he was homeschooled for the first twelve years of his life where he was taught physics, which was heavily influenced by his uncle, C. V. Raman, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his discovery of light creating ‘fingerprintsin molecules. At the young age of fourteen, Subrahmanyan began studying for his physics degree at Presidency College, in Madras, which he graduated at eighteen with a B.Sc. Honors, and soon after he was invited to Cambridge University, England to study for a Ph.D in physics. His tutor was Ralph Fowler who was an expert in physics, and astronomy, and this directed Subrahmanyan towards his field of expertise, astrophysics.

“I am not religious in any sense; in fact, I consider myself an atheist” – Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

During his time in Europe, he became acquainted with several winners of the Nobel Peace Prize; Max Born in Germany, and Niels Bohr in Sweden. At the age of twenty two he returned to Cambridge and received his Ph.D, and up to the age of twenty eight he heavily studied astrophysics and devised the ‘The Chandrasekhar Limit.

The Chandrasekhar limit (/tʃʌndrəˈseɪkər/) is the maximum mass of a stable white dwarf star. The currently accepted value of the Chandrasekhar limit is about 1.4 M  (2.765×10 kg).” – Source

What this essentially means is if the star is less than The Chandrasekhar limit it will become a white dwarf when it reaches the end of its normal existence as a star, but if it exceeds The Chandrasekhar limit then there’s a strong chance that it’ll turn into a singularity with infinite density. In other words, a black hole. A singularity is where a star’s entire mass has been crushed by intense gravity into a infinitely small space, where the known laws of physics no longer apply. Nothing can prevent it, and nothing can escape it; even light is swallowed.

His proposal was fiercely opposed by many leading physicists, who maintained that it was impossible for the density of a star to be crushed by its own gravity. Some of his friends agreed that his hypothesis had much merit, but refused to publicly support such a radical theory as they had no wish for their reputation to be tarnished.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, he took a position as a research associate at the University of Chicago, Illinois, where he became a professor. It took thirty years for his theory of the mass of a star determining his fate, but in 1983 he joined the list of scientists awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s survived by NASA’s Chandra X-ray, which orbits the Earth searching for black holes.

“The black holes of nature are the most perfect macroscopic objects there are in the universe: the only elements in their construction are our concepts of space and time.” – Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar